Olusegun Onigbinde is a trained agriculturist and the brain behind the creative online start-up BudgIT, which aims "to retell the Nigerian budget and public data in a finer detail across every literacy span." He spoke to Weekend Magazine on the concept, empowering Nigerians and government's unfulfilled grant promise.
What was your story before developing BudgIT?
It was a story of hunger, of defining the essence of life and why I needed to lead something that works. I was at the bank for four years, but that never defined fulfilment. I just wanted to do something. So, in that trough of discontent, I decided to find something else to do. That's BudgIT.
We are now looking to expand our operation to other West African countries. At the moment, we have a project in Sierra Leone, so, we are looking at Ghana and Liberia as well. Kenya is one place we are also looking to intervene. We have a peculiar similarity with Kenya.
Why BudgIT app, not something else?
Nigeria's return to democratic governance is a direct power transfer to the people. To use the newly acquired power effectively, people need to be informed to make better decisions. This is at the heart of democratic governance. How the commonwealth is spent, what it is spent on, what gets priority attention, what will change lives, what will improve living conditions of the people? These are the questions that we answer when we vote.
Aside the rhetoric of political campaigns, the budget is where words come to life, where promises become actionable item. It is the second most powerful law after the constitution. It is the authority given by the legislature to the executive to spend. So, over the years, our people were deprived of the content of this very powerful law. We were left out of its preparation, left out of discussions around it, our input was not sought, and even when we volunteered it was ignored.
With time, government started to make the budget content available. The budget is a very large document written in official terms that is not common to the people. Some thought you have to be an economist or government official to want to know the content of the budget. This should not be so. We saw a need, a gap that needed to be bridged.
Make the budget understandable to all class of citizens, of all literacy span. Our people need to know how government was managing and spending their resources. They needed to know what government priorities are. We took it upon ourselves to be the bridge, breaking down the budget for them, bringing out key facts and empowering them to become vanguards of their commonwealth.
Did you consider Nigerians in the remote parts?
As a whole, our organization aims to reach every Nigerian across all literacy span. We do grassroots mobilization; we do TV and radio interviews, especially in Pidgin English. Then there is web and social media. We aim to reach everyone with our work, but this app is targeted at the youths and those with smart phones.
How useful has this been to them?
Our work doesn't end. It's a continuous process and we know we haven't reached all of our target audience. That said, we are proud of what we have done so far. The presidential spokesman once said that even okada riders now know what is in the budget. We believe that our little effort, especially on social media, is having a trickle-down effect. People are now debating the budget in their homes. They now know the cost of feeding in Aso Rock. They know NASS gets N150bn annually without breakdown of expenditures. They can tell when an item is inflated in the budget. They now see waste and have raised their voices against it. We take some credit for this. But again, our work is not done. We will continue to push the frontiers of public accountability. We will keep our eyes on debts, oil and non-oil revenues, federation account sharing, excess crude account, oil theft, subsidy disbursement and audit reports of government agencies. We have used FOI requests in the past; we will continue to use it. We will go to court if need be, to ensure that the public have unfettered access to public revenue and expenditure reports. So yes, for the audience we have reached so far, we think we are meeting their needs, their need to know and in an easy to understand format.
What challenges did you face making it available on the different platforms it exists?
The challenge is funding. We wanted to put this on the store and get it perfectly right but you know that we also need to meet developers and ensure that they have funds to execute. We have also the challenge of mining the data to a level that can be easily seen on the small interface of the mobile device. Apple is yet to accept our application and our app is yet to appear on the store. This is an ongoing work. Also data was a challenge initially but we had to progress and implore government to make data more accessible.
You've empowered citizens, are you able to monitor how they've used the app?
We have a digital platform that measures how many people have used the app and we keep scaling our communication methods. We need people to use the application and we have to use all means to get the word out there.
What kind of impact did you expect it to have on them?
We look to have an empowered citizen that is interested on open governance, accountability and transparency. Citizen that can ask informed questions, have an informed opinion on the issues that affect their lives. We are more interested in informing them so as to influence governance because an influential citizen is that person that is informed, not one that is ignorant. With information comes influence. That is what we aim to impact, an informed citizen.
How did you put the elements of BudgIT together to make it different?
Our app is different; it is one of the very few civic education focused apps. It empowers the people. It allows you to check what government is doing in any area that you have interest in. The Lagos-Ibadan expressway is in bad state, will it be repaired this year?
The only way you will know is by checking the budget. So even if a minister weeps on that road for a week and vows that it will be repaired; check the budget, if it is not there, that minister is taking you for a ride. The quickest away to know if you are being taken for a ride is by using the BudgIT app. Our app is available on Android Store, Blackberry App World, Google Play. So it's a handy app for citizens interested in the progress of the country.
You benefited from the N1 million grant from Nigeria Internet Group. How far did that go with BudgIT?
We never collected the money. This makes me sad because you check our digital footprint and you find it all plastered on the web. I have been asked this question several times; that is how some Nigerians behave. It shocks me that they didn't pay us a penny despite the blitz that followed its announcement. This is the first time I am coming public about this. I want to stop bottling it.
Have you followed up on the unpaid grant?
I have not followed up. This is the first time I am going public on it. I don't care about it anymore.
What other products have you created?
One question we have been asked persistently is 'what should I do with this information you are providing us?' Aside from making informed decision, we realized that much more needed to be done. So we are building a new platform that will bring the budget and citizen action. 'Tracka' is our new project. The platform is designed to give citizens an opportunity to make their voice heard especially by those capable of doing something about it. The platform will deliver citizen's voice to the email and phones of government officials that have responsibility to attend to it. Ejigbo people should be able to tell Governor Babatunde Fashola and his commissioner for works that that contractor has skipped from site. If a lecturer is missing lectures, students don't have to wait till end of semester to complain. The VC should know about it immediately. So this platform will give citizens power to take their complaints to those with power to deal with them.
What do you mean when you say you are looking at funding and getting it right?
When we started, I was combining my day job as a banker with running BudgIT. I knew I needed to focus on BudgIT. There is something about serving humanity that is very rewarding. Except for the initial $5000 funding I received from the Tony Elumelu Foundation, there was no other funding to run BudgIT. Then it seemed like I have made a wrong decision when we ran out of funds. But a public spirited individual, who was convinced that what we were doing was for posterity and who believed in our ability to contribute to the advancement of governance in Nigeria gave us another grant of $5,000. This individual, who insists on being anonymous, opened the door to funding and grants with that $5,000. Since then, we have seen more partnerships and collaboration than we imagined.
We receive grants from development partners for specific projects and also receive payment for designing infographics for private companies. In fact, we make enough money to pay salaries and sustain our work from infographics.
Infographics are something the app is unique for. How did you come about using them and how efficient have they been?
Data has to connect to both logic and emotion. Infographics has the ability to do that for every user. Infographics are not easy to digest by users but they are big difficult to build. One needs to separate the messy data - the signal from the noise and look for what works.
What's the next level for BudgIT?
We will continue to deepen our reach with Nigeria and explore expansion to some select African countries. We are also committing a lot of time and resources to our new project, 'Tracka.' We will continue to innovate without forgetting the goals we set out to achieve. We are still open to collaborate on projects that are within our core work.
Did you have any worries your idea may have been hijacked? If you did how did you work around it?
Idea is worth a penny, execution is everything. If anyone likes, this can be replicated but until you begin, then one understands this is a minefield. I did not protect the idea because this is layered on public data.Many may not be able to quit a job as you did to be self-employed especially in a terrain as yours. How would you encourage them to take the bold step?
You have to think through and be very, very clear before you quick that job. The world out there is not smiling and I advise those who want to quit their jobs never to do so in hurry. Go through that trough of discontent and be assured that you are ready to take that risk. That's how to win in this environment. Prayers are also needed.