Huduma Namba, Kenya's biometric digital identification system for citizens, has been a running theme in Kenya for almost two years now. Technically known as the National Integrated Identification Management Systems (NIIMS).

Huduma Namba was aimed at creating a single source of a person’s identity in Kenya to increase access to government services and also reduces the chances of identity theft.

The system would involve the registration of all persons aged six years and above by the government. This would be done through collecting biometric and other data such as fingerprints retina and iris scan, contact information, family details, profession, and more.

Since its inception, there have been several challenges with the project and while the government started issuing the cards in October 2020, there is still a long way to go.

First, let us have a look at why the project was started in the first place.

Having a form of legal identity is important. Everyone needs a document or something that demonstrates that they are who they say they are. Without such, it is almost impossible to identify oneself outside your local community and this effectively denies one access to many services.

You cannot get a passport, you cannot open a bank account, you cannot register a SIM card and in an increasingly digital world, you have few options.

Today, more than 1 billion people in the world lack a form of a recognized ID.

This is why various global bodies have been pushing to get everybody a form of legal identification. Article Six of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” This is also in Target 16.9 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seeks to provide legal identity for all by the year 2030.

The state of identification in Kenya

In Kenya, we’ve had a form of identification in place – the National ID – which is mandatory for every Kenyan aged 18 years and above. This has always been very useful because it is a unique identifier for every person in the country, making it possible to identify people by their ID numbers.

In places where such does not exist, chaos rules. Banks have to figure out which ‘John Doe’ made a bank deposit because there are many John Doe.

However, the current identification system in Kenya has a major limitation because it is not digital. All the information is on physical paper, with a passport photo and a signature as the primary method of identification.

There is also an image of the holder’s fingerprint, but this is also on paper and it is not easy to compare one’s fingerprint against a database of fingerprints held on paper. This is where a form of digital identification proves useful, and the government’s response to this was the Huduma Namba.

In 2019, Kenya's government came up with a miscellaneous act to amend the Registration of Persons Act, allowing for the establishment of a biometric database of Kenyans – NIIMS.

From the government, it was supposed to be a system with one card that holds all the information about the person such as driving license, NHIF information, birth registration, tax information, and any other data held by government institutions.

Challenges in implementing Huduma Namba in Kenya

The implementation of the project was at best chaotic and at worst, designed to fail. As Wainaina Mungai from SafeHouse Africa opines, Kenya needed the Huduma Namba, but not in the form that it was presented or the extent of data it sought to capture and store.

It would help ensure the integrity of data and reduce the number of IDs required to access services. One challenge in the implementation was the lack of adherence to an enabling legal framework anchored in international best practice and treaties Kenya should ratify.

Limited public participation meant that the public was not fully aware of what the system was about, as well as the potential benefits of the project. Instead of educating people so that they could register based on the perceived benefits, the government resulted in threats, warning people that they may not receive some government services if they did not register.

This undermined the whole process because this is a major change to how people access government services and principles of change management should have been applied.

Kenya could have learned from the difficulties experienced in Tanzania, India, and Nigeria while implementing a national ID system. In all these places, it has taken quite a long time and it is unreasonable to expect that all Kenyans would quickly rush to register for a service they knew little about. The court cases in India dragged on for ten years.

The issue of privacy was also raised.

At the start of the process, Kenya lacked the necessary laws to govern the use of the data that was being collected. This is data that could be used to profile people and it was not very clear what was the use of the data. There needed to be a clearly defined use for the data and the users should retain ownership of the data. The government had also intended to collect DNA and location information, something that would be an infringement of privacy and would make the whole process even more suspicious. Luckily. This part was struck out by the court but damage had already been done.

There was also the challenge with security. This was a serious flaw because when you have biometric data centralized, you attract hackers who can easily get away with the data. The people handling the data could also pose a risk to the same, hence the need to have a secure platform, such as the one running on blockchain technology. This has been used in places like Estonia where they have a functioning digital ID. The challenge with biometric data is that it cannot be changed if breached. While one can easily change a password, they cannot change their fingerprint.

Another unintended consequence that could result from the Huduma Namba is exclusion; the exact opposite of what it intends to achieve. If there is one card that will be used to access all government services, lacking that card means that one is locked out from all such services. This was a concern raised by the Nubian community who lack ID cards, hence were not eligible to be registered for the Huduma Namba.

What next for Huduma Namba?

No doubt, a functional digital ID is becoming increasingly necessary in a digital world. Kenya needs to take this route to fully take advantage of the digital revolution, but the process should be done right.

Research by The Engine Room titled ‘Understanding the Lived Effects of Digital ID: A Multi-Country Study’ argues that the process of obtaining digital ID matters just as much as the result. The policies that are established to protect the rights of the people are also useless unless if they are operationalized. This calls for Kenya to rethink the implementation process in a way that the concerns raised are catered for and have a realistic timeline.

It may be a few more years before we can have the Huduma Namba fully functional. However, the benefits would be great.

Huduma Namba would lead to an easy way of accessing government services and would result in time and resources saved. The identification system would also benefit the private sector by making it easy to offer financial services to all people and greatly reduce the Know-Your-Customer process.

Processes like applying for passports would be easier and shorter because one would not need to present the same data to the immigration department again. There would be no need for a complicated registration process in schools. All this and much more would translate to money saved.

As the global economy becomes increasingly digital, Huduma Namba might be the magic wand that will propel Kenya to benefit from data, but we still have a long way to go.

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