Driving Digital Identity In Nigeria

- Scalable Pathway To Inclusion

Uzoma Dozie
Sep 15 · 5 min read
“Photo: Illustration: Alisha Henry”

The West is concerned with identity fraud and identity theft; and rightfully so. It costs the global economy billions of dollars each year. In Nigeria if we are going to achieve an inclusive society that will foster social development and economic prosperity and lifting the majority of the population from poverty then we need to urgently establish a holistic identity program. A program that is scalable, secure, and trustworthy.

Without identity, you cannot be part of the system; it is that simple. But what does the system give you? Travel movement — the freedom to roam and move beyond borders. Entitlements from Government, such as access to education, social security, as well as ownership of assets — be they business or personal assets such as a home. Access to finance — credit, banking, insurance and more — beyond a cash-only and subsistence living. Without a mass identification strategy, society can never truly be inclusive.

There are currently 1 billion people in the world who have no formal, legally recognized ID. Women especially disproportionately lack access to a formal ID, therefore excluding them yet further from society. In a recently published report from McKinsey, they described digital inclusion as, “identification that is verified and authenticated to a high degree of assurance over digital channels, is unique, is established with individual consent, and protects user privacy and ensures control over personal data.”

The point I want to emphasise here is digital inclusion; we are not wasting any time suggesting that mass identification can be achieved through traditional pen and paper / ID booklets. It is unworkable, unscalable and unrealistic. For a country such as Nigeria to adopt mass identification, we can only do this via digital. And even digital has its pitfalls, to which we must be mindful.

For example — we do currently have a number of digital identification systems in place; these include telcos and their sim card registrations; passport identification [although only a minority actually own a passport]; drivers’ licences, voters’ cards, BVN and NIMCS’. But they do not speak with one another — the system is totally fragmented, for dispirit segments of society and is currently operating in silos. Inputting data into these systems manually is, operationally, highly risky — prone to human error, and therefore defeating the point of digital identification. If digital identification is going to be taken seriously, then we also need to take data integrity seriously.

Let’s look at a model from India — a country even more populous than Nigeria — that has recorded striking results after a coordinated implementation out of a digital identification strategy. Since 2009, the Indian Government has rolled out The Unique Identification Authority of India, a statutory authority established under the provisions of Aadhaar act 2016 by the Govt of India under the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology, which involves a 12-digit unique identity number that can be obtained voluntarily by residents of India, based on their biometric and demographic data. A proof of residence, rather than a proof of citizenship, this highly sophisticated and scalable system, that can verify a person’s identity within 200 milliseconds, has been extended to 1.2billion people residing in India. Any questions as to whether or not we could implement such a system in Africa’s most populous country [estimates range anywhere up to 180m], feel obsolete, in light of India’s achievements. 90% of the country has adopted Aadhaar.

Key use cases, one that was highlighted in the McKinsey report, include time and cost savings, reduced fraud, increased tax collection, greater employability and labour productivity and increased sales of goods and services. We need all of the above, and more, to help fire up Nigeria’s economy. One data point that struck me in particular was that of Jio, the Indian telecom provider, that onboarded some 160 million new customers in less than 18 months using e-KYC, enabled by India’s national digital ID system, Aadhaar. Imagine. Apply this to Nigeria — financial inclusion for the entire population [including non-urban areas] in under two years. You and I find this unfathomable for our country. But India has demonstrated that it can be done. This validates the opportunity technology and digital presents. The chance to redefine obsolete ways of doing things and introducing, safer more experiential solutions

And whilst it isn’t necessarily helpful to just reel out emerging nation case studies to prove a point — it is helpful to be able to reveal that such programs can be undertaken if they are well thought out, well resourced and embedded into a longer term civic society strategy.

So what can we do for Nigeria? I noted with interest last week that that September 16, has been approved as the National Identity Day by the Federal Government. Beyond nomenclature, what does this mean? What we need to now work on, collaboratively [bureaucrats, infrastructure bodies, technology leaders and federal government] is a technology-led system that delivers a Nigerian identity program ; a new type of identity process is required for the modern world. It has to be scalable it has to be cost effective. But most importantly — it has to be identity for identity’s sake; not simply an opt-in for one-time traveller’s who require a passport, or for the drivers applying for a licence [who are reducing in number as owning and operating a car becomes ever more expensive]. The banking industry introduced a biometric system for the sector and has recorded a measure of success, 30 million onboarded in circa 36 months, but this is an ID program for a defined sector of the populus.

Technology can help those who are lost — those who otherwise have absolutely no hope of being part of the system. We need to redouble our efforts, collectively, on tax collection, access to Government support, financial services and more — to allow people to earn a living and justify social norms and to ensure, that at the very minimum, everybody can be both accessible, and gain access. Identity and access enable social inclusion. Technology will power this — now we need to move from a date in the diary to a dedicated operation whereby we bring a digital identity program to Nigeria, initiating the inclusion of millions of people and businesses into society as we know it. bringing tens of millions of people into the system.

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