Sierra Leone thumbprint breakthrough for unbanked

Sierra Leoneans will be able to sign up for bank accounts with a press of their thumbs, thanks to a blockchain-based financial inclusion programme that could serve as a model for countries with large unbanked populations across the developing world.

The Kiva Protocol, launched on Wednesday by the Sierra Leonean government and Kiva, the Silicon Valley microloan company, is a biometric system that links a person’s thumbprint with their identity. It will allow the west African country to create a universal credit bureau for the first time, with its backers hoping it will spur lending by banks reluctant to loan to people without credit histories.

Further benefits identified include allowing the government to reach more people with its services, cutting costs for mobile operators and start-ups and bringing thousands of small businesses into the formal economy.

“From the individual, to the start-up to the government to businesses . . . the proof of ID becomes instantaneous, meaning more access to services” for Sierra Leoneans, said David Sengah, the country’s chief innovation officer. “This is a great step that a small country is taking.”

All of Sierra Leone’s 5.1m adult citizens are signed up for the programme, according to the country’s National Civil Registration Authority, through which they were registered. Mr Sengah said that the government helped design the data protection aspects of the agreement with Kiva to ensure its citizens’ data remained secure.

Just 20 per cent of people have bank accounts in Sierra Leone, where per capita GDP is about $500 a year. But financial inclusion is increasingly a focus of governments across the developing world, who see it as an important step out of poverty.

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Technology is playing a major role. Mobile money is revolutionising payments, business and savings across Africa. Hundreds of millions of Indians have opened bank accounts in recent years, raising the share of people with accounts to over 80 per cent, after the government introduced a biometric, digital ID system.

Some countries are turning to nascent blockchain technology, which allows organisations to keep an immutable electronic database of information or transactions. In June, Facebook announced plans to create its own blockchain network in a bid to provide instant and nearly free international money transfers via mobile phone for the 1.7bn people in the world without a bank account.

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But huge challenges remain. The World Bank estimates that roughly 1bn people worldwide — the vast majority of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa — lack basic ID credentials, while many more have unreliable or unverifiable IDs. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 3.4bn people have some form of ID, but are unable to use it in the digital world.

In most of sub-Saharan Africa, less than half of children under five have their births registered. The poorest, and women in particular, are least likely to have official identification, according to the bank, while refugees, the disabled and rural inhabitants often have the hardest time obtaining IDs.

“This invisibility has significant implications” for people trying to access services, the World Bank said in a report released last week. “Without a secure and trusted way to prove their identity, people . . . will often find themselves unable to access critical healthcare and social services, enrol in school, open a bank account, obtain a mobile phone, get a job, vote in an election, or register a business in the formal sector.”

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Sierra Leone hopes to change that; Kiva said it planned to expand the project to other countries, with announcements expected later this year.


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