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Opinions of Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Columnist: Richard Annerquaye Abbey

Breaking the Innovation Firewall - The Machecki Experience

As Ghana heads to the polls in December, one document that has come under a lot of scrutiny was the voters’ register. It had been the subject of one court case or the other. But that did not deter us at Machecki Technologies from writing to the Electoral Commission to grant us access to this register at this crucial stage.

Our cause was very noble. Last year May 2015, I and two friends, Kojo Akoto Boateng, a Broadcast Journalist and Technologist, and Divine Puplampu, a developer, won a grant to develop a solution that will enhance Ghana’s electoral process. We had come up with a simple solution to help solve the perennial low participation in the exhibition of the voters’ register.

As a journalist, I have become very familiar with the usual rallying call made by the EC for voters to turn out and verify their details on the register. Despite huge sums of funds sunk into the exercise, participation has always been low.

From our random survey, we saw that many people are unable to take part in the exercise because they simple could not be physically available at their polling stations to have their details verified for multiple of reasons.

So we came with Machecki which is to empower voters to crosscheck their details online using a combination of their date of birth and the voters’ ID number. Our service was to be free as we envisage that the grant from our partners would make things possible. It was not meant to replace the existing structure of Voters’ Register Exhibition. But to complement it and increase participation.

After winning the grant, we took part in some 2-month incubation to build our capacities. Here we identified some of our strengths and the key risks that could unmake the project. Among these risks was getting access to the register. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

My team, now Machecki Technologies were advised by our project supervisors to make contact with the EC contact much earlier. So we did so in November 2015. We were relentless in our efforts. But to cut long story short, we couldn’t get access to the register – something which was contingent on our partners releasing the funds.

We did not give up – we simply moved on. After all we had devised bigger plans for Machecki Technologies and if it fails it is only because we failed ourselves. But somehow there was a window of opportunity even as the EC never agreed to our request although we have discussed our well thought-out security details to ensure the sanctity of that all-important document.

That window to pilot our project was occasioned by the Supreme Court order to the EC to delete some 56,000 names who were said to have used national health insurance card for registration.

Indeed, the EC released the deleted names on its website around 5pm on Thursday July 14, 2016. It was a huge PDF file with over 1,100 pages and would require you download it first and then scheme through if you wanted to check your status. Of course more tech savvy people will use Ctrl + F to search. But how many people know Ctrl + F!

Divine, who’s our Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and I had a quick conversation on how to simplify this process for the voter.
Divine and his team, led by one of the outstanding unsung programmers, Agbenyegah Kirk Saviour, worked overnight to ensure that the first phase of Machecki goes live.

In fact, by 3am on 15h July, the portal to check if your name was part of the deleted list was up. All that one needed to do was to enter his/her Voter ID number or NHIS ID number into an input box and hit search. The Voter or NHIS card ID number is matched against records in the EC list and confirms whether that ID is part of the deleted names. By 7 am, we had already issued a press release to draw Ghanaians attention to our solution.

The news caught on like a plague. It went viral especially on social media. We did some media interviews. We had great reviews from a lot of tech gurus but we were particularly more humbled by the reviews from ordinary Ghanaians that used our innovation which was to complement the EC’s efforts.

At the peak of Machecki’s operations, we had an average 45,000 people making use of our platform on a daily basis. And this is particular outstanding because we never actually spent a pesewa on advertising not even on social media.

The team had spent its scanty resources in putting up the portal and as such spending on marketing will be an overkill. We relied on the power of the media and the fact that good innovation that makes life simple will always find its way to consumers.

In the first two weeks of its operation, it is remarkable that Machecki received close to 300,000 unique visitors. This demonstrates that convenience, which is the hallmark of Machecki, is key to enhancing participation in the electoral process.

Machecki Technologies on the back of this success entered into some discussion with some entities as part of our efforts in building the country’s foremost identity verification company. We never allowed the difficulties we encountered in our formative stages to define our future. We own our future. Of course a capital injection of US$ could have set us on a path of greater things.

But with that not possible, we had to reroute our path to success. The path maybe a little longer now, but the success we have achieved in the past two weeks is enough to empower us to soldier on. There will be more innovation firewalls ahead. But don’t give up….keep marching on till the prize is won!

The author is the CEO of Machecki Technolgies Ltd, a wholly-owned Ghanaian identity verification company which developed the portal to allow Ghanaian voters to verify if their details have been deleted from the voters register.