Inside President Ruto's bid to ditch Huduma Namba, adopt Digital Identity project

President William Ruto speaking during the Madaraka day celebrations in Embu County on Thursday, June 1, 2023. [Samson wire Standard]

After vigorously opposing the Huduma Namba initiative by the predecessor government, President William Ruto’s administration has announced the rollout of a similar digital Identity project aimed at easing access to government services for Kenyans.

Speaking during the ID4Africa 7th general assembly last week, Ruto said the new digital system would capture all the details of Kenyans and consolidate the information in a comprehensive registry that government would rely on to effectively manage the country and employ during resource allocation.

“The government is deliberating the implementation of a civil registration and vital statistics system that meets the imperatives of a new digital era… The new system must be able to assign unique personal identification numbers at birth to all persons born in Kenya,” said the president.

The move, estimated to cost the country billions, will include upgrading the current national identity card into a national digital identity management system.

But in his quest for new digital identities for Kenyans, the President failed to demonstrate how different his new initiative is from the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS), commonly known as Huduma Namba, which had been initiated by former President Uhuru Kenyatta regime.

The Huduma Namba project was launched in 2019 and had gobbled up sh10 billion by December 2022. According to government records, 37.7 million Kenyans were registered using 31,500 kits and on 52 mass registration days.

To date, however, millions are yet to be issued with the cards. Admittedly, the project faced numerous challenges such as network issues, a lack of documents, several court cases, fake news, and a last-minute conception and implementation.

Kenyans are now concerned that the current digital identity drive comes at a time the country is grappling with the high cost of living, and if not properly implemented- will suffer the same fate as that of Huduma Namba.

Already, there is a petition by civil Society Organizations urging the government to take its time in the rollout of the digital Unique Personal Identifier(UPI) to prevent a repeat of the blunders committed during the implementation of the Huduma Namba project.

However, a German manufacturer of the blank Huduma Namba cards- Mulbauer High Tech International- is now calling on the government to leverage and build on the existing infrastructure provided for through Huduma Namba. 

Mulbauer was tapped by the former regime to provide the Huduma cards currently in use by a section of Kenyans.

In an exclusive interview with The Standard, an official from the firm- who spoke on condition of anonymity- said the Huduma Namba already provided for a national registry of both electronic and optical data.

In terms of safety, he explained the card comprised over 20 security features that ensured the integrity of the card and the data stored in and on it.

“Huduma serves as a database and biometric system that stores and manages data. With the current card, the government can determine which institution has access to which information on the chip on the card based on laws and regulations. The chip has various applications such as travel and identity applications,” he stated.

Adding, “The electronic ID fulfills and supersedes the international standards by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Organisation for Standardization(ISO) making it one of the most secure cards in the world.”

This, he said, was evidenced by features such as data encryption on the chip and protection via a Public Key Infrastructure (document sign-off) and fingerprint details. The card body is also made of polycarbonate which has over 10 years’ duration.

The Security features, he added, were also in three levels including the optical security features, features that need a device to identify e.g. micro printing and UV printing, and also forensic security features such as special security ink.

He also explained that Germany produces a blank card with all security features with a chip application on it, the empty card is then shipped to Kenya where the chip is printed on with data and additional security features by the government.

“The government can build on this infrastructure and create digital IDs and even incorporate Interior CS Kithure Kindiki’s proposal to add iris details into the chip of the card,” he said. 

ICT Cabinet Secretary Eliud Owalo has, however, clarified that the digital ID project differs from Huduma Namba in that there is no physical ID card associated with it.

He explained that the current regime would “not be carrying forward the baggage of Huduma Namba,” and would proceed with the Digital ID program owing to the success of the same in countries such as Estonia, Belgium, Pakistan, and India.

The CS explained that Owalo the digital identity would interact with the National Information Management System, and facilitate a central population database. All government-held data about Kenyans will be linked to their digital identity, and all public services will be available through digital channels.

The government further plans to digitize a total of 7,200 services by the end of the year and 5,000 by June. Currently, 320 services are on the E-citizen platform.