Nigeria: Joel Popoola - Tech Expert On a Mission

18 September 2020

Joel Popoola is a man on a mission. He has skillfully deployed skills to transform Nigeria into Africa's first digital democracy. Having carved a niche for himself in England with the edge-cutting 'Rate Your Leader' app, he shares with Rebecca Ejifoma the huge potential and long-lasting impact of the technology on the political space Young, nimble and refined are the common features of Joel Popoola, a Nigerian UK-based tech expert. Owing to the fact that the Nigerian youths have run out of steam for current affairs, Popoola an influencer has mapped out plans to make Nigeria Africa's first digital democracy, reconnecting the youths, especially, and politics using digital technology.

While he is at it, he yearns to save the education of children affected by COVID-19, accelerate voter turnout, engage young Nigerians in national affairs, reduce corruption and export politeness to political digital democracy bate and online communication.

Mission

Just in his late 40s, he has solely initiated an organic app called Rate Your Leader, which he described as key to campaigning. The free app gives voters a direct line straight to the elected officials who serve them, person to person, direct from their phone.

Meanwhile, the tech expert recently hit the airwaves after he called for telecommunications firms to remove data charges for educational resources. It was a conscious effort to help Nigeria proffer soothing solutions to a national problem with out-of-school children.

He wants Nigeria to join global technology bandwagon. "More than 10 million of our five to 14-year-olds were not in school before COVID-19, which made it even impossible for them to step into a classroom. But the pandemic has proved education can easily move online".

"The problem is although most Nigerians have the hardware for their children to learn online, all too often they can't afford the data. Education is a necessity, not a luxury - so why not remove data charges on online learning to help our children catch up after the COVID-19. It seems so simple," he expounded.

Creating an App

Popoola realised that it takes planning and determination to get off the ground. "On some level, the idea has been with me for a very long time, when I was working for the United Bank of Africa Plc. UBA introduced a new appraisal system to improve the bank's governance and transparency and it was that which got me thinking for the first time that if businesses, organisations and even nations are to succeed, decision makers must be genuinely accountable for their decisions".

He went ahead to do his Masters in Managerial Psychology from the University of Ibadan, a course that succeeded in shaping his understanding of leadership, governance, and performance evaluation. "These are critical fundamentals for the development of this app".

Sometimes, it takes a minor change to kick off. "Things moved on when I was working in England. I suddenly realised that I had no idea who my local representatives were. I could find out online, but it took time and effort - and I thought, how simple would it be to just enter my postcode into an app and be able to contact my local representatives straight away?

He continued, "Back in Nigeria, I remembered that it can be almost impossible to find any contact details for local leaders - how can politicians be accountable when they aren't contactable? How can elected leaders build trust when they are not contactable?"

Impressions from Users

For Popoola, it was just a matter of meeting minds with the stakeholders to change the narrative. "I sat down with politicians to ask how digital technology could help them serve their populations better.

"They told me how much they would benefit from being able to consult local people without having to travel to see them, or visa versa, and how much they wanted to know if something someone was contacting them about was a real local problem or one person's odd obsession."

"The most shocking thing people have asked is if the app can be abuse-proof. They can of course contact people using the big social networks but the abuse they get is absolutely horrific. We're the only social media firm to make it impossible to send abusive messages.

"Nigeria is a country where we're having to legislate to stop teachers sexually harassing students. Hopefully if people use technology like ours where it's impossible to be abusive, they'll get into the habit of being more courteous and civil in all of their communications."

Inspiring Electorate

When the tech expert set out on his quest - it was to accelerate voter's turn out and direct contact with their leaders.

"In a word, trust! Only 35 per cent of Nigerians voted in the last presidential election, compared to 69 per cent in Ghana. For me, the reason is a lack of trust and accountability. People just don't think politicians care about them - they are just remote, and irrelevant."

Consequently, Popoola cited a survey which shows that over 70 per cent of Nigerians think all politicians are corrupt.

"If people actually met their local politicians, they would probably see that that isn't the case and that they care deeply about the local areas and people they serve.

"Building personal relationships between electors and elected is the first step to challenging that misconception - and the technology exists to do that at a touch of a button."

Changing the Narrative, Getting Involved

Indeed, Popoola is pulling the plug to get youths involved in national affairs. "After God, It's the government. We have access to God, but Nigerians do not have access to their elected leaders. We elected them to represent us, but we cannot reach them, not by email, phone call or even on social media.

"Or can you, for example, email any of the governors as an 'ordinary' citizen and get a reply? Their official emails are not even publicly available. Even, then when you have their contact and send them a message, they don't deem it fit to reply. That's the kind of non-interactive relationship Nigerians are having with the politicians in power."

The psychologist, however, highlighted that more than two third of our elected governors are still using personal Yahoo, Google, Hotmail email addresses for official matters.

Youth and Technology

There is an adage that "the advance of technology is based on making it fit in so that you don't really even notice it, so it's part of everyday life."

Indeed, young Nigerians of today live, shop and interact online. "It's where they work, shop, socialise, get their news and even date - but our political culture hasn't changed to keep up.

"Young Nigerians are smart and confident and expect to have their say - and the technology they have in their pockets can facilitate that. It's time for Nigerian youth to get involved and add their voices to their votes."

As a campaigner, Popoola constantly calls for digital technology to be leveraged to combat fake news and corruption, increase democratic engagement and improve the delivery (and reputation) of public services while reconnecting people and politics using digital technology.

The Rate Your Leaders app has some bells and whistles that help voters and leaders benefit for the good of the nation.

"Voters aren't the only ones to benefit. The app helps leaders grapple what matters most to the people who chose them, build relationships of trust with the electorate, and get important messages straight to them.

Popoola means well for youths and technology in Nigeria. He has met minds with other inventors.

"I once had a chat with the MD of Accenture Nigeria, Niyi Yusuf sometimes in 2018 in Lagos, and I was sharing my thoughts on how corporate organisation can position themselves to acquire and keep the new generation of customers at the formative stage.

"The good news is that I just finished testing the platform, theStarwriters.com, ready to be launched now for brands and high net worth individuals to build loyalty and fan base."

While currently working with his team to develop an online youth training programme, which is central to developing the digital skills, Popoola says they need to make Nigeria Africa's first digital democracy.

"I've also recently become a member of the prestigious Chatham House foreign affairs think tank, which is overly exciting," he said.

Plans for West Africa

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, this is a soothing saying for every situation.

He enthused: "Absolutely - that's something we are going to look at over the next two years and we are seriously working at it."

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