Towards sustainable identity systems in Africa
By Jean Lindner, Marketing Manager, Africa, Thales
How can African governments make greater use of technological and financial resources to manage their identity systems? However challenging it may seem, there are examples of easy and practical answers, such as in Burkina Faso.
MAKE ELECTORAL SYSTEM SUSTAINABLE
Making identity systems on the African continent sustainable is an intricate issue. At a time where biometric technology and equipment improve each year, African authorities are faced with the challenge of not only buying identity systems but also maintaining them over time. For instance, this holds true for national identity programs as well as voter registration or authentication programs. The latter is the epitome of the complexity African governments are facing: the need for updated biometric technology to ensure uniqueness of votes while having limited human and financial resources to maintain them. As a consequence, one can see the recurring procurement of elections equipment prior to elections, sometimes even in a rush. This is the challenge Burkina Faso is facing for the upgrade of its voter register, ahead of the presidential elections of October 2020 and legislative elections in March 2021. The aim of the Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante (CENI) is to maximize the lifecycle of existing equipment to use it as long as possible.
Existing landscape: a legacy system
A telling example is the case of the voter registration in Burkina Faso which was supplied by Thales back in 2012. A complete system comprising 3,500 mobile biometric kits and software as well as a biometric database were supplied to CENI with the help of a local partner. Like in usual voter registration system projects, voters were enrolled, data was collected and de-duplicated and eventually a voters’ list established as well as a voter card. An end-to-end solution was delivered, 3,800 operators trained and 4.4 million voters enrolled in about three months in fewer than 15,000 polling stations.
The practical approach used by Burkina Faso was not to revamp its existing system. On the enrolment side, CENI chose to combine both the refurbishment of 1,800 existing mobile registration kits as well as procuring 3,000 new additional mobile enrolment kits and software. The equipment has been delivered in multiple lots: supply of kit components between end of December 2019 / end of January 2020 for the refurbishment of existing equipment including quality control and software update. In fact, a specific industrialization qualification tool was used to check the functioning of the kits and load and test software on the equipment. On the system side, the central site has been re-used and technically upgraded with new servers and softwares, a new generation biometric engine.
First and foremost, financial resources have been optimized: part of the existing equipment was updated and refurbished with the latest technology components while another part has been procured. Thus, money has been saved and potentially provisions budget for additional equipment such as voter authentication devices.
Second, the lifetime of the system has been successfully extended and can be used for elections within the next ten years and more if upgrades are performed in the same fashion.
Third, some components have been recycled: batteries, printers and cables sold and reused by local companies. Last, the refurbishment of kits and installation has been done by a longstanding reputable local partner which highlights the need to work hand-in-hand locally. Our partner iConcept hired 35 people to carry out the refurbishment in just 3 days.
Two main lessons make the latest Burkina Faso refurbishment program a success.
First, electoral bodies must trust reputable biometrics suppliers and nurture partnerships with them. Thales has been in business for decades and provided maintenance and support to CENI for more than eight years. The chosen supplier must be able to stand as a long term partner over the years: discuss program roadmap with its clients, anticipate new product releases and hardware and software upgrades. That could not be the case with “one-off” suppliers with limited logistics and technology capabilities.
Second, electoral commissions must take full ownership of their voter registration program, considering elections in the long run - not as a single independent event - and provisioning for it accordingly. While some countries have been procuring voter registration and voter authentication equipment for recent elections at a significant cost, Burkina Faso has chosen another cost-effective path. It entails not only making sure to benefit from yearly support & maintenance solutions from its supplier Thales but also building in-house capabilities. In fact a secure warehouse at CENI’s premises has been used to store mobile registration kits. In addition, the electoral commission had managed to capitalize on operating skills and up-to-date knowledge by the continuous usage of the equipment: its own personnel had expertise to handle the equipment autonomously with discipline, including inventories and audits to manage battery power time for instance.
CENI managed to combine the re-use and upgrade of existing systems as well as the procurement of brand new equipment to manage robust voter registration. This is proof that it is not a technological demand to start from scratch every two elections, but rather a sound move to combine both legacy systems and new technology improvements for the benefit of people.