Biometric technology/data is gaining increasing prominence as a critical plank upon which the growth and developmental aspirations of societies rest, and for good reason. Nigeria is at the early stage of biometric adoption, with Bank Verification Number, SIM registration, driver’s licence, the National Identity Number, among others. In this joint interview, the founder/CEO of ZKTeco, one of the world’s leading brands in biometrics and other security applications, Mr John Che, who was on a working visit to Nigeria and the CEO of SB Telecoms and Devices, Mr Afolabi Abiodun, ZKTeco’s local partner, fielded questions from journalists on a variety of issues on biometric technology and identity management. Oluchi Chibuzor brings the excerpts:
Can you let us know more about ZKTeco and why your visit to the country?
ZKTeco is the world leader in biometric technology, identity management and security applications. We started operations about 27 years ago in China but today, we have operations in over 35 countries, including in the US, Russia, Mexico, and South Africa. ZKTeco’s products, which include fingerprint devices, face scanners, time and attendance devices, CCTVs, access control devices, etc, are in use in 180 countries. The company has 14 research and development (R&D) centres across the world and a wide array of private and public sector clients.
Six months ago, we reviewed our operations across the world and we realized we needed a stronger presence in Africa. We are in South Africa and in Egypt, but nothing for us in the rest of Africa. We then recognized that if we must cover the African market effectively, we needed to have a presence in Nigeria, being the biggest economy in Africa, and the most populous. This is my first visit to Nigeria and I like what I see already. So, we have decided to set up here and to build a research and development (R&D) centre in Nigeria to service the whole of Africa. We will educate the young generation of Africans in biometric technology at the R&D centre.
Tell us more about biometrics. Will you say it is the magic bullet to solve society’s problems?
No single solution, including biometrics, can solve society’s problems. But biometrics provides the critical link needed to tackle most societal issues, including security. Let me explain biometrics using practical examples. In Dubai, for instance, every ambulance has a biometric system, under which response time for emergency is five to eight minutes maximum, from home to the hospital. So, when an emergency line is called and the ambulance arrives, the patient’s biometric data is called up, which enables the paramedics to see the person’s full medical history, his doctor, when he last saw the doctor, the medications he is on, etc. So even while the ambulance is in transit, treatment can be started immediately.
Even when the personal doctor is unavailable, because the patient’s medical record can be accessed it is easy to know what treatment regime to administer. Biometrics solutions by ZKTeco have also been used in a healthcare/nutrition programme for school children in Chile. Nigeria is in a very good position in terms of biometrics. You have so many data warehouses. But once you can consolidate all these, it becomes easy to tackle corruption, money laundering, insurgency, etc. It will also help in pensions and healthcare management, financial inclusion drive, transportation issues and many other challenges will be easily tackled. With biometric, even census will eventually become obsolete because you have the details of everybody in the society.
At birth, you are properly registered, creating an identity, as a visitor you are captured in the database at the point of entry through fingerprint and face scan and you are logged out when you leave. At death, the system is also updated to reflect that. That is the beauty of biometrics, and the beauty of identity management. Many of the inefficiencies today, either in public or private sector can readily be solved by deploying biometrics and identity management.
What will be your target in the Nigerian market, public or private sector?
ZKTeco is essentially a technology company. So we seek to create an ecosystem in places where we operate. We have system aggregators that both the private and the public sectors can feed into for their unique needs and for developmental purposes.
You mentioned the fact that Nigeria has so many data warehouses: BVN, SIM registration, driver’s licence, National Identification Number, voters’ registration, etc. How can ZKTeco technology help to consolidate these data warehouses?
I think the only challenge Nigeria has is education. Education and technology application, particularly biometrics, will help solve many of these challenges you have listed. The different databases can easily be consolidated using technology. ZKTeco has expertise in both the hardware and software sides of biometrics and we have solutions that can help achieve integration. Some of these solutions we have deployed in China, Dubai, and in many other countries. In China, for instance, many years ago, it takes hours to clear immigration as a visitor to the country. But today, with biometrics solutions powered by ZKTeco, there is little human interference at the ports of entry and it takes only minutes.
What is the role of SB Telecoms in ZKTeco’s proposed plan for full presence in Nigeria?
We have a couple of huge investments planned for Nigeria. The first one being in education. We were at the University of Lagos to start the process of establishing an R&D centre in the university to service not only Nigeria but sub-Saharan Africa. We hope to sign an MoU soon with the university to establish a biometric lab in the school that will be the first facial biometric research laboratory in Africa targeted at black people. Second is to build the R&D centre. We will also help contribute to the smart city aspirations of the Lagos smart city plans. Essentially, we will continue to contribute knowledge and our technology in Nigeria to improve efficiency. And we will continue to work with local partners like SB Telecoms to actualize these plans.
Biometrics give organisations complete access to sensitive personal data. With identity theft and cybercrime on the rise, how does ZKTeco plan to safeguard the system to ensure unscrupulous people don’t take advantage?
There are three layers of security to protect databases. First is the general security, where we must follow the ISO international standard, the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR cyber security standard, etc. The second is a country’s biometric standard, which guides our operations in-country. The third security level is that provided by ZKTeco. We deploy both cloud and edge computing and we have a large database of algorithm that helps to protect our systems from targeted attacks.
Tell us about SB Telecoms and your relationship with ZKTeco
SB Telecoms & Devices Limited is an integrated ICT firm based in Lagos. We provide innovative time management and customer-centric solutions to businesses of all sizes. Our solutions are geared towards optimizing business performance, operational efficiency and productivity. Our time and attendance management systems (TAMS) run on ZKTeco technology, and we serve as the sole supplier of ZKTeco systems in Nigeria and the West Africa sub-region, and we have been in this partnership since 2011.
Is it that we don’t have biometrics already in the country? If we do, why are we still struggling with basic data captures and consolidated database?
Biometric is still at the basic stage in Nigeria. As Mr Che mentioned earlier, Nigeria is in a good place; we have data warehouses that simply need consolidation and we are good to go. Imagine a situation where we have health, immigration, driver’s licence, FIRS, BVN, SIM registration all consolidated. Why would we need a pensioner to come for verification, for instance? As long as the pensioner is alive, he/she will continue to use one or more of the services above (SIM registration, driver’s licence, BVN, etc) and so it is easy to see the pensioner’s trail and know that he is genuine. And some of these problems are today been solved indirectly by ZKTeco. Many of the biometric hardware deployed by several of the biometric providers in the country today are white-label products by ZKTeco.
Role of SB Telecoms in ZKTeco’s proposed plan for full presence in Nigeria
What informed TAMS is time management. With the technology of ZKTeco African time is now beginning to mean on time. Time management is the foundation for productivity and development. This is what ZKTeco takes seriously. The foundation of our relationship is underlined by R&D. And SB Telecoms is quite happy to help midwife the establishment of ZKTeco’s R&D centre for Africa here in Nigeria. Beyond that, however, we will continue to drive the marketing and sales for ZKTeco in Nigeria as well as explore other business opportunities for the company as we strengthen our relationship.
In two, three years, where do you envisage the country will be with ZKTeco’s presence/inventions?
A lot is going to change, and the foundation for that change is what we have started here today with this visit by ZKTeco and the formal announcements of its plans. The first thing that has to happen is we need to restructure our identity management system as a country because we understand that that is the foundation for productivity. Once that is done, then we have succeeded in tackling a lot of problems simultaneously: unemployment, corruption, crime, security, healthcare, etc. ZKTeco will recruit local experts for the R&D centre which will help reduce unemployment.