Biometric IDs could give Africa a place in the 4IR

Biometric IDs

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is attributed to a mélange of the digital, biological, and physical worlds, with rapidly advancing technologies at the helm such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G and many more.

These technologies are already laying the ground for massive socio-economic disruptions that promise to change how people function on the day-to-day.

This has a profound meaning for the African continent, with millions unbanked, unregistered, or digitally invisible. While Africa has been left behind during past industrial revolutions, it seems this time might be different.

From a technology perspective, digital financial services, or Fintech reigns supreme in Africa, mainly due to a large number of its peoples being unbanked. However, that could change as the African governments currently attempt to rollout biometric IDs for its citizens.

According to the World Bank, Africa is home to roughly half of the estimated one billion people in the world who are unable to prove their identities. To help remedy that, the World Bank has mobilized more than $1.2bn to support ID projects in 45 countries.

Nearly every African country with a stable government now has active biometric ID programs in place or under way, according to ID4Africa, with South Africa and Nigeria’s biometric IDs among the most developed.

ID4Africa is an initiative kickstarted by the World Bank Group that conducts Identity Management Systems Analyses (IMSAs) to evaluate countries’ identity ecosystems and facilitate collaboration with governments for future work.

To date, analyses have been conducted in 17 African countries, including Botswana, Chad, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Zambia.

The eagerness of African governments to build biometric ID systems, coupled with the wealth of international funds available, makes Africa a ripe and coveted market for biometric ID providers.

According to a report by Research and Markets, the global biometrics market accounted for $17.28 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $76.64 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 18 percent during the forecast period.

“By authentication type, voice recognition is supposed to witness significant growth due to the consumer’s likes for a safer identity mechanism. Technological advancement in biometrics and the growing popularity of voice recognition biometrics in the BFSI sector will propel market growth of this segment during the forecast period,” the report highlighted.

While in Africa, the market for biometric and digital identity documents alone is estimated at $1.7 billion, according to Acuity Market Intelligence.

What are biometric IDs?

Market leader Thales defines biometric IDs as the process of comparing data for the person’s characteristics to that person’s biometric “template” to determine resemblance.

The reference model is first store in a database or a secure portable element like a smart card; the data stored is then compared to the person’s biometric data to be authenticated.

“Biometric identification consists of determining the identity of a person, with an aim to capture an item of biometric data from this person, consisting as a photo of their face, a record of their voice, or an image of their fingerprint, which is then compared to the biometric data of several other persons kept in a database,” the study by Thales explained.

While this data brings a person’s identity into the limelight, it can help via a plethora of other day-to-day functions such as increasing government support through organizations, increasing adoption of biometric authentication in banking and healthcare sector (E-banking and mobile payments), and increased security and convenience for consumers.

What’s happening on the ground?

In Liberia, biometric IDs are aiding the government’s efforts to remove ghost workers within the public sector, in an attempt to shrink the country’s expenditures.

The country formed a National Payroll Clean-up Taskforce that announced earlier in the year that no civil servant will be paid without submitting a biometric National Identification Number starting July 1st.

“We commend President George Manneh Weah for supporting our team in these painstaking efforts undertaken over the past year to streamline the Government wage bill, which had grown to US$327 million in 2018 and represented more 68 percent of our National Budget but has now been stabilized at US$297 million,” James Thompson, Acting Civil Service Agency (CSA) Director General, was quoted as saying.

The taskforce – made up of the CSA, National Identification Registry (NIR) and Internal Audit Agency and Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) – launched the E-verification Platform. The platform grants the CSA and MFDP access to the NIR’s biometric ID database to properly manage salaries.

“With the continuous political will and support of the President Weah, and the Cabinet, and the entire Liberian workforce, this unusually high compensation cost will sustainably be reduced to free up the needed fiscal space to fund investment programs and service delivery that were critical to achieving any substantive change for the citizens of Liberia,” Thompson added.

Zipping to Togo, the country’s parliament has officially given the greenlight to begin implementation of their “e-ID Togo,” the national biometric identity project.

Expected to begin in early 2021, the biometric ID scheme will look to create unique numbers for each citizen in an attempt to increase access to public services such as welfare and establishing universal public healthcare.

“The adoption of this law is historic because it lays the legal foundations of the system in Togo,” Cina Lawson, minister of posts, digital economy, and tech innovation, was quoted as saying.

In East Africa, a countrywide digital security debate has been ignited in Kenya regarding the lack of regulatory framework for the country’s biometric IDs, with activists sounding the alarm on the project’s safety measures.

The main concern is fears over the continent’s lack of a legal digital ecosystem that could see citizens, including vulnerable LGBTQ communities, being exposed to privacy abuses and breaches.

As with other disruptive technologies, biometric IDs need to be properly regulated and secured to evade exploitation efforts by malicious users.

Biometric IDs hold greater value to the economy, especially in the case of Africa; they represent the ability to elevate the continent’s economy by focusing on their human capital to pioneer the technologies accompanying the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Africa was left behind in previous industrial revolutions, but if done right, the proper implementation of biometric IDs could place the continent as a force to be reckoned with in the digital economies of the future.