Ensuring every citizen has legal identification serves as a fundamental building block for broader development, particularly in the digital economy. Yet despite obvious benefits such as enabling access to services, improving financial inclusion and empowering women, many people, especially vulnerable and underserved groups, still struggle to access ID services.
In Malawi, the Tony Blair Institute (TBI) has been working with the government through the National Registration Bureau (NRB), and in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme, to address this gap by digitising payment processes and implementing electronic payments for ID services.
In 2021, when we began our work in Malawi, we identified that cumbersome and inefficient processes were serving as barriers to people accessing ID services – an issue raised by the public and in the media. Most people, especially in rural areas, had to walk several kilometres to the district headquarters to pay a designated Treasury cashier. This resulted in extremely crowded offices, with people queuing for hours to make payments. These challenges were further exacerbated by highly inefficient and insecure manual payment processes. As a result, millions of people were missing out on ID services.
The government was committed to tackling these challenges to accelerate wider inclusion. While its main objective is developing a digital-ID ecosystem, the government’s focus has been addressing the current interoperability challenges in the national registration system, improving internet connectivity and clearing the backlog of IDs yet to be issued (estimated at more than five million).
To address this challenge, TBI advocated implementing an e-payment system for government services, starting with accelerating access to ID services. First, we worked with the Ministry of Finance to update relevant financial regulations to allow ministries, departments and agencies to collect revenue electronically. The team then conceptualised and developed an e-payment solution, conducted system tests and rolled it out with the NRB, making it the first government agency to introduce e-payments for ID services and laying the foundation for more transparent and efficient service delivery.
New partnerships between the NRB, NBS Bank and mobile-money-service providers (Airtel Money and TNM Mpamba) mean that different e-payment options for ID services are being introduced across Malawi. People can make payments at their convenience using the banks’ digital-payment platforms and mobile-money wallets. It is a dramatic shift for individuals, giving them back the time – in some cases several hours or even days – that they would have needed to navigate the old system.
The rollout of e-payments will accelerate inclusion as simplified user journeys open up ID services to more people, as well as enhancing accountability in public service through digitised reconciliation processes. Obtaining IDs will empower people to access other services such as health care, education and banking. Meanwhile, the government and businesses will be able to better design and deliver their services because they know who their users are. This is a substantial step and complements the government’s efforts to develop Malawi’s digital-ID ecosystem as an enabler of digital transformation.
While e-payments are being rolled out for ID services, the plan is to scale the benefits of this initiative to other government services, such as social cash transfers, using a phased approach. This is a government commitment from the president’s digital transformation agenda aimed at strengthening transparency, efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery.