2017 saw the beginning of the #ENDSARS protest in Nigeria, an online demonstration demanding an end to police brutality and the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian Police Force.
However, on October 4, 2020, as videos of police brutality spread on social media, the #ENDSARS protest picked up steam, marking a watershed moment in the country's history. The protest led to unlawful arrests, physical assaults, and fatalities, driven by a desire for justice in the face of police brutality.
Sadly, on October 20, 2020, several eyewitness accounts described shooting unarmed, nonviolent #EndSARS protesters near the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos.
Although the protests were a force for change, they also significantly impacted several Nigerian youth's mental health.
For instance, Oluwaseun Raphael Afolayan, CTO and Co-founder of healthtech startup MyTherapistng, who actively participated in the ENDSARS demonstration, claimed that the events of October 20 had a significant impact on him and his friends.
“There were not many ways to approach this, as you may know. I was aware that people seek therapy in situations like that. But I had no idea how to get it. After doing some research, I learned that a group called Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI) was assisting those experiencing mental difficulties at the time.
"I joined MANI, but I soon discovered a few things that frustrated me. One was waiting in a long queue to be matched with a therapist. After that, the question of qualification arose,” Afolayan recounts.
He soon found out that many of the therapists in MANI were volunteers rather than licensed and vetted professionals. Compatibility, or finding someone with whom he felt comfortable sharing his vulnerabilities, was another requirement for finding a therapist who was a good fit for him.
He turned to an American mental health platform, BetterHelp, for assistance, where he got paired with a therapist.
However, he soon observed that aside from financial constraints, there was also the issue of cultural sensitivity. Getting matched with an American therapist who had grown up in the United States and might not be familiar with some of the daily struggles he would face in Nigeria was a challenge. He felt very dissatisfied with the entire process and thought about fixing it.
So he considered creating a platform where qualified therapists could enter their credentials, and anyone requiring their services could easily choose who is affordable for them, who is the right fit for them, and get things started.
Built by young and experienced professionals
Afolayan had just completed his secondary education and was looking for something to do when he began his informal tech career in 2016. Because he liked writing, the 16-year-old researched possible ventures and found blogging.
In 2017, he launched a technology blog geekzone.com.ng, which focused on gadget reviews, technical guidance, how-to articles, and other related topics.
Despite his plans for it to function similarly to TechCrunch, he received an alluring offer to sell the blog in 2018 after building it up to the point where it had a lot of traffic.
He approved the acquisition and, using the sale proceeds, started a new blog called techinary.com. He put the same energy into the new one as he did Geekzone, and the blog grew in six months.
"It got to the point where it competed with several Nigerian and American tech websites directly. So, in 2019, another offer for that blog came from a man named Michael Abegunde (now CEO of Car TrackerNG).”
After exploring website building through blogging, he began to take his programming career very seriously because he wanted to fully commit to creating websites and mobile apps. Consequently, he sold the blog, bought a “good laptop,” and started his tech career officially as a full-stack developer.
In the same year, he founded Mixed Fraction, an agency he started to help startups develop digital products. He managed eCommerce websites and created mobile apps for clients.
For example, one of its clients, Safer Online Gambling Group, hired the agency to create the BetProtect mobile app's MVP. This project helped him realise the value of mental health and the advantages of therapy.
On how he succeeded as a blogger, he says he had extensive knowledge of digital marketing and search engine optimisation (SEO), as successfully growing a blog required these skills.
Thus, Afolayan states he has a wealth of marketing knowledge, has worked in the B2B, eCommerce, and healthcare industries, and has had the opportunity to build several tech products.
“I had the technical expertise required to dismantle the process of creating my mental health startup as a product. The next thing I needed was someone with expertise in mental health to make the idea take off.”
He was well aware that for MyTherapistng to be successful, two areas had to be covered: the technical side and someone qualified in the Nigerian mental health field.
So, in the first quarter of 2021, he connected with Dedoyin Ajayi via X (formerly Twitter). She gave off a good vibe, and he knew she was the one to advance MyTherapistng mission after doing his research on her.
Ajayi has worked in mental health for over five years. She began her journey in 2015 by receiving a diploma in counselling psychology. After that, she interned at Spring Centre, a rape intervention crisis centre for teenage girls. In 2017, she began a Neurolinguistic Programming Certification programme at the Academy of Modern and Applied Psychology.
She formally began her therapy practice in 2019 and was supervised until June 2020. She started her graduate programme in counselling psychology at Liverpool John Moores University in 2021, and she completed it in August 2023.
In 2021, when Afolayan contacted her and pitched MyTherapistng to her, she was sold on the concept and agreed to join the team as a co-founder. The startup announced in 2021 that it was building a product and it launched its pilot version in October 2022.
MyTherapistng offers more than therapy
Mytherapistng is a one-stop shop for people looking to improve their mental health. The business does this by providing a service that lets you access various therapists, tools, and resources you need to develop and live a mentally healthier life.
Because Afolayan believes that access to mental health care should be more accessible, users can use its mobile app, which is available on the App Store and Play Store, to schedule appointments with therapists familiar with their realities.
The entire process begins with you signing up on the app. Once you have done so, you can browse its list of therapists, where you will find professionals with various qualifications, pricing, and hours of availability.
After that, choose a therapist who meets your needs and budget, and confirm that their expertise corresponds with the problem you want to address.
When you book your session, the therapist is notified, and they accept your booking request and will be available to communicate via voice, text, or video chat during the scheduled time.
“We have therapists for whom you can schedule a free trial consultation session, and we also have therapists for whom you must make payments upfront to schedule a session.”
While the company is considering charging individuals for weekly or monthly therapy sessions, it only allows them to pay per session. Aside from free trials, therapy costs between ₦3,000 and ₦12,000. The startup receives a commission for each therapy session completed through the app.
MyTherapistng also provides corporate wellness services to businesses, where companies and organisations can sign up to participate in their employees' mental healthcare.
Moreover, the business has a digital resource where you can find information, enlightening you on several mental health-related issues. Afolayan says it is essential because de-stigmatising mental health through education is one way to reduce the stigma.
The mobile app and website-based resource tool also provide tips and how-to guides to assist users in coping with mental health issues.
For instance, users can securely enter their thoughts in the mobile app’s diary. Its breathing exercise tool is helpful for people who have trouble managing their anxiety and worry. Users receive daily affirmations by 7 a.m. WAT to help them get through the day. The app also has a mood tracker that tracks people’s moods and monitors how they fare.
The company has a comfort store where users can shop for mental health items, including stress balls, anxiety toys, and self-help books, to help them maintain their mental health. It also sells tote bags with several inscriptions to de-stigmatise mental health issues and encourage mental health conversations.
On how the startup vets its therapists before onboarding them onto its platform, Afolayan says potential therapists go through four stages. First, applicants submit their applications with supporting documents like a résumé.
The company then requests that chosen candidates send an email attaching their academic and professional credentials to verify the validity of the supporting documents. The third stage requires an interview with the head of therapy, Ajayi.
Finally, selected candidates participate in a mock session simulating different situations they might encounter in an actual therapy session. This evaluation focuses on the candidates' capacity to handle the scenario and how they relate to the user.
“So far, only three out of every ten therapists have been hired, with a 32% acceptance rate. Once we onboard them, we monitor and evaluate their performance and client feedback.
“Mytherapistng values ongoing quality assurance to ensure our users receive effective and ethical therapy. It may appear unfair to some therapists, but we only want to introduce the best to our users.”
Standing out among co-innovators
Nigeria has seen a rise in tech startups specialising in mental health in recent years, offering many products and services.
Many of these startups provide users with apps and platforms that connect them with licensed therapists, offer mental health resources, and promote mental wellness. Others focus on raising awareness of mental health issues and eliminating the stigma on the continent. Examples of these startups include Blueroomcare, Akoma Health, and Nguvu Health.
Interestingly, Afolayan sees these companies as co-innovators instead of competitors because "much work needs to be done to improve the mental health of Nigerians and Africans in general."
However, he claims that the company's service is user-centred, distinguishing it from other players in the field.
“We prioritise the user in everything we do. We also take pride in our free services. We understand that catering to people of all income levels is one of our top priorities. So, whether you are a low-wage earner or someone in the high-wage range, there is something for you.”
MyTherapistng has been self-funded up to this point. Although obtaining funding has been difficult, the startup is raising funds for a pre-seed round to help scale the company.
"The year 2023 has been recorded as one of the most difficult years to raise funds, and as a bootstrapped startup, we have a lot of limited capacity in which we can function due to limited capital. And I think that is why we are seeking excellent investors to help us spread the vision of MyTherapist across Nigeria and Africa.”
Standing strong in the face of adversity
Since its launch, MyTherapistng has encountered technical and professional challenges. For instance, it had to wait a month to have its app reinstated after being removed abruptly from the Google Play Store shortly after its January 2023 launch.
Additionally, the team was confused about how the product would function at the early stage of development. However, they conducted user interviews to determine the best action.
After spending 2021 working on the platform, MyTherapistng released its beta app in October 2022, with free features available. It only started making money in January 2023, when it allowed therapy appointments on its platform.
In the first three months after launching its therapy service, it made its first $1,000. And Afolayan says the figure has been growing at an impressive rate.
In May 2022, MyTherapist hired its first five employees and began actively developing the mobile app. Since then, the team has grown to nine members. It also surpassed 1,000 downloads in April 2023 and expects to reach 5,000 by December.
Afolayan is aware of the stress that Nigerian workers experience at work and in their careers, and MyTherapistng plans to address this by adding more features to cater to businesses and their staff. Even though it currently serves a few employees, it hopes that more corporations and startups will use the service.
Besides, the company is actively developing several features to improve user experience and help its users take better care of their mental health.
Afolayan concludes that several users outside Nigeria use its app, and it plans to make its services available locally and to other parts of Africa and the globe.