It isn’t always easy to identify those who fall below the poverty line – but in a pandemic, it can be a matter of life and death. This was especially crucial in Togo, where half of its 8 million people live on less than US$1.90 a day.

In the absence of a social registry, Togo turned to machine learning to analyse satellite images and mobile phone data. This helped the government identify citizens in urgent need of financial aid, and funds were distributed over mobile phones.

Cina Lawson, Togo’s Minister of Digital Economy and Digital Transformation, was the lady leading the charge. She shares the country’s novel approach to social support, and how it plans to build a nationwide digital identity system.

Distributing financial aid 

The aid programme was first rolled out last April in urban areas and around Togo’s capital, Lomé, says Lawson. It is termed ‘NOVISSI’, which means ‘solidarity’ in the local Ewe language.

Citizens with mobile phones were asked to message a special number and fill in a questionnaire. The system would determine their eligibility according to their profession and location, such as whether they lived in an area with a curfew, Lawson says.  Their identities were verified against the voter database, which covers about 93 per cent of the population.

Image by the Togo Ministry of Digital Economy and Digital Transformation

The team later moved to target rural areas, but it needed to be able to identify the poorest cantons and the most vulnerable people. “This was critical to ensure that the limited funds available went to people who were really in need of it,” Lawson says.

While occupation-based targeting worked in urban areas, this did not translate well to rural areas where most people are farmers or informal workers, she explains.

The team turned to mobile phone data and satellite imagery to identify vulnerable individuals. It enlisted the help of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley; Northwestern University; the University of Mannheim; and non-profit Innovations for Poverty Action.

The work was carried out in two stages, she explains.

First, the team used AI to analyse satellite images. They looked at features such as the material of roofs, quality of roads, amount and quality of cropland, and settlement density to determine the wealth of the region. It obtained poverty levels for each 2km2 tile in Togo, and selected the 200 poorest cantons to prioritise for aid.

Next, the team determined which individuals in these regions should receive aid by analysing mobile phone data. Wealthier people often make more calls and use more mobile network data, Lawson says.

With this data, the team could predict the consumption of mobile phone users in the previously selected regions. Those who consumed below US$1.25 a day were eligible for NOVISSI aid, she adds.

Togo partnered with non-profit GiveDirectly to provide funding to the people living in the 200 poorest cantons in the country. It distributed US$8 million to almost 139,000 beneficiaries between last November and this July, according to Lawson.

NOVISSI has recently become the national social relief payment system, she says. “Moving forward, we intend to make this new system the main way through which the state provides social cash transfers to citizens.”

Building a nationwide digital identity

In Togo, “several million people” still lack official identification, Lawson says. This makes it “difficult or impossible” to perform essential tasks such as opening a bank account, enrolling children in school, or obtaining a mobile phone number. “Women, rural dwellers, and the most vulnerable groups are disproportionately affected by the lack of identification.”

Togo is implementing a new digital ID system to identify all Togolese citizens and residents, and has secured US$72 million in funding from the World Bank, Lawson says.

Apart from having dedicated registration points, teams will go door-to-door to enrol people even in the hardest-to-reach corners of the country, she says. It will also be free of charge to enable the poor to register.

This digital ID system will provide key information about citizens, such as employment status and profession, she adds. This is “crucial to building targeted social protection programmes”, like NOVISSI.

Image by the Togo Ministry of Digital Economy and Digital Transformation

Togo is learning from India’s Aadhaar programme, Lawson says, which has enrolled about 1.2 billion people, or 90 per cent of its population. Citizens can use the digital ID system to purchase medicine online and open a bank account.

“In Togo, we are inspired by the Indian experience and counting on our ID project to boost the economy by empowering those who did not have proof of identity to access financial and economic opportunities.”

Mobile-first strategy 

“Mobile apps will play an undeniably important role in Togo’s digitalisation strategy,” says Lawson. About 6.83 million mobile connections were made in Togo this January, according to a report by DataReportal.

“Most people immediately think about smartphones when we talk about apps,” she adds, but Togo wants to cater to the majority of its population who own feature-based phones.

Its nationwide vaccination rollout, which started in March, is one such example, says Lawson. Citizens can register to get their shot at an official website. Those without an internet connection can dial *844# on any mobile phone to register.

More than 273,000 people have used the platform to enrol into the inoculation programme, Lawson says. This has also enabled health authorities to anticipate the influx of people at vaccination sites and allocate resources accordingly.

Togo is looking to increase mobile phone ownership rates, especially in the rural population and more so among women, Lawson says. “In households that do own mobile phones, it is typically the men who own them, which deprives women of independent access to various targeted services.”

It also plans to roll out digital literacy programmes to show citizens can make the best use of mobile phones and apps, she adds.

Growing Togo’s cyber defenses

Cybersecurity and data protection are key as the nation digitalises, Lawson says. Togo plans to digitalise 75 per cent of public and social services by 2025, and set up a Digital Transformation Agency.

Togo launched its first national Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT.tg) this February, which will periodically assess the security level of key agencies. It will also analyse security threats so that corrective measures can be taken before an attack occurs, Lawson says.

CERT.tg is led by Cyber Defense Africa, the national cybersecurity provider, which also operates the country’s Security Operations Centre.

“The Togolese government’s vision is to harness digital technology as a powerful tool for social and financial inclusion,” says Lawson. She hopes that innovative ways of analysing satellite images and mobile data, along with the rollout of the national digital ID programme, will empower the vulnerable and women.