The Key to Unlocking Africa’s Economic Potential? Digital Identity. - Identity Review | Global Tech Think Tank - Identity Review | Global Tech Think Tank

Africa is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies, with reports projecting the region’s business opportunities to be worth $5.6 trillion by 2025. While much of its economic growth lies in the realms of increased consumption, agricultural productivity and infrastructure, the key to unlocking Africa’s economic potential—and ensuring that it’s distributed equally—may be digital identity.

Identity as a Fundamental Right

ID4Africa, an NGO founded in 2014, is working to shape the future of identity in the region. Identity Review spoke with the organization to understand why identity-for-all is such an important goal and a central pillar of its mission: “Without this fundamental right, adults without an identity will have low to no access to government aid, can’t receive an education, won’t be eligible for having a legal job, can’t access healthcare, can’t open a bank account, etc. They also have no means of providing any of such opportunities (and more) to their childrenthereby propelling this crippling cycle of exclusion.”

Over one billion people in the world don’t have any form of identification, with African residents comprising more than half of that number. Not only does that prevent them from getting jobs or setting up bank accounts, but, on a more sobering note, also means that these unidentified people are unable to get aid during global crises, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. Identity-for-all is a cornerstone for a functional and effective government that allocates resources to everyone in need.

Innovations in identity technology featured at the 2019 ID4Africa Annual General Meeting Expo (Source: ID4Africa)

Innovations in identity technology featured at the 2019 ID4Africa Annual General Meeting Expo (Source: ID4Africa)


A Mission to Expand Socioeconomic Opportunity

The United Nations has identified identity as a key driver of economic opportunity, specifying in Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 that all people should have a legal identity by 2030, including free birth registration. ID4Africa is an NGO founded in 2014 aimed to help with just that, facilitating “African nations on their journeys to develop robust and responsible identity ecosystems in the service of development and humanitarian action.”

ID4Africa manifests its mission in a number of ways. One of the most prominent and large scale projects is the Annual General Meeting (AGM) they organize, with a different country hosting each year. Representatives explain that “these meetings are particularly important as they serve to bring together (under one roof) decision-makers from Africa’s identity authorities, development agencies, solutions providers, members of civil society and several other stakeholders.” The event brings together 1,300-1,500 key stakeholders in the identity ecosystem. ID4Africa also facilitates outreach through a team of 48 ambassadors from each country, who act as liaisons between ID4Africa and their home government.

Furthermore, ID4Africa is a proponent of establishing an International Identity Day on September 16 to increase exposure and generate momentum around the issue. This would follow a pattern of creating observance days for pressing human rights issues, such as Human Rights Day (December 10) or Refugee Day (June 20).

The Future of ID4Africa

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing everything to migrate online, ID4Africa is looking toward emphasizing digital identity. This is a significant step, as a core issue of identity-for-all is deciding whether to prioritize legal versus digital identity.

Executive Chairman of ID4Africa Dr. Joseph Atick speaking at the 2016 ID4Africa Annual General Meeting held in Kigali, Rwanda (Source: CIO East Africa)

Executive Chairman of ID4Africa Dr. Joseph Atick speaking at the 2016 ID4Africa Annual General Meeting held in Kigali, Rwanda (Source: CIO East Africa)


“What we’re seeing from COVID is that not all flavors of identity are equally impactful,” Dr. Joseph Atick, Executive Chairman of ID4Africa, said in an interview with Biometric Update. “Clearly the fact that countries in this public health crisis need to continue operating at a distance, remotely et cetera creates a significant demand for a version of identity that we used to call service-oriented digital identity.”

With this increased emphasis on digital identity, ID4Africa also anticipates more innovations in contactless technologies, such as biometrics, remote onboarding and leveraging AI for cybersecurity. The organization is also looking to expand its online content, from webinars to digital services.

“The increased sophistication and transparency that ID4Africa has helped build in Africa is leading to a more mature, open, more competitive and innovation-driven marketplace,” said an ID4Africa representative.

At its heart, ID4Africa believes in every human’s fundamental right to be recognized and identified.


Lydia You is a computer scientist from Princeton University living in New York City. She is a Tech Innovation Fellow at Identity Review covering the intersection of global tech policy, internet culture and the future of digital media.

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