EA eyes digital identification systems to solve its problems

Wednesday July 26 2023

A Huduma Namba Clerk gets the biometric data of a woman in Nairobi, Kenya on May 15, 2019. PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NMG


Digital identification is swiftly becoming the hallmark of technological sophistication in the region, as countries lay ground to roll out new generation forms of personal documentation. But just how will they solve the current problems related to security and identification?

Rwanda has recently drafted a bill to govern the issuance and use of digital IDs that if enacted, will give way to a disbursement of $40 million from the World Bank to support the initiative, projected to be completed within the next three years.

Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania are also contemplating issuance of digital IDs, but there are yet to be any concrete steps to that effect, except that senior government officials have publicly declared the States’ intentions to roll out digital identities.

Read: Kenyatta, Kagame push for digital transformation of Africa

Josephine Mukesha, Director General of Rwanda’s National Identification Agency (Nida) says digital identities will help the State increase coverage of identification as they will be issued at birth and will include categories that were not covered before like the stateless, migrants and asylum seekers.

“Identity is for identifying the person but also for service provision,” she told The EastAfrican in an interview.


“Digital IDs will ensure that everybody in the country can benefit from seamless service provision regardless of their status. So, we are decoupling identity with nationality.”

Digital identification and other digital public infrastructures (DPIs) like digital payment and data systems may still be viewed as a luxury in the region, especially since there already exists a myriad of traditional problems, including poverty, ignorance and illiteracy.

There are also countries that have never conducted census to know the size of their population and poorly keep records of births and deaths, making it difficult to plan for such a roll-out.

Some critics also say that Africa, especially, is not ready to deal with the privacy and data misuse concerns that come with digital identification. For example, Kenya’s High Court recently halted the Huduma Number biometric ID scheme, which is the closest the country has ever come to digital IDs, due to such privacy concerns.

Read: NERIMA: Is information in Huduma cards safe?

However, Ms Mukesha argues that with appropriate guidelines to guard privacy, digital identification will enable the government to better address the core challenges facing Rwanda, making it a priority amidst other pressing issues.

“Identity is an enabler. Even for poverty alleviation, you need to know who falls in that category and ensure that they’re identified and targeted appropriately,” she said.

Innocent Muhizi, CEO of Rwanda Information Society Authority (RISA), avers that digital identification and other DPIs are timely for Africa today because they’ll help hop the continent into the global stage in terms of technological advancement.

“In order to be able to participate in the global economy, we really need to jump a number of steps much faster than the rest of the world, and I believe DPIs provide the foundational stage that will allow us to run faster,” he said at a webinar convened by the Bill and Melinda Gates last week.

Apart from digital identification, other DPIs like inclusive digital payment systems and data-sharing systems have been touted as key to spurring cross-border trade on the continent, and hence economic development.

“DPIs present a very unique opportunity for Africa as a continent to begin to actually develop bespoke solutions which are fit for purpose for its citizens,” said Robert Ochola, CEO of AfricaNenda, a Nairobi-based organisation working to accelerate growth of inclusive payment systems.

High transaction costs incurred in cross-border transactions due to lack of interoperable payment systems is estimated to cost Africans about $5 billion annually, according to the African Export-Import Bank.

This has been blamed as one of the issues slowing down full implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).