Although it has shown digital leadership for cash transfers, in the recent past president Gnassingbé’s administration has blocked social media apps like WhatsApp to curtail political activists who have challenged his rule. Gnassingbé took power in 2005, succeeding his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who ruled the west African nation for 38 years. In spite of opposition protests, the country changed presidential term limits in 2017 and in February he won the election in a landslide for his fourth term as president.

President Faure Gnassingbe and Presidential campaigning in Lome, Togo Feb/ 24, 2020.
President Faure Gnassingbe and Presidential campaigning in Lome, Togo Feb/ 24, 2020.
Image: REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Yet, in digitizing the process of finding, verifying and providing funds to segments of its population that are outside its formal economy, Togo is not only providing social relief but also crucially plugging major data gaps which typically exists in African countries.

A prominent example of this problem is seen in much larger West African neighbor Nigeria where data gaps mean the government’s social relief programs through the pandemic have been both inefficient and inadequate resulting in ordinary Nigerians increasingly having to step up and help. In fact, Nigeria has not held a national census in 14 years.

But Togo’s system isn’t without potential flaws as digitization, by itself, does not represent a silver bullet. “Digitized systems are built on existing systems and one has to be very careful when building a digital system to ensure that the shortcomings of the base systems are not reflected,” Mukherjee says. For instance, the Novissi scheme’s requirement of a voter’s card represents a limitation for eligible beneficiaries who do not participate in electoral processes.

And despite the clear utility of the program, there are also questions over its sustainability: the Novissi scheme paid out $4.3 million in its first week alone. But while the Togolese government has said payouts will only last as long the declared state of emergency, there is long-term potential for using the scheme, and aggregated data, for more targeted disbursements, including pensioners, Mukherjee says. “Right now, it is basically a blunt instrument but what can you do after fine-tuning it?”

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