Cina Lawson, Minister of Digital Economy and Digital Transformation, Togo
By Shirley Tay
Women in GovTech Special Report 2020.
How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.
As the Minister of Digital Economy and Digital Transformation of Togo, I work on developing digital solutions to bring value and improve the lives of Togolese people especially for the underserved, excluded and vulnerable. These solutions affect almost all sectors of the economy, from agriculture to education to financial inclusion. While my work is often technical involving policy design, legal and regulatory frameworks, strategic planning and implementation, the outcomes are fairly simple.
For example, thanks to mobile payments and pay-as-you-go business models children in remote, off-grid, rural areas of the country are able to study after dark because they have access to electricity provided by private sector partners like BBOXX.
Extending high-speed fibre optic connectivity across all public universities and teaching hospitals in Togo has made it possible for students to expand their access to knowledge beyond the classroom and work together online using collaborative tools. Conducting structural reforms of the telecommunications sector including strengthening the regulator is ensuring that consumers enjoy better services at more affordable prices.
During the Covid-19 crisis, launching the NOVISSI digital cash transfer programme helped hundreds of thousands receive financial aid from the state to help them make ends meet even after daily curfews affected revenues.
These are tangible ways that the technical work I lead at the Digital Economy ministry improve the lives of our people and give them a chance at prosperity.
What was the most impactful project you worked on this year?
By far, the most impactful project that we have achieved this year is “NOVISSI”, our 100% digital cash transfer programme.
As part of our response to the pandemic, we needed to address the looming threat of a rise in national poverty rates, especially among informal workers who make up the majority of our working population. For these informal workers such as market merchants, home makers, street food vendors and moto taxi operators, curfews and other restrictive public health measures that the government needed to put in place to curb the spread of the virus adversely affected daily revenues. We needed to design a way to provide financial assistance to them in a way that was direct, quick and traceable.
Within 10 days, I co-led a small team at the Ministry and coordinated the push to build and deploy the NOVISSI system. The programme leverages USSD for enrolment which allows anyone with a basic mobile phone to request for aid from the state. Our system then screens each applicant and determines if they are eligible for payment based on their location (in an area subject to daily curfew) and profession (informal worker). The biometric voter ID is used for identity verification.
Thanks to NOVISSI, the government paid nearly 600,000 informal workers (about 15% of Togo’s adult population) whose revenues were seriously affected by Covid-19. Each beneficiary received an amount worth one-third of the minimum wage with women receiving 5 per cent more support than men. NOVISSI successfully distributed nearly US$ 20 million in social cash transfer via mobile money. 65 per cent of the beneficiaries were women and every single one of those payments is fully traceable!
NOVISSI—meaning “solidarity” in the local language—has redefined our approach to social cash transfers in Togo. It is the first time that the state has successfully leveraged USSD, mobile money and SMS technologies to implement a social safety net on a national scale. NOVISSI aid supplemented the incomes of thousands of people and provided much needed respite from the economic hardships inflicted by Covid-19 in Togo.
What is one unexpected learning from 2020?
This year has been unexpected for all of us. In many ways, digital went from being one of the ways to deal with challenges to being the only viable way. Remarkably, during this time of crisis, I was amazed at the speed with which we managed to execute complex digital projects. In mere weeks, we implemented projects that would have otherwise taken months if not years to accomplish.
For example, our voyage.gouv.tg platform took just one month to get operational. In one fell swoop, voyage.gouv.tg has digitised the health declaration form, mandatory Covid-19test payment, and immigration embarkation cards which were hitherto done manually.
Passengers travelling through Lomé Airport now fill in the health declaration form, pay online for their mandatory testing, and upload test results through the platform. This provides essential information to facilitate arrival and departure formalities while ensuring that public health officials can detect potential Covid-19 cases entering or leaving the country. All passengers travelling in and out of Togo since August 1, 2020 have used voyage.gouv.tg.
What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2021?
For 2021, I am keen on exploring the potential of big data analytics to draw key insights from unorthodox data sources to improve evidence-based policy making. It is fascinating what big data analysis and machine learning of anonymised cell phone metadata and high-resolution satellite imagery has allowed us to achieve.
For example, we were able to build algorithms to help determine the level of poverty of any given individual based on their consumption of telecommunications services. We have also developed high-resolution poverty distribution, and agricultural distribution maps of Togo which will be useful to improve targeting of social protection programmes. We were also able to assess the impact of NOVISSI faster than we have been able to do so for such a policy by conducting high-frequency phone surveys of about 15,000 people.
So part of my focus for next year will be on using big data to improve the targeting of other government policies and expanding our use of techniques like high-frequency phone surveys to improve the way we assess their impact.
All our digital projects moving forward will be structured in a way that enables us to derive real-time insights from streams of data to enhance decision-making at all levels of government.
We are only scratching the surface with big data in Africa and much needs to be done to build local capacity for data-intensive applications like big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning. We need to be a lot more systematic about capitalising on real-time information about our constituents to design policies that better respond to their needs.
What are your priorities for 2021?
As of October 2020, I took on the digital transformation portfolio. It emphasises the renewed zeal within government to accelerate our efforts to modernise the Togolese economy through digital transformation. This will involve digitising public administration, extending access to the high-speed connectivity, and developing digital solutions that help the government more directly respond to the needs of our people.
One of the biggest projects that I am looking forward to in 2021 is the launch of Togo’s new national biometric ID project.
In Togo, several million people still have no basic form of legal identification as existing civil registration systems do not reach the entire population. Women are disproportionately affected by the lack of ID making it difficult, nay impossible, for them to do essential things like opening a bank account, enrolling kids in school, benefiting from health insurance, or getting a mobile phone number. It also limits the reach of digitised social protection schemes like our NOVISSI programme.
It has taken several years for us to plan and develop our strategy which is inspired by India’s successful experience with its Aadhaar ID.
Togo has a population of nearly 8 million people and our goal is to provide every one of them with a unique proof of ID within just a couple of years. The new system will be the crucial basis upon which other national projects such as the establishment of a single social registry, universal health insurance, etc. will be developed.
Backed by law, our new foundational ID will enable people to prove they are who they say they are. This way, they can have easier access to services provided by both the public and private sectors. Ultimately, our new national digital ID will facilitate access to credit, health services, reduce fraud in the banking sector, ensure the targeted distribution of aid in the social sector, and improve educational and administrative follow-up for citizens.
The new ID system is a critical part of our “Togo Digital 2025” strategic plan for Togo’s Digital Transformation for the next five years. The strategy will be revealed in a few months time and is designed to make sure that digital transformation plays an active role in our economic recovery from the pandemic.
What advice would you give to women looking to start a career in GovTech?
Women have a lot to bring to the table especially in domains like tech that have historically been dominated by men. However, we are not seeing enough female representation in many male-dominated tech sectors like cybersecurity where men outnumber women 3 to 1. I encourage women and girls who may sometimes be discouraged from pursuing a career in a field dominated by men to believe in themselves and boldly defy expectations. They should seek out role models of women who have succeeded in the sector and not be afraid to be the pioneers for other women and girls to follow.
I think GovInsider’s Women in GovTech report is deeply important in this sense. We need to tell the stories of women in GovTech who are leading digital transformation around the world to inspire others to follow in our footsteps.