Reflections on the launch of our Digital Identity Fellowship Programme

profile picture Yoti 6 min read
a simple image with the text: Yoti Fellowship Program

Earlier this year, after an extended period of ­research and evaluation, we announced the launch of a new Social Impact Strategy. With an unashamed grassroots focus, each activity was designed to help us better understand, support and empower individuals and organisations working on critical issues of identity, primarily in the Global South.

A flagship activity from the Strategy is a Fellowship Programme which we launched in April. Over a two-month application period, we invited proposals for research, media, policy or development solutions based on four key themes related to identity or digital identity.

With a preference for applicants from the Global South, outputs from the Fellow’s activities could be anything from a technical platform, a report, a website, a book, a policy paper, a film or any other medium relevant to the proposal.


What we were looking at

  • Unlocking the challenges of providing and managing identity solutions among refugee, migrant, marginalised or economically exploited communities or individuals.
  • Studying the difficulties experienced by indigenous communities in establishing and proving identity, as well as claiming any state benefits they may be eligible for.
  • Unpicking what ‘digital identity’ and identity more broadly means to communities in developing countries (including those living in or close to the last mile) and the NGOs and local organisations providing services to them.
  • Any other issues which warrant investigation which are not yet part of the wider digital identity debate.


Last weekend the two-month application window closed with a flurry of 76 applications in the final 48 hours. Overall, we received over 120 applications from over 30 countries providing us with some fascinating insight into the kinds of challenges, issues and opportunities that mattered most to the people closest to them.

Outputs ranged from websites, apps, research papers, books and documentary films, all reflecting the creativity of the applications and the diversity of the areas of study. If anyone ever doubted that citizens in the Global South lacked the imagination, motivation, drive and passion to be part of a digital identity debate which will – in many cases – deeply affect them, this is proof otherwise.

A number of applicants proposed researching national digital identity solutions at differing stages of rollout, such as those already in use (India), those in the process of being implemented (Kenya and Ghana) and those in the process of considering or planning and implementation (Namibia).

From the initial field of 120+ applications we compiled a shortlist of 54 who will now be reviewed by our expert selection panel. With only three Fellowships available, this will not be an easy task.

Shortlisted applications were those which included the required proposal, CV and reference documents, which met one of the thematic themes, and which gave a strong outline of the work they intended to do, how they proposed to do it, and what the output will be. Close connections to the theme of the proposal – both personally and geographically – was also considered an advantage.


Summary of shortlisted applications

Total number of shortlisted applications: 54
Percentage of applicants by gender: 34% female and 66% male
Number of countries from the Global South represented: 26

Countries represented: Philippines, Mexico, Egypt, Guatemala, Ecuador, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Honduras, Nigeria, El Salvador, Malawi, Namibia, Rwanda, Nepal, Tanzania, South Africa, Ghana, Myanmar, Argentina, Brazil, Slovakia, Cambodia

The range of proposals varied widely and included:

  • Helping migrants rebuild trust and reputation.
  • The pros and cons of digital identity among Afghan refugees.
  • Studying the challenges in the rollout of Kenya’s ‘Huduma Namba’ national digital identity system.
  • Public perceptions of digital identity in Malawi.
  • Difficulties in registering Nigerian citizens in identification programmes.
  • Advancing digital identity for financial services in South Africa.
  • Digital identity in support of street children in Ethiopia.
  • Digital identity opportunities in Brazilian favelas and among indigenous communities.

Outputs covered everything from books, documentary films, handbooks, research papers, websites to apps.


Lessons learnt

As with many first-time programmes such as this, there are things we could have done differently. Lessons learnt this year, which we can apply to the 2020 Programme rerun, include:


Put the words ‘digital identity’ in the Programme title

More than a dozen applications had no connection to digital identity (agricultural and environmental projects dominated here), which is a shame given the time and effort put into them.


Ask for expressions of interest

We worked hard to reach our intended audience, but despite our ongoing efforts we had little sense of the progress we were making in real-time. Asking people to contact us with their intention to submit an application would have helped us monitor progress and balance effort.


Ask where they heard about the Programme

It would have been helpful to know, particularly ahead of next year’s Programme, how applicants had heard about us. We can still do this, but next time we will ask as we go.


Word of mouth is the best promotion medium for ‘hard to reach’ audiences

We leveraged a number of channels in our efforts to promote the Programme, including promotions on Twitter and YouTube (63,000 impressions and 29,000 views respectively), although it wasn’t clear how effective this might be in directly leading to applications.

We also shared the news on DevNetJobs which took the message deeper into our intended audience and shared the news with the media. Primarily though, most of our efforts were put into leveraging personal contacts and networks, which we believe was most effective.


Next steps

From this week, the selection panel will vote for their top three candidates, along with a backup list of a further five, reporting back by the end of July. Official offers will then be made and the one-year Fellowships should begin by the end of August.

Given the large number of applicants who won’t be successful, and the high quality of many of these, we’ll also be looking at whether we can be creative with one or two of the positions. For example, if some proposals might work as six month positions, we can split the funding to cover two Fellows rather than one. We have budgeted £30,000 as the annual stipend per Fellow, plus £5,000 expenses on top.

If you’re interested in supporting a Fellow then please do let us know. You can download a summary of the shortlist here. While the selection panel carry out their assessments, we will attempt to secure external funding to expand the cohort. With the wide range of countries and focus areas, supporting a Fellow in a country where you have an interest, or are active, might present a great CSR or philanthropic opportunity.

**Please note, this initiative has now ended.**