Identity Management

Kenya: Overcoming Challenges of the National Digital Register

American crime television series, CSI (Crime Scene Investigations) has been a spectacle for years in Africa. Apart from its compelling storyline, the high end technology used has been a crowd puller. One of the greatest interests is the biometric database, used in crime fighting. For most African countries this is still a myth. For Kenya, this might be a reality sooner than anyone thought.

When the new Kenyan government came into power, they promised all things ‘digital’, beginning with providing laptops to primary school students and enhancing eLearning. Indeed the president, Uhuru Kenyatta was elected through a modern system of voting that incorporated various digital platforms including biometric voter registration and the digital transmission of provisional results.

A year later, and the government is dealing with various IT projects. The latest one to cause a stir is the proposed National Digital Register.  This plan is aimed at generating a whole new registration method, as far away from the current, unreliable, manual system as possible. In this, Kenyans from the age of 12, will be required to register their biometric details in a manner reminiscent of the digital voter registration exercise carried out more than a year ago.

According to the Deputy President, William Ruto, the national digital register is a part of a wider programme to make the government services more efficient and help in national planning and security needs.

“In order to address the prevailing security challenges, we intend to consolidate all current registers of persons into a single national register with accurate and relevant information,” he said. The planned register will also include relevant information including biometric details of all persons, land, establishments and assets.

The Deputy President also sought advice from the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) commissioners. This body is the only institution that was able to conduct mass digital registration before the 2013 general elections.

However, although most Kenyans welcome the move to digitize records, grave concerns have also been raised from various bodies about the move. This ultimately comes down to the fact that although this has been labelled as an initiative to fight terrorism, many have questioned the manner in which this would happen. Other sections of Kenyan society have doubted the competence of the IEBC to be a consultant of sorts in the project.

In a recent expose by a local television network, Kenya Television Network (KTN) the IEBC was accused of not properly handling the digital registration of voters and the intended digital transmission of results that failed even before it began. The expose also claims that the IEBC servers were hacked and the results simultaneous changed. IEBC has since denied all allegations labelling them “political” and “malicious”.

The Consumer Federation of Kenya (Cofek) a body looking at the welfare of consumers, added its voice to the on-going debate about the project: “Kenyans have not been told what exactly went wrong with a similar project where the IEBC was not too lucky with the Biometric Voter Register (BVR) after registering over 14 million people,” Cofek said in a statement.

“Public trust level in such projects is fairly low given the unmet pledges on new generation IDs and security passports. Registering voters is anchored on different legislations as compared with registration of persons. The formats could also slightly vary.”

Additional concerns have also been raised, including the flawed tendering processes for most IT government projects and the much talked about “laptops for every child project” that is currently embroiled in a tendering row.

The digital national register will definitely not be an easy thing to achieve even though it holds a lot of good for the country. Cofek suggests:

“There is always a sense of lack of legal security around the documents we hold – national ID card, voter cards, passports, births, marriage and death certificates since anyone can acquire similar genuine documents, in our very names, in a non-genuine manner.” Yet Cofek continues that there should be a comprehensive register that captures data from birth to death.

In mid April, SAP Africa launched a digital birth system that will allow mothers to register their newborns using their mobile phones. The app is available on a smart phone integrated with SAP Cloud-based technology.

According to Professor Jan Eloff, Research Expert and Elmarie Venter, Senior Researcher, at the SAP Innovation Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, “SAP’s challenge was to develop a simple mobile birth registration application prototype to enable a responsible individual, with the help of a mobile phone, to register the birth of any child within 90 days. We hope to secure the buy-in of the Kenyan government and then ultimately roll this out elsewhere in Africa in the future.”

Indeed such efforts by the private sector could provide impetus for the government and an acceptable framework to conduct citizen’s registration.

“Proof of identity is essential to gaining access to basic services and exercising fundamental human rights anywhere in the world. Failure to register a birth means that citizens have no access to basic services such as health, social security and education,” SAP Africa said during the launch of the birth registration service.

According to the recently released budget estimates by the treasury, the National Digital Registry has been included, underlining the government’s intentions to move ahead with the project. Yet the biggest danger for the government currently is to ensure that all those registered are actually Kenyans.

According to a global security expert Taiye Lambo who has worked with international tech firms, there are dangers and opportunities to not implementing the National Digital Register.

“Dangers of not implementing the National Digital Register in the right manner include - mis-management of limited resources, inability to effectively tackle security threats such as terrorism, other forms of violent crimes and fraud,” he said. Whilst Lambo adds that there is more to benefit the country if the process is carried out in sobriety and diligence.  

The idea is noble and it will ease the process of identification in many government processes. But great care needs to be included in the project to avoid legal and technical issues.


Vincent Matinde is an international IT Journalist highlighting African innovations in the technology scene.


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Vincent Matinde

Vincent Matinde is an international IT Journalist highlighting African innovations in the technology scene.

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