Byron teen wins MIT competition, nets $36k in funding for social impact innovation project

Elizabeth Nyamwange’s cost-efficient device Etana enables women in developing countries to create unique biometric identities to take the place of national IDs, driver’s license, or other forms of ID

Elizabeth Nyamwange, 16, of Byron, works on a social impact innovation project she is developing called Etana. Etana is a cost-efficient device that enables women in developing countries to create a unique biometric identity without having access to the internet or electricity. Nyamwange has, thus far, been awarded $36,000 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Solv[ED] Youth Innovation Challenge’s three prizes.

BYRON — A Byron teen’s efforts to provide millions of women across the world with a way to establish a legally recognized identity hasn’t gone unrewarded.

“Etana is a cost-efficient device that enables women in developing countries to create a unique biometric identity without having access to the internet or electricity,” Elizabeth “Liz” Nyamwange wrote of her project. Etana takes the place of a national ID, driver’s license or whatever form of identification a country uses, she said.

Nyamwange, 16, has been awarded a total of $36,000 — so far — for Etana through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Solv[ED] Youth Innovation Challenge’s three prizes.

Solv[ED] is a program within MIT Solve that aims to “inspire and spark a sense of agency” in young people worldwide, said Eliza Berg, lead of Learning and Solv[ED] communities. It kicked off in May 2021 and is meant to support people age 24 or younger on their social impact journeys, with a focus on education and learning, economic prosperity, sustainability and health, she said.

More than 800 people from 148 countries applied to the Solv[ED] Youth Innovation Challenge, Berg said.

On March 26, Nyamwange was announced as one of 10 Solv[ED] Innovators, a finalist for the HP Girls Save the World prize and a winner of The Pozen Social Innovation prize.

“Honestly, I was really in shock when I first got them [the awards],” she said. “I never thought it would have happened. There were a lot of people saying the idea was cool, but I was never positive it was going to happen. But, because I liked the idea and am passionate about it, I was hoping.”

More than 1.1 billion of the 7.8 billion people in the world lack established identities, Nyamwange said. As a result, they cannot own property, vote, receive government services or any money to their name.

“Of the people without identification 63% of them live in lower-middle income economies while 28% live in low income economies,” she wrote. “Additionally, 45% of women lack a foundational ID compared to 30% of men in low income countries. This reinforces that lack of identification is a critical concern for the global poor, and more specifically women in poverty.”

Nyamwange began planning Etana in April or May 2020, when she was 14. That July, she began to write the project’s computer code. It took about four months before she had a workable code, she said.

“There was a really specific program I had to build,” said Nyamwange, who also designed Etana’s physical product. “I didn’t know how to code before I started, which is why I think it was a long process.”

Nyamwange attends the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a college preparatory public high school in Aurora for 10th to 12th grades. The tuition-free, residential school enrolls students from throughout Illinois and offers a curriculum that emphasizes STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

Around January, she began working on a prototype of the physical device, which is solar-powered and includes a built-in fingerprint scanner.

The biometric characteristic used by Etana is a fingerprint, Nyamwange said. After a woman scans her fingerprint, Etana converts the data into binary and uploads it to a public server through blockchain in a way similar to how text messages are sent, Nyamwange explained.

Blockchain is a distributed digital ledger that stores data on a “peer-to-peer” network which continually updates so that copies of the records are stored on computers around the world. Participants have their own private keys that act as personal digital signatures for accessing their data.

Nyamwange said she chose blockchain because it creates immutable servers.

“No one can change and alter it [the identification information],” she said. “If you have someone that’s able to change it or work with it, it introduces bias. A lot of people are against these women having identification and giving them these freedoms.”

In her MIT Solv[ED] project description, Nyamwange wrote that, “… the women in my family were my inspiration. All strong and intelligent, they were met with cultural barriers constantly trying to reduce them to nothing.”

Both of Nyamwange’s parents were born in Kenya, and the rest of her family still lives there.

“I designed Etana for women and girls who remind me of myself,” she wrote. “I would call them dreamers met with cultural barriers constantly trying to reduce them to nothing.”

The funding she received from the three prizes currently is going toward making a prototype she’s happy with and toward getting a patent, Nyamwange said. Once that’s done, Etana will go into a pilot program.

Each Etana costs around $50 to make, but Nyamwange plans to use a low income client business model, meaning the client wouldn’t pay anything. That’s where getting funding is incredibly helpful, she said.

Ideally, the first time Etana is used, it will be in an area of the world for which it’s intended, she said, noting that there are many logistics to figure out, including travel, to make that happen.

“These awards put into perspective that it can, and probably will, happen,” Nyamwange said. “I can see it [Etana] on a track where it could be really helpful to a lot of people in a little bit of time.”