Three years ago little known Smile Identity started with an ambitious mission — to “solve identity” in Africa by making it easy for anyone to prove their identity regardless of the origin of their ID card or their IP address.
They spent their first year building a face recognition system for the African demographic. Historically most face recognition systems had been built at Universities in the US with algorithms trained on American and Eurocentric datasets that did not perform well on faces with darker skin tones.
Smile ID recruited a diverse team from 6 African countries and the US with major contributions from Davy Uwizera, a Ph.D. candidate in Machine Learning at Carnegie Mellon Kigali and Catalin Voss, a computer vision specialist from Stanford University. The company did early research in Kenya, Tanzania, and Nigeria and focused on making it easy for people to prove their identity just by being themselves. In the words of CEO, Mark Straub, “we built technology that could work with whatever you had on you: a smartphone, your face, and maybe an ID number. We even built solutions for people who had no ID at all.”
Last week marked Smile Identity’s third birthday. Since its founding, the company has invested nearly $4 million into building an identity platform that does not only face recognition but also ID Validation for over 200M identities across Africa. To date, Smile Identity has done 300,000 registrations and verifications for a dozen African enterprise clients, from financial services to security guards to motorcycle taxis.
ID validation is commonly called “KYC” or “Know Your Customer” in the financial services industry. It is often required by banks and telecoms or regulators as part of an on-boarding process.
With just an ID number, Smile Identity makes it possible to confirm the identity of any adult in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana or Tanzania — four markets where they have integrations into ID issuing Authorities.
As Straub describes it, “The first year was all about building technology. Face recognition is hard.
It’s particularly hard when you have to make it work on a wide range of handsets from Android phones that are more than five years old to the latest iPhone, all running on different operating systems and often with intermittent connectivity.”
“After that,” says their Kenyan Country Director Thuku wa Thuku, “it was all about getting ID integrations done. This also takes a very long time, because there are extensive compliance, security, and local incorporation requirements that banks, telcos, and other financial institutions have to undergo to access this information, and we had to do the same.” Smile Identity is locally incorporated in Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa and is a licensed data processor in Ghana and Nigeria with plans to register in Kenya under the new Data Protection Act.
Smile Identity combined all of this work into their first product, the SmartSelfie™ mobile SDK which incorporates ID validation, face recognition and anti-spoof checks. Over time the company added APIs that allow any verified Fintech to validate an ID, or compare a face to the photo on an ID card or the photo on file at a government ID authority. They also built a web portal that allows a risk manager at a bank to confirm someone’s identity in seconds and perform a face recognition check without writing a single line of code.
Among the companies, they provide KYC solutions for are fintech giant Cellulant and the new digital bank Kuda. Behind the platform is a diverse, mission-driven team. Smile’s team comes from the US, Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Botswana and most team members had experienced problems trying to prove their identity. One of their South African team members was arrested due to a case of mistaken identity. Other members of their team have been blocked from traveling within Africa due to Visa restrictions. And their CEO, an American, regularly had his airline tickets cancelled because he used a credit card to purchase them online in Nigeria. They have experienced the anxiety and frustration that can come from living in low-trust societies.
“When we started the company, says Straub, "Netflix still blocked all African IP addresses, simply because they were African.” Today, Cellulant’s new Tingg app uses Smile Identity to do robust identity checks prior to issuing Kenyans with virtual Mastercards.
“Last week I asked the Cellulant team what people like to use their Mastercards for. I smiled when I heard their answer: Netflix.” This is a small example of change, but it reflects the ambition of Smile Identity team, which in their words, is to ensure that all Africans have access to a modern digital lifestyle.
Last month Smile Identity hosted town hall events in Lagos and Nairobi with TechPoint and the LawyersHub to showcase their solutions and to engage with local entrepreneurs and executives in a dialogue about changing data protection laws and the increasing global investment interest in African Fintech.
Both events sold out and the discussions continued into the night after the power-points were put away and the food and beverages were gone. Smile Identity’s Nigerian Country Director Shile Owoka attributes the robust interest in online identity solutions to a new wave of companies that are digitally savvy from the start and use technology to solve problems.
“It used to be that if you had a problem you solved it by hiring someone or putting more pain on the customer to solve it for you — now there is technology. There are APIs and SDKs. And there is a new generation of African developers and entrepreneurs who are comfortable using software to solve problems faster than anything their parents ever saw.” He added, ”We’ve focused on making Identity Validation and KYC easy and providing it at the widest scale possible in Africa. If you are building a new company and need your solution to meet KYC compliance standards across Africa, we want you to think of Smile ID as the best, most trusted solution to do that.”
Watch Mark Straub, CEO Smile Identity give a short talk at the Lagos TownHall event, discussing KYC compliance in the fast-growing fintech industry and the tools we have built to identify your customers online. This talk is aimed at product managers, executives, and developers who have a need for a digital KYC compliance solution.