Life as a Yoti fellow – Tshepo Magoma on democratising digital identity in South Africa

A quick introduction, who are you and where you are based?

I’m a researcher, strategist and innovator with experience working in Africa’s small business and social enterprise sectors. I’m particularly interested in the opportunities being brought forward by the digitisation of the continent and specialise in disruptive innovation. I’m a huge advocate for youth entrepreneurship and have worked widely in the NGO sector across the provinces in South Africa. I’m a published academic and has been a speaker, facilitator and panellist at numerous events including the African Union, Africa Research Group, The Innovation Hub, ISPA iWeek 2019 and the World Youth Forum in Egypt. I’m currently one of Yoti’s fellows, working a project here in South Africa.

Tshepo field work

What is your project proposal?

I’m studying the digital identity landscape in South Africa, in particular, its effectiveness in fighting fraud. Looking at the national digital identity programme from a human rights perspective and speaking to a range of individuals on how they see digital identity helping them in their circumstance. This comprehensive view will enable me to propose safeguards and policy recommendations for all those involved – including public officials, lawmakers, representatives from statutory and social rights institutions, technologists, officers of development institutions, and members of the private sector. The fellowship has given me a great opportunity to explore challenges of digital identity frameworks in the context of a developing country, talking to real people about how we solve their problems.

The output of my project will be a paper, aimed at engaging different stakeholders; the government, individuals, people struggling with using their ID. To showcase the dynamics of digital ID in SA, lots of people don’t understand what it is, as it’s such a new area. The term ‘digital identity’ is part of the problem here, but the more you explain, the more relatable people find it and they start understanding it in the context or their own situation. So my paper will showcase all the problems that people have, to drive greater awareness of digital identity challenges and opportunities in the wider context/representation of South Africans.

What interested you in digital identity?

I realised there are a lot of people who don’t have access to services because they don’t have ID, this is due to a diverse set of problems. They may not know who their forefathers were, or they may not have the correct name given to them. In my case my surname was actually spelt incorrectly on my official ID, because it was misheard when the ID was issued. Another issue came from the documents themselves – Green ID books, our primary form of identity in South Africa. These just had your image secured with sellotape, which meant it was super easy for someone to swap in their photo and use your ID as their own. I lost mine at university and I remember feeling the pain of not knowing what could happen to my identity, should someone use it to commit fraud. I did everything I could to minimise the impact, but it’s a really traumatic experience for South Africans. You may find your identity has been used to marry someone, incur debt or commit crimes.

This made me wonder if there is perhaps a way for me to protect my identity, whether online or offline, and through my early years of research I came across digital identity. I explored the concept and how it can benefit emerging markets like Africa. I always look for opportunities in the problems and challenges we face, and in this case the impetus to solve them is particularly strong because so many people are experiencing them.

Tell me more about the identity landscape in South Africa?

There is an ID crisis here, composed of a range of issues. South Africa is more of a developing nation than other countries, so we see an influx of people coming here without the means to get an ID. That increases activities such as fraud and human trafficking, so it can be really dangerous to lose your ID. In other cases if someone doesn’t have an ID, how do they prove who they are? Without this you can’t access key services like a bank account.

There is an ID crisis in South Africa

In 2013 we moved on from Green ID books, as smart cards were introduced as the new form of official ID. These solve part of the issue of losing ID by being sealed and tamperproof. You apply for these when you turn 15, with your birth certificate as your seed document. However the problem comes if you weren’t issued with a birth certificate. These people have to prove their identity through their parents, who must declare they’re their child and they are South African but if that’s not possible it’s a very lengthy process.

I’m exploring how digital ID lessons these problems and means we don’t have to rely on carrying a physical ID or papers to prove to authorities who we are. In particular, I’m exploring the experience of marginalised communities who face challenges like not having access to the internet, to see how we can incorporate digital identity into their lives. There are a lot of areas in South Africa that have this issue, but it’s starting to change as companies like Google are currently trying to introduce WiFi in a number of townships.

What have you found through your research so far?

Two things need to happen; firstly educating people about the benefits of digital identity is essential, building on top of this the value must be demonstrated by using it to improve our service offerings. In most marginalised areas digital literacy is often an issue, thereby in the concept of digital identity, you are always obliged to explain it by using examples that your audience can relate to. During my awareness week, where I conducted interviews and spoke publicly about the importance of digital identity, I found most audiences could connect with the concept and benefits of digital identity, as either they or someone they knew had been victims of fraud.

Tshepo has conducted field work in Pretoria

For digital identity to be recognised in a country it requires private and public institutions to embrace the digital economy. In South Africa, banks are now looking to do everything online and the government has also embarked on offering its e-government services online. There’s a national focus on being ready for the fourth industrial revolution which I think means it’s inevitable that digital identity will soon to find its way into more markets. Banks are starting to make use of digital identity to safeguard their payments and companies are opting to a paperless industry which means more contracts signed virtually, the government is now looking introducing e-visas and e-licences all with the intention of provide user-friendly, corruption-free systems that can improve operations. We are living in a digital economy and every transaction is moving online, so we need to think of better ways to protect and preserve our digital identity.

How did you hear about the opportunity?

I found about Yoti’s fellowship programme at a website called I was particularly interested in the company, as well as the programme itself and decided to apply. Although it took time to formulate a conducive research project, it was really worth it to explore the issues and challenges of digital identity frameworks in the context of a developing country, which is very exciting to me.

Where did you work before this?

I worked for a local youth founded NGO, where I was responsible for engaging with key stakeholders and improving the access to education, predominately in rural areas of the region. I was tasked to research the current trends and data literacy needs and assess the rate of technological adoption. Through this I developed a love for research and have since embarked on numerous other activities that are aimed at making a much more significant impact within communities.

In addition to this, the NGO taught people about innovation and the opportunities that come with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The importance of technology, how to be adaptable, see opportunities and take advantage of running your own business – trying to counterbalance social imbalances in the rural segment of the population. I’d help mentor and share knowledge in how to drive people’s business plans.

Of any art, film or book, what would you recommend?

Digital Identity by Phillip J. Windley
Digital Identity by Phillip J. Windley

I have found the book called Digital Identity by Phillip J. Windley also informative in this space. Also Yoti have created great digital Identity tool kits, which are aimed at teaching the public about all the basics of digital identity.

Get in touch with Tshepo on LinkedIn.

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