Absa Group has become the first African bank and only the second company on the continent to join the global Sovrin Foundation as a founding steward, giving it the technology platform to build self-sovereign digital identity capabilities for employees and clients.

“Self-sovereign identity – the emerging answer to the myriad challenges associated with identity management – has the potential to not only revolutionise how we manage and secure our personal information, but also to play a key role in driving financial inclusion in Africa,” says Andrew Baker, chief technology officer at Absa Group.

“Self-sovereign identity means that people and businesses can store and update their digital identity data in an identity ‘wallet’ on their own devices, and share it efficiently and securely with those who need to validate it,” he adds.

“By using digital signatures and distributed ledger technology, this addresses the many gaps and challenges in securing and verifying identity-related information online, a problem inherent to the internet since it was first developed.”

As a Sovrin Founding Steward, Absa will play a pivotal role in creating, operating, and maintaining Sovrin’s decentralised, permissioned digital identity network.

“This enables us to create an open-source based digital identity manager and mobile app (Android and iOS) for internal use as well as for our retail and corporate customers,” says Baker. “Through this network, individuals will be able to take ownership of their digital identities, and we can establish a much needed, privacy-preserving flow of information.”

He says Absa has begun building a proof-of-concept, initially for employees and then later for customers, which they will be able to use whenever they engage with the bank. This will run in parallel with Absa’s current means of authentication.

“Self-sovereign identity management has the potential to lower transaction costs, protect people’s personal information, limit the opportunity for cybercrime, and simplify identity challenges in delivering new innovations to the market,” Baker explains.

“More importantly, efficient identification will promote financial inclusion. By lowering the cost to banks of opening accounts for small businesses, financing becomes profitable for the banks and therefore more accessible for the small businesses. It is a key component of becoming a truly digitally-led organisation.”

He says the proof-of-concept will initially focus on the bank’s South African employee and customer base, but will be implemented across the continent in the long-termm.

“Self-sovereign identity is the next chapter of the Internet, the one where we — the characters in this story — get to control our digital identities,” says Heather Dahl, executive director of the Sovrin Foundation. “With Absa’s approval as a Founding Steward, we are a step further toward transforming the way we use the Internet into a place where identities and transactions are verifiable and trustworthy, and the full potential of digital commerce and services can be unleashed.”