This teenager has invented a solar-powered ID solution that could be welcome news for one billion people

BY Preta Peace Namasaba April 12, 2024 4:21 PM EDT
Elizabeth Nyamwange. Photo credit: Elizabeth Nyamwange

At only 15, Elizabeth Nyamwange began working on a project that has the potential to impact the lives of some one billion people. She invented Etana, an affordable, solar-powered fingerprint scanning device that enables users to create unique biometric digital identification without relying on internet access. Nyamwange has incorporated her company and raised over $500,000 for the pilot.

According to World Bank estimates, one billion people worldwide do not have official proof of identity. This makes mundane tasks such as opening bank accounts, voting, and buying a cell phone challenging or even impossible. The legal identity verification issue disproportionately affects women with around half the women in low-income countries lacking proof of identity. They are left dependent and with limited access to resources.

Nyamwange witnessed the direct impact of the identification crisis in 2020 when she visited her aunt’s shop in Kenya. She saw that many women were unable to purchase products because they lacked a bank account. After talking to them, she realized that they had no bank account because they had no ID. Nyamwange was inspired to find a solution to this problem.

“I’m from Kenya, so I have a lot of family back home. And we’d always talk about how a lot of girls were forced out of school, put into work early, things like that– didn’t have bank accounts. And those numbers COVID-19 just made so much bigger. So whenever I was doing research on gender post the pandemic, this is the kind of stuff that I would find. And identity was just something that really, really interested me because I saw how it impacted so many different sectors and shaped these women’s lives,” Nyamwange said about why she decided to tackle the global identification issue.

She researched the topic, learning there were other tech companies focused on solving these identity issues. However, their solutions required users to have access to the internet. Nyamwange needed to work around this obstacle and make the technology readily available everywhere. She took an app development course, combining her passion for social justice with programming to develop a device to fix the issue. While attending the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, she wrote the code for Etana, which converts a physical fingerprint into a mathematical algorithm that uploads to a private blockchain server where it is stored and used for identification.

The young entrepreneur focused on creating a prototype and bought a 3D printer. She submitted a grant application to help with development and was able to collect more than $60,000 despite the difficulties young innovators face in raising funds. Nyamwange used the work of prior digital identification startups such as ID Box to understand how blockchain technology can help solve the identification crisis. She then adapted their work in a more gender-responsive way to create Etana.

Etana’s technology is similar to that of a 2G phone, only much bigger in size. The device prompts users to enter a fingerprint, enter identification, and convert the information into a cryptographic hash which is then uploaded to a public blockchain server. All records on Etana are individually encrypted, all transactions are time-stamped and recorded on the block, and any validated records are irreversible and cannot be changed. The solar-powered device creates a digital proof of identity – without requiring access to the internet or electricity.

“Why I even thought about using blockchain is because of the idea that it’s decentralized. So, let’s say if a woman is inputting information, no one can change it. It’s immutable. No one can deny anything.The use of blockchain technology to combat the digital identification crisis isn’t new. But the problem remains that women are far less likely to have identification than men,” Nyamwange explained why she chose to use block chain technology.

In 2022, Nyamwange’s project to close the gender identification gap won first place in HP’s Girls Save the World challenge. She used her $10,000 winnings and technology pack from HP to develop and implement her project. Today, her device is being tested, is in a pilot program in Kenya, and awaiting a patent. Nyamwange has been awarded the Pozen Social Innovation Prize and MIT Solv[ed] Youth Award and has worked with companies such as Safaricom and Visa.