Electronic village registers on trial

Harold Keliyasi is neither famous nor powerful, but he counts. On February 13, the baby, just a month-old, joined nearly 750 people in an electronic village register (EVR) group village head Chazumba has been compiling in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mtema, northwest of the capital, Lilongwe.

“By equipping community leaders to register all births and deaths as well as newcomers or people leaving villages, we can tell the population and generate vital reports instantly,” says Sydney Kambona, a field support officer at Baobab Health.

Chief’s clerk Kwimbayani Satiyele operates the computerised village registration as government official observes

Dubbed Zam’mudzi Mwathu by locals, EVR was first trialled in Chalasa Village in T/A Mtema. Currently, it covers 83 villages with funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies through Vital Strategies.

Kambona has visited all sites to install and inspect the system powered by solar panels and connected via antennas so enmeshed that one takes over the signal when one is down.

“Mtema is a remote locality without electricity. Solar power constitutes an affordable solution to power the computers, printers and servers. After installation, no one worries about bills. The sun will do the rest,” he says.

Solar power recharges two back-up batteries so that local leaders keep registering people come rain or clouds. After two weeks of training, they find the computer easy to use.

 “When there are no newborns, deaths or transfers to register, we use the computer to read local and world news, including updates on the May 21 2019 Tripartite Elections,” says Chazumba.

Like other traditional leaders in the vicinity, he knows the importance of registering everyone and how to use the computer.

To him, an electronic village register is easier to compile and store than printed forms distributed by the National Registration Bureau (NRB).

“Hard copies are not easy to fill in, yet they are not reliable. They are prone to human errors and damages caused by children, moisture, termites and rodents,” he says.

A village head keys in a special username and password before gaining access to a window where a client’s full name, birth date, sex, the village of residence, T/A and other particulars are typed. Upon completion, the user prints out a barcode, assigning the just registered person a unique number.

The computers in Mtema are virtually linked to NRB headquarters at Capital Hill and Lilongwe District Registration Office.

This makes it easy for Baby Harold to obtain a birth certificate which entitles him to acquire a national identity card when he turns 16 in 2035. This means he will not suffer setbacks many Malawians experienced during the mass registration in 2017 as adults without passports and driving licences were required to obtain letters of identification from chiefs and religious leader for identification.

“This is just a pilot project,” says Baobab Health spokesperson Mathews Malata. “Presently, we are working with NRB to scrutinise the quality of data and see if it can be scaled up to other districts.”

As the village-based registration platform is connected to electronic birth registration systems (EBRS) at Ngoni, Ukwe, Mbavi and Mbang’ombe health centres, children receive care, immunisation and other vital services by just scanning the barcode or keying in the unique number.

“EVR speaks to these facilities. If health workers go into the system, patients’ information will appear. They no longer waste time asking a patient: who are you? How old are you? Where do you live?” says Malata.

NRB spokesperson Norman Fulatira says this is “a milestone”, an important opportunity to understand the benefits of an electronic village register over a hard-copy village register.

He says: “If scaled up, it can greatly improve service delivery in our health facilities. It is possible [to scale it up], but we will review the project first before making a final decision.”

 “This shall, in turn, inform NRB and the nation on what to do if we are going to roll out EVR countrywide.”

Presently, NRB produces birth certificates using data from EBRS platforms installed in all the district hospitals, including in Likoma.

Ministry of Health quality management and digital health is upbeat with innovations to phase out paperwork and fast-track decision-making. n

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