Unlocking Potential: Africa’s Call for an Indigenous Digital Platform and e-KYC Solutions

Did you know Africa stands as the sole continent without a leading indigenous digital platform? Our CEO and Founder, Akim Benamara, sheds light on the urgent need for digital ID in Africa and its significance.

Did you know Africa is the only continent without a dominant, indigenous digital platform?

Africa is unique among the continents in lacking a dominant, indigenous digital platform. This absence is notable compared to other continents, such as North America with platforms like Facebook and Google, Asia with platforms like WeChat and Baidu, and Europe with platforms like Spotify and Booking.com.

These platforms, while popular globally, often overlook the unique needs and contexts of African users. For instance, language barriers persist, with many platforms failing to adequately support indigenous languages spoken across the continent. Moreover, issues of data privacy and security remain pressing concerns, with data often stored on servers located far from African shores, beyond the jurisdiction of local regulations.

The lack of a continent-wide digital platform in Africa poses challenges (and opportunities) for digital transformation in Africa and can be attributed to various factors, including limited access to technology, inadequate digital infrastructure, and the absence of a potent regulatory environment conducive to developing such platforms.

More critically, the issue of digital identity verification, or KYC (Know Your Customer/Client), plays a significant role in hindering the development of indigenous platforms in Africa, as it requires a reliable means of authenticating users online.

The Identity Gap? —Africa Lacks a Digital ID Backbone (KYC)

Africa struggles with a significant obstacle on its journey toward digital freedom: the absence of a unified digital identity system (ID). Unlike other continents where digital identities are increasingly prevalent, Africa lacks a comprehensive infrastructure for verifying and authenticating digital identities across its diverse population.

This absence of a unified digital identity system severely hampers the development of homegrown digital platforms. Without a digital ID, individuals in Africa struggle to establish a digital footprint, rendering them virtually invisible in the online world. This lack of foundational identity infrastructure creates a barrier to entry for the creation and adoption of indigenous platforms, as there is no robust framework upon which to build these digital ecosystems.

In a recent conversation I had with Lacina Kone, CEO of Smart Africa at the MWC Barcelona 2024,  he described the importance of digital identity. He stated,

KYC is the foundation of any platform. Once we have a digital ID system which is the KYC, all the African applications and platforms can roll out on it.

Lacina Kone, CEO of Smart Africa

Kone further highlighted the challenge of private sector involvement in Africa without such a system.

“When the private sector goes to Africa, establishes and launches a service, how can they identify the population? With a Gmail or Yahoo account? How do we authenticate those?”

He also emphasized that this digital ID system is a prerequisite for a thriving African digital landscape. “As long as we don’t have a platform,” he warned, “we are always going to be digitally colonized, not just Africa, but “the whole world.” 

The Impact: A Digitally United Africa

The absence of a robust digital identity system in Africa has far-reaching implications across sectors such as finance, communication, and e-commerce. Without secure means of digital identification, transactions are vulnerable to fraud, communication lacks trust and transparency, and e-commerce faces authentication challenges.

However, amidst these challenges and beyond the development of an indigenous digital platform, the potential of a  robust digital identity infrastructure promises to unlock a multitude of benefits, ranging from economic growth to social inclusion.

The African Development Bank estimates that Africa’s digital economy could reach $180 billion by 2025, with secure digital identities being a cornerstone of such growth. McKinsey further estimates that digital identification could unlock a value equivalent to 3-13% of GDP across Africa.

Improved access to education and healthcare services, facilitated by secure digital identities, promises to uplift communities and enhance the quality of life. Moreover, increased social inclusion and participation are achievable goals in a digitally united Africa, where every individual has a recognized and secure digital identity.

By nurturing a digital identity ecosystem, tailored to diverse cultures and contexts, Africa can reclaim its digital sovereignty and pave the way for inclusive digital development. Africans can seamlessly access essential services, from banking to healthcare, through locally developed digital platforms that understand and cater to our specific needs.

To make this vision a reality, Africa must prioritize the establishment of a strong digital identity infrastructure.

Africa Needs to be United to Overcome This Challenge 

Implementing a comprehensive Digital ID infrastructure in Africa presents challenges. Politically, the diverse governance structures and agendas across Africa’s 54 countries could pose obstacles to standardization and cooperation. African nations must demonstrate a willingness to collaborate and learn from one another, transcending competition and nurturing a sense of solidarity.

The vision is clear: to integrate Africa digitally despite political differences. The key lies in interoperable digital IDs—a continental KYC. This entails ensuring that digital IDs are universally recognized and authenticated across borders, enabling seamless transactions and services across African nations. While political diversity persists, digital integration is achievable with political will.

Several countries have already embarked on initiatives in this direction. For instance, the increasing adoption of digital identity verification solutions in Africa mirrors the continent’s swift shift towards digital transformation. Ethiopia, for example, is in the process of implementing a nationwide biometric digital ID system, with the ambitious goal of registering its entire eligible adult population of 120 million by 2025. Kenya is likewise rolling out a new digital ID system, with implementation set to commence soon. Meanwhile, Somalia has recently introduced its biometric identity card system as part of efforts to combat security threats and identity fraud. These developments emphasize the growing significance of digital identity and e-KYC solutions in Africa’s advancement towards digital progress and financial inclusion.

However, alongside political commitment, there’s a need to enhance execution skills. Technology may not be the only limiting factor; rather, it’s the execution and expertise required to implement such ambitious initiatives.  To rescale, Africans must prioritize upskilling and reskilling in emerging technologies. As Lacina Kone emphasized, this is where skills come into play. Without investing in reskilling efforts, we risk falling short of our digital aspirations.

In today’s rapidly changing evolving tech landscape, much of the knowledge needed for digital transformation is not traditionally taught in universities. This underlines the urgency for initiatives like the Smart Africa Digital Academy (SADA) to equip African citizens with the relevant skills demanded by the digital economy.

By prioritizing reskilling and upskilling initiatives, Africa can ensure that its workforce remains competitive and adaptable in the digital age. Collaboration, political will, and a focus on skill development are the cornerstones for transforming Africa into a digitally integrated continent, transcending political boundaries for collective prosperity and progress.

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