How Nigerian startups could do more for democracy

The continent’s largest democracy hosts thousands of tech startups, but very few are involved in efforts to improve the electoral process.


Image : Adobe Stock / niyazz

With 18 days before the first round of the Nigerian elections, one thing’s for sure: technology will be integral to the process.

Ballot boxes are being prepared to welcome the nearly 93m eligible voters who registered using the Electoral Commission’s brand-new Continuous Voter Registration online portal, and the country is promising an efficient electronic tabulation system to count votes.

The introduction of new technological tools is likely to bring more confidence in the election results. The bimodal voter accreditation system (BVAS), introduced recently, allows for digital identification of the voters, and thus prevents politicians to buy multiple voter cards to increase their chances of winning.

But for the continent’s largest democracy, the room for technological improvement is growing as fast as the voting-age population. Turnout in the country is still low – in 2019, only 28.5m people turned out to vote, despite the 82 million people registered and 106 million at voting age.

Technology could help further to smooth and secure the electoral process, as is already the case with electronic counting and registration, but also create an incentive for young Nigerians to participate and boost overall voter participation.

Technological innovation and investment are not missing: Nigeria is the most popular tech startup investment destination in Africa – attracting nearly $4bn between 2019 and 2022.

However, few of these startups are working towards enhancing the democratic experience.

Democracy is an expensive process in which Nigerian startups and investors could help lower the cost, and also take a piece of the pie by providing outsourcing services to government.

The 2019 Nigerian presidential elections were the most expensive election ever held in the country, costing approximately $625m. If innovative companies jump on board – bringing proven technology such as optical mark recognition, data analysis, enhanced digital identification, and electronic balloting – the process could be made cheaper, more efficient, and more secure.

Concrete examples of how this could work are regularly highlighted by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Governance (International IDEA), an intergovernmental organization created in 1995 to assist newly formed democracies with their political process, and which counts seven African countries as members (South Africa, Ghana, Benin, Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius and Cape Verde).

International IDEA advocates the use of ICT in different parts of the electoral process. Using open-source software, for instance, provides a wide range of benefits. If results for each polling station are published in real-time through open source systems, citizens could have access to valuable information such as the number of registrants, valid and invalid votes, and the votes for each party and candidate.

National and international news organisations would also be able to review them and write articles, in-depth analysis, and opinions, contributing to a healthy media environment and building trust among institutions.

Some technological tools could also help prevent post-election violence – a trend which has seriously undermined democratic accountability for several African countries.

The use of a Geographic Information System (GIS), a database containing accurate geographic information, could help generate risk maps and trend charts, and allows an unprecedented focus on the local level.

“In turn, this allows a new level of sophistication for early warning systems and forecasts to inform decision-makers of threats. Once threats are mapped and understood, prevention strategies can be customised and implemented at the local, national, or even regional level,” writes staff member Helena Schwertheim on the International IDEA blog.

Startups in geospatial data intelligence, for instance, could be incredibly helpful in ensuring a peaceful electoral process.

Government tech services expand 

Promises to “democratise” personal finance through mobile banking apps get much more attention from investors than “democratising democracy”, partly because of the misperception that there is a limited market for such services.

One exception in South Africa is GovChat, founded in 2018 by Eldrid Jordaan –  a citizen engagement platform that uses the WhatsApp Business API to facilitate real-time communication with South African government services. The app gives South African citizens the ability to rate public services and infrastructure –  from police stations to post offices and schools – via their mobile phones or computer  in order to assist government in finding ways to improve. It has also been used to help applicants to apply for social security grants.

The app raised $1.4m in 2019 in a Series-A funding round and now has 8.7 million active users. In 2022 GovChat signed a five-year contract extension with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs.Nevertheless the rollout has been challenging – the company prevailed in a lengthy legal battle with WhatsApp owner Meta after the US tech giant accused it of violating its terms of service, and Jordaan announced his surprise resignation as CEO in November. 

Still, apps like GovChat show that technology can bridge the gap between increasingly young populations and government services, provided that the government is willing to partner with such organisations. That could be of mutual benefit to governments and citizens at election time. 

Ahead of the October 2021 elections in Iraq, the Rewaq Baghdad Center, a thinktank, launched a mobile application designed to allow voters to engage in dialogue with candidates.

Given young people’s proclivity to use digital platforms, the application provided a communication channel between young Iraqis and their would-be representatives, and claimed more than 100,000 users.In Nigeria, the digitalisation of public institutions and services has been happening at a relatively slow pace.

The National Identity Management Commission of Nigeria is charged with is rolling out a national ID programme incorporating fingerprint, facial and iris biometrics. An integrated system could help citizens obtain e-ID cards, apply for passports, gain a driver’s license and voting card, and help citizens to pay taxes and receive welfare. Yet the challenges of rolling out an effective system in a growing population of 213 million are numerous.  

The private sector could help. Nigeria’s business sector has became remarkably tech-oriented in recent years, with smartphone uptake widespread and startups in fintech, agrotech and edtech attracting considerable investments. 

The challenge for Nigerian tech firms – and the electoral authorities – is to make sure their startup ecosystems can participate in the enormous opportunity of enhancing the democratic experience.

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Leo Komminoth

Leo is tech reporter for African Business, based in Dakar, and also works on data visualisations.