Kenya’s Identity Ecosystem

Published: 1/Oct/2019
Source: Caribou Digital (UK)

By Emrys Schoemaker (Caribou Digital), Tom Kirk (London School of Economics) and Isaac Rutenberg (Strathmore University Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT)).

Download full report from Caribou Digital.


This report’s analysis of Kenya’s identification ecosystem provides an overview of the main identification systems used to manage development, and an in-depth exploration of three that are vital to Kenyans’ participation in political and economic life. It builds on existing work such as the World Bank’s Diagnostic Report (2016) and investigations by international and domestic civil society organisations. However, it goes further by exploring how Kenya’s identification systems are connected through the interests of influential actors and institutions, and by assessing the risks and vulnerabilities faced by their users.

Development increasingly requires nuanced understandings of the overlapping, complementary and competing interests of the actors and institutions that maintain, govern and use identification systems. They include state officials, politicians, civil society organisations and companies, and stakeholders such as security services and international organisations. Each shape the accessibility, transparency and accountability of countries’ identification ecosystems. And each can be engaged to support reforms or design new systems that increase their inclusivity and potential.

To aid such understandings, the report’s sections are designed to be read alongside an online map of Kenya’s identification ecosystem. It allows users to see how different elements within it, such as registries, credentials, regulatory authorities and companies, are connected. Clicking on any element will open a profile card that provides more information, including links to references and further reading. For ease of use, the report also contains hyperlinks to discussed sections of Kenya’s identification ecosystem map. It can be accessed here.

The report’s narrative draws upon research in Kenya between April and June 2019. Interviews were held with stakeholders from state, private and civil society organisations, and focus groups conducted with women and girls that have sought access to identification systems. They contribute to emerging evidence of how such exclusions can add to gender inequalities. The report also draws upon risks and vulnerabilities analyses constructed from the literature on identification for development, privacy and rights, and from Caribou Digital’s ongoing work on digital identification. The questions are contained in the annexes for interested readers.

The findings and recommendations are intended to support civil society and development organisations engaging decision makers that are developing, managing and governing Kenya’s identification systems. It will also be useful to those that wish to see the politics that underpin its wider identity ecosystems centred in current debates. Because of the diversity of potential users, the report is written in accessible language and without technical jargon.


Stakeholders’ within Kenya’s fragmented identification ecosystem view identity systems as tools for development and control. Some champion identification to better provide government services and expand the digital economy; others to monopolise opportunities and address security threats. These sometimes stand in tension.

Ongoing exclusions prevent some marginalised ethnic groups from accessing identity systems that are vital for participating in political and economic life. Women and girls also face unique challenges to accessing identity systems, including application processes that do not account for their needs and exploitative officials.

Kenya’s identification dependent private sector companies are intimately connected to the state and a small number of political families. These companies have benefited from a low regulatory environment that puts experimentation and profits ahead of customers’ privacy and protections. However, Kenyans are increasingly discussing and questioning their reliance on identity systems.

Private sector service providers that rely on state issued identities create registers through their customers’ data and analytics. Yet, many Kenyans do not fully understand what happens to their data, nor how it may be used to limit their access to future opportunities.

Recent efforts to introduce a new state identification system, known as the Huduma Namba, have been met with confusion and worry, and a civil society backlash. However, as a result, there have been indications that the state is rethinking its approach and may allow greater public participation in decision making.


The role of the Kenyan security services in identity systems should be challenged by the international community, and specifically development donors. Continued support to state systems should be made dependent on instituting clear and explicit rules of operation in law, increased transparency and legisla- tive safeguards of citizens’ rights.

Development organisations could use their political and economic leverage to advocate for an independent authority with powers to conduct periodic audits, offer recommendations, and to sanction state and private sector identification systems. It should also be mandated to enforce data protection and privacy laws that are currently being debated by the government.

To support public trust in Kenya’s digital economy, there is an urgent need for legislation which enshrines users’ protection and privacy. Development organisations should support Kenyan civil society organisations currently working on strengthening and passing existing stalled draft bills.

Civil society should advocate for Kenya’s gender specific policies to include targets for women and girls’ access to key state and private sector identity systems. Reforms to realise them should be based on further research into women and girls’ experiences with key identification systems.

Civil society organisations should be encouraged to build their technical expertise to have a stake in identification systems design and reform together with state and private sector decision makers. This could be achieved through active government support, partnerships with foreign technology specialists and domestic private sector stakeholders.

More broadly, a renewed international dialogue is needed to establish best practice to avoid the pitfalls of supporting identification systems in countries that have multiple overlaps between the state and private sector actors, opaque security sectors, and histories of human rights abuses.

Download full report from Caribou Digital:

Themes: Cartes d’identité et passeports, Enregistrement des naissances
Regions: Kenya
Year: 2019