Mental illness is a big issue in Nigeria taking into reference the stigma and discrimination people living with mental challenges face. A lot of people living with this challenge barely speak out, some of them go the extreme mile of committing suicide, while others are kept in ill-equipped facilities or abandoned in churches under insidious circumstances. However, a group of thoughtful young Nigerians have come up with a solution; an app, Atio that caters to mental issues and people living with mental illnesses. Innovation Village recently met with Azekwoh Anthony; a co-founder of Atio and in this interview spoke about mental health issues in Nigeria and what Atio has to offer in solving mental health crisis.

Can you tell about the Atio team and when Atio was launched?

Atio was founded, primarily, in 2017 by Tofunmi Kupoluyi and I (Azekwoh Anthony). We’re both eighteen years old, with Tofunmi functioning as our lead developer and I as the lead designer. Our team then expanded to form our current active team consisting of Peter-Michael Iloakasia, Pearl Nzewi, Segun Omole, Tamilore Ogunbanjo and Renua Ikibe.

Tell us about Atio and what it has to offer?

A year ago, while working on our own individual projects, I pitched an idea to Tofunmi of a suicide prevention line, which in Nigeria, would already be unique. After a while of talking and bouncing off ideas, an alternative was brought up, one that would be online and safe at the same time, a special companion-like app that could be used at any time, fulfilling the needs we wanted met in the beginning and so we named it Atio, coined from the Latin word, ‘veratio,’ meaning, ‘to listen.’

Atio works in three ways, filling a gap in this part of the world that for too long has been left void. The topic of mental health in our community is one that’s kept on the hush hush, barely spoken of if at all. Cases are ignored and looked at as either signs of inherent weakness or spiritual manifestations. We kept all these in mind with the initial design of Atio 1.0 (Beta).

It works simply. The first part of Atio is what we call the Rants section, equipped with censors, users can speak freely about their experiences, connecting with others like them. A kind of, same timeline, if you will. The next section, our Atio Listener section on the app allows users to speak, in real time, with designated and cleared listeners from our end, all over Africa, who are willing to help and listen to their issues, if any. The third is our call section, connecting users to the various suicide helplines in Nigeria, and also therapists in the area. Atio is all about fostering a community that celebrates instead of vilifies what we would be quick to call our weaknesses, it’s about our community. That was and is still our goal, to bring about a better community where mental health is something that can be easily talked about.

What prompted you to set up Atio?

The motivation of Atio was something all our team members could relate to. With most of us turning 18 this year, the topic of mental health was something we were all acquainted with. We had seen, for quite some time, how our people treated cases like this, and we just didn’t feel like it was enough, or ideal, for that matter.

What is unique about the services the app has to offer?

Atio’s uniqueness lies in first, the place of its inception: Nigeria, West Africa. A place where the average human being isn’t really supported, emotionally or psychologically. We have a lot of people who are willing to help, so the question was, how do we connect them?

Atio’s way of execution is also very unique, what with the app. As far as I know, there aren’t many, if any, of platforms like this that exist easily for people in our country and making it an app really sets it apart. We’re also thinking of making an online platform for desktop users, later down the road.

How does Atio work?

To make sure that we could help as many people as possible, we really stripped the design down to basic things so people could easily use it, from both the user and the listener end. 

It’s very simple, you download the app from the app store (both Apple and Google Play Store) and automatically you’re signed in as a user. From there, you can use any of our sections, make any of the calls, it’s very easy to use.

What has the traction been like since its launch?

Atio was something in the beginning, we were actually scared about. We have never heard of such happening and we didn’t know if this would even go far, if at all. But while the Beta app worked very well, we felt that it needed a lot more work and that we could push this even further and so, we decided to halt our services, deciding to work on this for another year to launch in the summer of 2018. Something this important shouldn’t be rushed, as the initial beta took us about two months to build, we thought.

What were the challenges encountered and achievements recorded so far since Atio launched?

When we released the Atio 1.0 (Beta) last year and we sent out a call for listeners, in less than a day, we got over a hundred responses, all people from different parts of Africa, sending back responses, “Yes, we would like to be a part of this.” It was something truly inspiring. With little online presence, we were able to reach places we hadn’t even thought of, getting responses from even Kenya. Since then, Atio has been reviewed by a number of people and online platforms such as iAfrika. But while we were happy with this, we felt it was premature and too soon. It was brought up too soon and when Tofunmi, especially, felt it needed to be developed more, we took a year. For me, personally, it was hard, I felt like we had let a lot of people down by taking a year to develop it. But I see now that it was more than necessary.

What advice do you have for prospective entrepreneurs out there?

Since we’re very young and new in this field, giving advice would seem wrong. But one that has stuck out to us so far is that connecting with people and providing an efficient way to meet a valid need definitely works.

What are the future plans for Atio?

Oh! For Atio, our plans are very big. We want to integrate more parts in it, in the near future, connecting even psychologists and the users, making Atio a kind of all-round app. We want it developed into something very big, factoring in all aspects of our community, even hosting events and seminars to speak more on what we have to offer.

What do you have to say about the evolving Nigerian startup ecosystem?

I can say that in the past few years, there has definitely been a shift as now we’re seeing more and more Nigerians doing amazing things with technology. I am friends with Kola Tubosun, for instance, who is doing amazing work with his team to combine the Yoruba language and technology, something that most would’ve considered impossible 10-15 years ago. I think that with each day, we’re pushing the boundaries of what should be considered possible or not and now more than ever, I’m proud to be involved in all this.