Malawi receives its first National ID Card

Research by the Identity for Development (ID4D) initiative states that a billion people around the world have no official form of identity. These are citizens of low-income countries and close to half of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Before 2017, Malawi did not have an effective national registry and only 55,000 people out of an adult population of 9 million had a legal ID. To bring the country into the digital age, the Malawian government, with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), embarked on a multi-phased programme to create a national biometric registry for Malawi.

Laxton played a pivotal role in providing the latest biometric technology and managing the planning and implementation of both a Proof-of-Concept phase and finally, the mass registration of all adults.

“Laxton’s robust, reliable solutions create secure digital identities for people around the world. This gives them access to fundamental services like government support, healthcare, national security, and the right to participate in civil society,” says Laxton CEO, Lyle Laxton.

After waiting for over 50 years to have legal documents to identify them as bona fide Malawians, in April 2017 the Government and its international project partners embarked on a multi-faceted programme to develop the country’s first National Registration and Identification System (NRIS).

In a record time of 180 days, 9.1 million citizens were registered with their biometric attributes. Malawi’s first ever multi-modal biometric citizen database was established, forming a model for other countries to follow.
Tariq Malik
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Entering the digital age

Before undertaking the programme, Malawi relied on traditional systems, such as village registers, to recognise its citizens. A very small minority had legal documents, such as driver’s licenses and voter cards, not all of which used biometrics. This meant that the average person did not have access to certain government services, travel documents, or even banking facilities.

“By recognising the need for countries to have a secure digital infrastructure, the UNDP joined forces with Malawi’s National Registry Bureau to provide internationally recognised and secure IDs”, says Tariq Malik, Technical Advisor to the UN and a key member of the project team.

“In emerging economies, it is found that a digital ID could unlock up to 50-70 percent of the full economic potential”.
For all these reasons and more, both the government and its people were eager to have a verified citizen register.

Putting the theory to the test

Late in 2016, the Laxton team on the ground and its support partners mapped out the necessary steps to carry out such an ambitious project, with the end goal of formally registering more than nine million adult citizens by December the following year.

It was agreed that there would be a Proof of Concept (POC) phase, aiming to register 6,000 Malawians across carefully selected regions. With the backing of the country’s National Registration Bureau (NRB), the PoC would determine registration regulations, procedures, and resources needed and test the equipment’s reliability and performance.

A dedicated Laxton service centre was set up in Blantyre to serve as both an administrative and a technical support base both during and after the conclusion of the project. Four dedicated Laxton staff members were based in Malawi for four years, guiding and supporting the project on the ground at every step.

While the initial goal was to register nine million citizens, once this was completed and the process handed over to the government, the registration of the more than 17 million people would continue. Many other projects were also implemented using these devices.

The Laxton service centre was set up in 2017 to support the citizen registration project and today continues to provide technical support and hardware maintenance to government departments using the Biometric Registration Kits.

Skills development is part of the service

To give the government and the implementation team a clear view of what may be encountered during mass registration, 27 urban and rural locations were identified in 11 districts. Nine registration teams comprising four officers each were selected to cover these areas.

Before the Proof-of-Concept registration drive, members of the Laxton implementation team conducted a week-long training session for 31 Registration Officers recruited by the NRB. The training covered the following crucial aspects of what would happen on the day:

  • Understanding the legal mandate on national registration
  • Various ways to provide proof of citizenship
  • Biometric registration kit setup
  • Biometric registration kit basic troubleshooting
  • Demonstration of the BRK packing sequence
  • BRK recharging using solar equipment
  • National Registration Software overview
  • Completing the National Registration form accurately
  • Flow of the registration process to ensure quick registration and fast-moving queues

“Many of the trainees had limited computer skills and this was a good way to make sure that our Kits are easy to use,” Adriaan Booysen, Laxton’s Post Sales Technical Specialist. “By the end of the week, the Officers were able to use the BRKs competently and efficiently. An average data capture speed of 8 minutes per registrant was recorded during the training, which was very important to make the process as quick and efficient as possible.”

Laxton staff dispatched to Malawi held formal sessions for Registration Officers and selected Government officials on the BRKs and other equipment needed to capture citizen’s details to internationally recognised standards. Photo booths were added to the registration backpacks so that high quality ID photos could be captured in harsh conditions.

Creating permanent employment

The training of a team of local technicians to service the BRKs was conducted throughout the four-year project. Detailed manuals were created and printed out to assist the technicians in quickly solving any technical problems. Fully equipped toolboxes and maintenance kits were also provided to keep the kits fully functional for years to come.

The training and provision of spares were done with the view that citizen registration would be an ongoing exercise to register the entire population. Further digital transformation projects were also predicted, creating permanent employment for both operations and technicians.


Technicians chosen from across Malawi were trained on equipment maintenance and troubleshooting throughout the registration and voting process. These technicians continue to provide technical support to various government departments using devices to register births, deaths, and other legal documentation.

Working together for the best results

Public awareness and education around the registration drive was a critical part of ensuring that local leaders and their constituents understood the importance of having a legal identity, how the process would work and how having a secure identity would benefit them.

Before both the testing phase and the Mass Registration process, the NRB’s Civic Education and Public Relations departments developed a communication strategy to educate the Public Awareness Teams scattered across the country. Each team comprised a District Information Officer, District Civic Education Officer, Assistant District Registrar, and Village Criers.

These officers were tasked with informing all community leaders and villagers through mobile public address systems, village meetings, posters, and press releases. Public awareness efforts also included radio discussion forums, broadcast news bulletins, and articles in printed media. Social media also proved to be an effective communication tool for the entire duration of the initiative.

This ongoing communication drive made the entire process smoother by getting the collective buy-in of all citizens. They understood the positive impact finally having a legal identity would have on their day-to-day lives.

The first phase of registration begins

Registration of the pre-selected citizens took place over three days, with feedback sessions conducted every day to discuss lessons learned and address any problems. The equipment was also checked, charged, and information backed up at the end of every registration day.

With the assistance of local leaders eager to participate in the process, people assigned to be registered during this period queued from early morning. The aims of the initiative and the day’s procedures had already been explained to the registrants. This and the capabilities of the registration kits made the process flow quickly and effectively.

With their week-long training on using the BRKs to accurately capture the details of Malawi's nine million adults completed, the Registration Officers are ready for the project launch. and their work to begin.

A tech solution tailor-made for Malawi

Both the hardware and software systems that went into the Biometric Registration Kits (BRKs) were developed to make it simple and straightforward to operate in any situation, with limited infrastructure. The rugged, self-contained case housing the equipment, the compact size, and its light weight made it easy to transport to the field.

The trial phase allowed Laxton to determine whether the BRKs would withstand the dusty conditions and the country’s extreme heat. Adjustments were made to the hardware as soon as challenges arose.

By visiting various sites while registrations were taking place, the team was able to identify which pieces of equipment were not optimal and find better alternatives before the delivery of the main batch of more than 2000 kits needed for mass registration.

The software system enabled the consolidation of new data into the existing National Registration and Identification System (NRIS). Continuous registration throughout the day was assured by incorporating alternative power sources, such as solar.

With the security of citizens’ personal information of paramount importance, this testing phase proved that the data security software performed flawlessly. There were no viruses or security breaches reported.

An average of 65 people were registered per day, with just over 5,000 people across the 11 districts registered in three days. The success of the proof-of-concept phase exceeded all expectations.

By listening to the government’s specific needs and quickly adapting to situations on the ground, Laxton’s technology solutions, matched with our intricate coordination plan, brought the most effective solutions to people across Malawi.

Mass registration begins ahead of schedule

The Proof of Concept provided crucial insights into what it would take to register millions of Malawians. The government’s communication strategies, officer training, the biometric technology, logistics and the day-to-day operations were put to the test and the results exceed all targets set.

The Registration teams registered a substantially larger number of citizens than planned, as their confidence using the kit grew and data capturing skills improved. By the end of the third day, it took an officer an average of just 5 minutes to complete the registration for one citizen.

Logistical plans for the final phase could be adjusted and finalised. It was now possible to create a clear timeline of how long a mass registration drive would take and exactly what it would require from everyone involved.

A win-win for all

Thanks to the success of the Proof of Concept, the mass registration drive began in May 2017 and concluded the final registrations by the end of November. In a record time of 180 days, 9.1 million citizens were registered with their biometric attributes! Malawi’s first ever multi-modal biometric citizen database was established.

President Peter Mutharika, who served as the country’s president from May 2014 to June 2020, applauded the success of the entire initiative. By having National Identity cards, the government would be able to allocate resources effectively, combat identity theft, and curb the various forms of corruption draining the economy. Having a reliable, accurate National Register would inform development policy, improve social development strategies and increase service delivery to every Malawian.

Every citizen’s ID card was linked to the National Registration and Identification System (NRIS), which included various government departments and the Electoral Commission. By having their identity numbers linked to the appropriate government departments, they could access government assistance, such as health and education benefits, many for the first time.

Having property and land legally registered in their names was now possible, while formal employment and participation in the local economy was no longer reserved for the privileged minority.

Representatives from Malawi's National Registration Bureau monitored the registration process across all sites to ensure high quality data capture and a positive user experience for both the Registrations Officers and citizens.
The National Identity Cards will save significant amount of money in many areas, such as on voter registration when the time comes.
Peter Mutharika
President of Malawi from 2014 to 2020

Leaving a legacy of equal opportunity

The sustainable approach of the Malawian government meant that the biometric registration kits have become a valuable government asset. The staff trained for the project have been able to work on subsequent use of the kits and the benefits of a national ID system are being felt on many levels.

The National Registration and Identification System (NRIS) has enabled other departments to formalise processes. Various government entities, such as the health department use the devices to register births and the electoral commission to register more than eight million voters who produced their ID cards.

The Malawi Revenue Authority can also now register citizens as taxpayers where appropriate, and passport applications are made easier with verifiable identity information. Registration kits have been placed in Embassies and post offices across the country to continue to provide these and other services.

In a written statement released towards the end of 2020, the UNDP’s technical advisor to the project, Tarik Malik, called Malawi’s NRIS project a game-changer. “Three key drivers of its success and continued effectiveness are commitment, coordination, and cooperation among all stakeholders.”

For Laxton, this is one step closer to a world where citizens have access to essential services and governments can function optimally,” says Nick Perkins, Laxton President for Europe, Middle East & Africa. “With a secure and digitally connected identity, the people of Malawi now have access to opportunities they have waited a very long time for.”