By Abdul Rashid Thomas
On Wednesday, 21 August 2019, president Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone unveiled Sierra Leone’s National Digital Identity Platform, making it the first such Blockchain national identification system in Africa.
At the Seventy-third Session of the UN General Assembly last year in New York, the President announced a partnership with the UN and KIVA, a US-based financial services international non-profit organisation, to launch a bold new initiative designed to give the country’s seven million citizens access to financial services.
“Today, less than one year after, I am pleased to announce that we have accomplished that objective. My Government has developed a National Digital Identity Platform (NDIP). I am informed, and I announce with pride, that this is Africa’s first Blockchain and Decentralised National Digital Identity System”, he said, adding that the technology would radically change Sierra Leone’s financial inclusion landscape and make it possible to access and deliver economic and other opportunities to citizens.
President Bio noted that the platform, developed by the National Civil Registration Authority with support from KIVA, was a digital infrastructure to help citizens grant access to approved institutions to assert and verify identity and also build credit histories.
“It will be implemented in two steps: First, we will digitise identities, and secondly we will use that digital identity as the unique nationally recognized identifier called the National Identification Number that is non duplicating and non-reusable around which the credit reporting and lookup apparatus is built as well as a unique source of reference for every service delivery in the country. Step 1 – has been completed; Step 2 will be completed by the end of this year,” he said.
He recalled that before now, in an effort to avert risk, lending institutions could offer a poor farmer working on communal land or a petty trader in Freetown no loan or only high-interest loans, partly because the bank had no way of establishing the identity or credit history of that person or small business entity.
“That will change from now on. With the new National Digital Identity System, financial service providers are now able to efficiently verify the identity and ultimately the credit history of a customer wanting to open an account or access a loan,” he said, adding that the platform would now reduce the risks to these institutions associated with extending low-interest credit to ‘unknown’ borrowers while also doing that without the guarantee of unreasonable collateral requirements.
“This directly translates into citizens having improved access to affordable credit to invest in entrepreneurial endeavours and to also meet consumption or financial shocks that occur as a result of life events. Access to credit and financial services can significantly improve the lives of citizens by making citizens more financially resilient. Further, it will strengthen and expand the private sector, the backbone of any modern economy.
“For the first time in Sierra Leone, there is now a pathway for farmers in rural communities, for instance, to access capital needed to invest in their farms, increase production, and therefore improve their earnings. For women, young persons, and persons with disabilities, meaningful financial inclusion is now possible through this new National Digital Identity Platform. They now have an opportunity to engage in entrepreneurship in an increasingly digital economy,” the President said.
The NDIP would also now provide the government with a proactive medium through which public institutions could verify identities with certainty, thus significantly curbing corruption and graft on payrolls, benefits, and social safety net programme payments.
“My Government has further directed that all new recruits into the Civil and Public Service should be vetted and cleared by the Biometric Identification System at the National Civil Registration Authority before enlistment into the Government Payroll System. This has disrupted and contained impersonation and identity fraud thus making the Payroll transparent and accountable catering for rightful owners of identities,” president Bio told his audience.
“I am proud to note that the new digital identity system is built with clear guidelines on principles of self-sovereignty to protect information from unauthorised access. Ultimately, it is Sierra Leoneans who own their data and it is they who should decide with whom they share that data and how that data is used. Data on every person resident in Sierra Leone stored with the NCRA will be protected with strict confidentiality in line with international guidelines and practices.
“Another advantage of the technology is that any time information is modified, a record of that transaction is created. We will continue to build on the current legal protections in line with international best practices and remain mindful of all constitutional and human rights obligations.
“With this technology milestone, we have signalled our determination to be a hub of innovation and a nation primed for new opportunities for inclusive governance and development,” he concluded.
In his welcome statement, earlier, Director General of NCRA, Mohamed Mubashir Massaquoi, said the event was a milestone that would better position the people of Sierra Leone to become productive through an increasingly digital and connected world, adding that it also signalled the government’s willingness to embrace scalable and socially impactful technology especially for purposes of reducing information asymmetry and alleviating challenges associated with social and economic exclusions.
”This is a unique approach by President Bio to leverage the tremendous potential of technology, data science, and artificial intelligence in making data-driven analyses and decisions, and scaling up solutions to society’s problems. This inter-link, with strong policy-making, problem-solving, and innovative application of technology, is beginning to have a transformative effect on the lives of all Sierra Leoneans,” he said.
A representative from the United Nations Development Programme, Samuel Doe, said he was excited to join the Government of Sierra Leone to launch the NDIP. He stated that the Government had successfully developed the system, with record speed, since the signing of the MoU in September last year.