The full circuit: How WFP is enabling biometric verification in Uganda

Iris patterns and fingerprints make their mark in a nationwide attempt to curb corruption and increase fairness in food distribution

Timothy Charlton
World Food Programme Insight


A refugee verifying her identity in Oruchinga, Uganda. Biometric verification is helping curb corruption, reduce cheating and increase fairness in food distribution. Photo: WFP/Claire Nevill

At 8:30 am on 9 May, all is set in Oruchinga, a refugee settlement in southwest Uganda, for food distribution to begin. Two trucks have just rolled on to the plot, carrying grains, pulses, salt and oil for the 1,796 households collecting their food rations today. Before unloading, Francis, the team leader, checks the cargo one last time and confirms the receipt using his LESS “Last Mile” tracking handset, a specially developed tool to track deliveries and minimize commodity losses.

Scanning a waybill using LESS “Last Mile,” a specially developed tool to track deliveries and minimize commodity losses. Photo: WFP/Timothy Charlton

The atmosphere is tense: it will be the third time Francis and his team distribute food under the new procedures, which require every food collector’s biometric identity to be verified against UNHCR’s database. Biometric verification is the process of uniquely identifying an individual using biological features, in this case, iris patterns and fingerprints.

Oruchinga, together with Lobule in the North, are pilots of a nationwide attempt to curb corruption, reduce cheating and increase fairness in food distribution. In this joint venture between UNHCR and the Government of Uganda, the World Food Programme (WFP) provides structures and connectivity through its Supply Chain division. By October, UNHCR hopes to biometrically verify the identity of approximately 1.4 million refugees from neighbouring countries, including from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. This will be the largest such exercise in the agency’s history.

The first refugee families are already queuing when UNHCR’s verification specialist arrives and sets up the local server against which identities are checked. The new process is secure, protecting refugee families and WFP from any fraud or corruption, as well as fast and convenient for the beneficiaries, allowing them to go about their daily business with minimal distraction.

Once the person authorised to collect food — and a household can have many — enters the distribution circuit by scanning his ration card, they are greeted by the verification teams and offered a pair of biometric goggles. A short beep and five seconds later, their iris scan is complete and they can proceed. WFP then matches the identities of its beneficiaries with UNHCR’s data, to ensure food assistance reaches the right people. Should the verification process fail, a designated UNHCR protection team is seated across the room to handle these cases immediately on site.

Now the person can move along the food distribution corridors, where a team of scoopers and porters, employed from the local refugee community, measure and weigh each ration. “Scooping” is the process of measuring precise ration sizes. It has many advantages over the previously distributed pre-packaged food items — a method with a higher risk of cheating and profiteering. Before leaving the distribution circuit and heading home, the person’s ration card is scanned one last time at the exit station to confirm their food receipt for the current cycle.

“Scooping” is the process of measuring precise ration sizes. Scoopers and porters are employed from the local refugee community. Photo: WFP/Timothy Charlton

The new biometric verification system will make distribution fairer, faster and more efficient. The close collaboration between WFP, UNHCR and Uganda’s government is also set to become a prime example of how collaboration and partnership (SDG17) can lead to the attainment of Zero Hunger (SDG2).

Back at WFP office, Project Manager John Bursa elaborates on the extent of the operation. WFP Supply Chain has provided 118 mobile storage units (MSUs), over 90 tents and a team of specialists for what is “probably the largest single deployment of mobile structures in WFP’s history.”

Looking at the figures, this seems likely. By the end of September, WFP expects that 66 sites across Uganda will be distributing food to refugees the way it is done in Oruchinga.

John explains that it is a test run. “If everything goes well, this will be a model for global food distribution efforts.”

Find out more about WFP in Uganda.