Why the Ethiopian Government is fingerprinting villagers

On a hill in eastern Ethiopia’s Baladka village, local community leader Abiy is searching for a name in a book. It’s Leila’s name and it’s her first step towards a new digital identity

Edward Johnson
4 min readDec 23, 2019
The new system holds fingerprints, photos and household data. Photo: WFP/Edward Johnson

While Ethiopia has made progress in recent years, its overall humanitarian needs remain high. They will likely remain so in the foreseeable future due to chronic hunger and food insecurity, vulnerability to climate shocks, potential conflict and a significant refugee caseload.

The Global Humanitarian Overview of 2019 highlights that 6.5 million Ethiopians will need emergency food assistance in 2020 due to drought, flooding or internal displacement.

Responding to those needs is a complex undertaking. Until recently it was organized through a largely paper-based and none-traceable system. That’s why the Government is now leading an ambitious plan to overhaul its distribution and monitoring system that will bridge humanitarian and development programmes.

The Government is current busy designing the fifth round of its Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), the country’s social protection system. In 2020, it will prioritize digital transfer management, requiring participating households to be digitally registered. The digital system will securely log which households received assistance, when, where and exactly what they received.

It is in a pilot stage now, but when it’s rolled out at scale, the system will increase the accountability and efficiency of assistance delivery.

Gaining a digital identity

Data is being collected throughout the Somali region. Photo: WFP/Edward Johnson

Abiy finds Leila’s name in the Government’s list of families entitled to humanitarian assistance. He then explains how the registration process works. She gives her consent, and at a help desk receives a yellow token containing a unique reference code. That code is going to follow Leila over the next 20 minutes as she embarks on the biodata collection exercise.

After a walk across scorched grass, Leila stops at a table outside Baladka Health Centre. There, a member of staff from the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Bureau (DPPB) takes the lead, recording fingerprints one hand at a time. With the 50 prints recorded, the family’s first biodata log is established.

“Until today, these families essentially don’t have a digital identity,” explains Ikran, one of the 10 enumerators at Baladka Health Centre.

Government-led registration

Ikran is a government employee, assisting with the registration exercise. Photo: WFP/Edward Johnson

“I’m glad to contribute something to the community I grew up in,” she says. “I had the luxury of education and now a job which is rare around here. Now I’m learning how computers and systems talk to each other and how important and powerful data is.”

The exercise is informally known as Diwaangelinta, meaning ‘registration’ in Somali. It’s government-led with technical support from the World Food Programme (WFP), known for its commitment to digital transformation and beneficiary-centric programming.

Fifty government-trained enumerators and another 50 support staff from DPPB are driving this phase of the project throughout the Somali region. They plan to register 32,000 people over the 45-day pilot.

The right people receive the right assistance

Meticulous fingerprinting is key to ensuring the system is populated with accurate records. Photo: WFP/Edward Johnson

Beneath white plastic sheets flapping in that wind, Leila’s next stop is photos. Taken with a mobile phone which talks to the Diwaangelinta system, the images are logged for future reference, again to confirm and authenticate her family’s identities when receiving assistance.

Ensuring that the right people receive the right assistance is a priority recognized by Ahmad, the chairman of the kebele, the smallest administrative unit in Ethiopia. “It’s a strange day for most people — they’ve never had to give a fingerprint before, but it’s such a good thing,” he says. “We need more processes like this.”

With a final check to ensure that the biodata all matches, Leila is done. Within 20 minutes, amid the windy ridges and valleys of eastern Ethiopia, her family has recorded their unique ridge and valley fingerprint patterns and gained a new digital identity.

Read more about WFP’s work in Ethiopia here.



Edward Johnson

Communications guy at @wfp #Ethiopia. Into all things food. My views. #ZeroHunger