Ghana goes paperless amid privacy concerns

Plans to digitise business transactions and government services in Ghana raise data protection concerns. 


Plans to digitise business transactions and government services could boost Ghana’s impressive economic growth, but as Charlie Mitchell reports, its citizens have concerns about data protection.

A special investigation by Ghana’s auditor general in 2018 found that the Electoral Commission (EC) had sold voter data to an Accra-based software development company that subsequently sold it on to banks and insurance firms.

The EC has denied any wrongdoing, but the news fuelled concerns around privacy and digital freedom just as Ghana embraces an online future that it hopes will improve everyday life for millions of citizens.

Accra’s digital ambitions are lofty. Speaking at a conference in London in October, vice-president Mahamudu Bawumia announced that Ghana will be going paperless by next year by digitising most business transactions and government services. In tackling corruption and bringing citizens into the formal economy, the tech drive could have a profound impact on the country’s development. But some Ghanaians are concerned about the adverse effects of increased digital scrutiny, which forces the government to walk a fine line between serving citizens and policing freedom.

Bawumia told the conference that the government will electronically tag every home by early next year with GPS, making it easier to tax people and provide them with services. Even homes in Ghana’s sprawling slums will be given electronic addresses.

The government will make payments cashless for services, including permits and driving licence applications. Soon, Ghanaians could be able to draw on digital hospital and court records, while digital identification cards will be distributed nationwide, integrating passports and tax numbers in a central database. Blockchain – the ledger that underpins cryptocurrencies – could act as the secure vehicle for these records.

All of this could streamline services and, if all goes according to plan, hasten Ghana’s impressive growth trajectory. Ghana’s GDP grew 6.3% in 2018, partly a result of strong democratic institutions and peaceful elections. The move online could have significant benefits in safeguarding institutions and reducing corruption, according to analysts.

“To combat fraud and corruption, paperless transactions tracked on the blockchain can be used,” says Alice Namuli Blazevic, a partner at Katende, Ssempebwa & Company Advocates in Uganda and an expert in technology law. “That way, all payments for public sector services are easily tracked and auditable.”

“Paperless transactions discourage corruption as they tend to give the impression that big brother is watching and in the short-to-long term that makes people move away from corrupt practices,” says Andrew Takyi-Appiah, managing director of Ghanaian fintech company Zeepay.

Are citizens ready?

The private sector is already embracing technological change. In mobile payments, Accra is encouraging banks and telecommunications companies to adopt mobile wallets in a bid to turn smartphones nationwide into bank accounts.

Today, unique mobile phone subscribers in Ghana number 19m, a penetration rate of 67% – far above the average of 44% in sub-Saharan Africa, according to GSMA, a mobile industry trade body. The increasing consumer adoption of digital practices makes Ghana an ideal candidate for the elimination of paper services.

Zeepay, which operates in 19 other African countries, from Cameroon to Zimbabwe, offers financial inclusion with a range of digital services. In Ghana alone, Takyi-Appiah says, the company provides more than 1m people with mobile wallets, allowing them to receive remittances and access microloans.

Ghana’s ambitions extend beyond smartphone banking to land ownership. The government has reached out to the local startup scene to craft solutions for a problem that has long afflicted the country. More than eight in 10 landowners lack titles, according to the land commission, and single pieces of land often have multiple title deeds. Ghanaian startup Bitland, which is planning to enter Nigeria and Kenya this year, is using a digital ledger to bring integrity to land records, after brokering verbal deals between farmers and land-owning chiefs.

“To solve the problem of fraud in the real estate industry, the government of Ghana is using local tech startups to develop blockchain systems that can offer landowners a trusted secure system,” says Blazevic.

The apparent synergy between Ghana’s government and its tech sector is being replicated across the region, where startups are deploying technology to clear development hurdles. Sierra Leone has partnered with the tech-savvy Baltic state of Estonia, which is training a team from Sierra Leone at its e-governance academy. The Sierra Leone government has announced plans for a drone corridor and an educational data hub, as well as a digital identification system powered by blockchain.

The country trialled blockchain technology during its parliamentary elections in 2018, using a system developed by Swiss tech firm Agora which was rolled out across 280 polling stations. It could pave the way for technological gains that would increase confidence and transparency in future elections on the continent.

“Blockchain technology can greatly help to improve the democratic process in several countries through secure online voting systems,” says Blazevic.

Calls for data protection

Nevertheless, with increased digitisation come privacy fears. Across the world, consumers are demanding enhanced data protection, and Africa is no exception.

“Although many people on the continent are advocating for the adoption of blockchain technology because of the advantages it offers, including decentralisation, security and transparency, there are also some sceptics who believe that the decentralised characteristic infringes on user privacy where a user’s transaction history would be accessible to anyone,” says Blazevic.

Major concerns around privacy mean that Ghana and other nations need to start looking at enhancing data protection rules, says Takyi-Appiah. He stresses the need for a General Data Protection Regulation framework, like that unveiled by the European Union last year, and a strong ombudsman to implement customer protection rules. A Data Protection Commission was launched in 2012 to protect personal data, but the ever-changing nature of technology means that regulators must constantly advance their knowledge. 

The Data Protection Commission has revoked the licence to operate of Bysystem, the software company involved in the voter data case, pending investigations, while MPs have urged the Electoral Commission to revoke its contract. As the Data Protection Commission moves forward, lessons learned in the case could inform how Ghana embraces its tech future.

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