Update: Just a month after Kenya launched the rollout its new digital identity pilot program, the country’s High Court has ordered the process be put on pause. The reason: The lack of a data protection assessment. Objections from several groups led to a legal challenge that resulted in the court ruling. The suspension applies to the chip-bearing physical identity card, digital ID, unique personal identifier (UPI) and National Master Population Register.
November 1 was a significant day for Kenya, as the government launched a pilot program by issuing new identity cards that can be converted to digital IDs. The pilot is part of the country’s “Maisha Namba (Number)” program which aims to digitize citizens’ identification. “Maisha” is the Swahili word for “Life.”
Components of the Maisha Namba program
The new program consists of three interrelated components:
- The Maisha Namba, also known as the Unique Personal Identifier (UPI), will serve as the holder’s primary and lifelong registration number and identification reference. All newborns will be issued with Maisha Namba to use in their birth certificates and subsequent registration for government services including school enrolment and health services. The same number will translate to their Maisha card number when they turn 18. The Maisha Namba will allow citizens to verify their identity online using biometric features, including fingerprints, facial recognition, and iris recognition.
- The Maisha card contains an embedded chip to store encrypted data and allows holders to set up a “Maisha Digital ID” on their smartphones.
- The Maisha Namba, Maisha Card, and Maisha Digital ID will be consolidated into the Maisha Integrated Database, a population register designed to transition the country from its conventional National ID card to a more sophisticated digital identification system. It will also refine Kenya’s identity management systems and broaden access to both government and private-sector services.
Authorities claim that the Maisha system will promote inclusivity for marginalized communities by eliminating the need for in-person vetting.
Who will be assigned a Maisha Namba and card during the pilot program?
During the pilot program, newborn infants and first-time applicants will be assigned a Maisha Namba and (for adults) the Maisha ID card. There will be no mass re-registration effort for adults who already have a national ID. The government will gradually phase out the second generation IDs by translating them to Maisha Namba.
Lessons learned: Failure of a previous attempt to build an integrated ID system
The launch of the new program comes after a previous attempt failed.
“The National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS) introduced in January 2019 and [known] as ‘Huduma Namba’ was declared illegal by the High Court for conflicting with the Kenyan Data Protection Act, 2019,” Jurist.org explains. Privacy rights groups remain somewhat skeptical of the new program and will be watching the developments closely.
The Kenyan government will apply what it learned from NIIMS and will collect feedback during the Maisha pilot program to determine what it will take to successfully roll out the Maisha program nationwide.
Furthermore, Kenya has demonstrated its good intentions by entering into an agreement with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in August 2023 “to help build the country’s Digital Identity System, emphasizing the nation’s commitment to modernizing its identification infrastructure and improving citizen services. The success of Maisha Namba will depend on addressing challenges while maintaining public trust and data privacy.” (Innovation Village)
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