Byron native’s invention earns MIT Solve accolade

Published: Apr. 15, 2022 at 6:02 PM CDT
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BYRON, Ill. (WIFR) - While most 16-year-olds are concerned with getting their drivers license, going to high school dances and maybe applying to colleges, if they’re ahead of schedule, Elizabeth Nyamwange has something else on her mind.

“We really do need identification to do anything, and I feel like it’s something we kind of often take for granted,” she explains. “When I think of gender and I think of gender equality, I always think of it in regards to my family and kind of from a third world perspective.”

Nyamwange is from Byron, but her parents immigrated from Kenya.

She adds, “In my head I had like a problem that was like, I feel like there’s something you can do about it, but I can’t think of it exactly, so that’s when I really really started dialing into it.”

And dial in she did, setting out to help the 1.2 billion people worldwide who have no form of identification.

“Almost everyone in the United States, you have some sort of identification. You know when you’re born, or your drivers license, or your national security ID. But without a form of identification, there are just so many things you aren’t able to do. You can’t open a bank account, you have no judicial protection, health care protection, you can’t work in the formal economy. You aren’t really recognized as a person under the law.”

The issue overwhelmingly affects the global poor, specifically women. To help, Nyamwange created Etana, a product whose name is Swahili for peace and prosperity.

I ask her, “How did you get the idea for this sort of database, and then how did you move to implementing it?”

”A lot of these identity startups now, they use smartphones and they ask for something these women don’t have,” she replies. “So what I decided to do was take the fingerprint, the simplest form of biometric identity I could find and compress it into something so small you could send it through text message.”

Users can text their identity to whoever may need it, using 2G phones.

”It took a lot of tweaking to make sure it was the simplest form of technology that could be used in these environments,” says Nyamwange. “You want to open a bank account, then your data’s kind of already there. Since they already know it’s you because it’s linked to biometrics, you can use it kind of everywhere and for everything”

The product’s genius earned her a spot in MIT’s Solv[ED] program, which is dedicated to driving innovation around solving global challenges and turning those ideas into reality. Of more than 800 applicants from 148 countries, Nyamwange made the top 10.

“As you can see, Liz is clearly so accomplished, and not only the work that she’s doing was intriguing to the judges, but she’s put so much time and effort into making sure this is something that’s well-researched, that she’s looked at potential users,” Eliza Berg, the Lead of Learning & Solv[ED] Communities at Solve says on why the product caught judges eyes. “She’s really done her digging and done her background work there. Liz clearly has all the great qualities to be able to take this solution forward.”

MIT’s Solv[ED] will provide Nyamwange’s team, and the nine others, a portion of $200,000 to research and prototype, but Eliza Berg says the program’s impact goes beyond money.

“Solv[ED] sits at a really nice place of supporting young innovators and young aspiring innovators, and hopefully providing them a place to practice some of those skill sets,” she says.

As for Nyamwange, Etana will stay close to her heart, no matter what.

“My motivation the entire time, I feel like it was my family. So I kept on thinking back to them and thinking I hope this is something they could use, or something people there could use.”

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