Why you should care
Young entrepreneurs in this West African nation are defying the odds to build a generation of tech startups.
When Ulrich Sossou started off as a freelance software developer in Benin in 2013, he frequently had to rush to neighboring Ghana. His clients were — and still are — mostly American and Canadian startups, but he needed to make the trip to Ghana to access reliable internet connectivity — something Benin couldn’t offer. That’s ancient history now. Sossou is part of a silent revolution taking off in Benin’s commercial capital of Cotonou, with all of Francophone Africa in its sights.
Back in 2013, internet penetration in the West African nation was just 4.9 percent, according to the International Telecommunication Union. Very few people, recalls Sossou, were even talking about the internet and digitization. By 2017, internet penetration had risen to 12 percent, with an average internet speed of 0.73 megabits per second. The figures are still abysmally low, but the gain has spawned a nascent ecosystem of tech startups, incubators and an acceleration hub that promises to transform the Francophone country’s digital infrastructure.
TEKXL, an incubator, started in Cotonou in 2014. EtriLabs, another innovation hub, launched in 2010, accelerates startups. Together, TEKXL and EtriLabs have trained about 1,500 developers, tech entrepreneurs and analysts since 2014, says Sossou. The government of Benin, a nation of 10 million people, is also stepping up. It plans to launch a smart city called Sèmè City that is expected to support roughly 250 startups in a bid to foster innovation. A generation of innovators is taking birth.
We don’t have to go to Ghana anymore to get internet connection.
Ulrich Sossou, EtriLabs vice president
There’s Chaperone, a tech startup that has built up 2,500 users in more than 80 countries. It offers businesses tailored solutions for training, onboarding and user experiences. Iwaria, another fledgling firm, offers free African stock images to the growing number of small and medium-size enterprises globally that are turning to the internet to sell their products. Akwewa — which translates to “there’s money” — is a secure, decentralized money transfer platform. Botamp, an artificial-intelligence-based customer relations chatbot, works with Facebook Messenger to help small businesses keep customers engaged without hiring additional staff. GoMedical connects ordinary Beninese to health care providers by allowing them to find doctors and book appointments on their smartphones. None of these startups existed three years ago. And this is just the beginning for Benin’s startup ecosystem, says Sossou.
“We don’t have to go to Ghana anymore to get internet connection,” says a giggling Sossou, currently vice president of EtriLabs, the startup accelerator, as he intermittently taps away at his phone screen.
On a warm Thursday afternoon, I visited the office space that EtriLabs and TEKXL share in Cadjehoun, a suburb of Cotonou. There, in a white duplex overlooking Cadjehoun’s airport runway, a group of about 60 young tech developers and entrepreneurs are at work. From hack-athons to mentoring sessions, they receive training from established developers like Sossou.
It was at TEKXL that Chaperone was incubated in 2015. It then underwent months of training at EtriLabs. Today, the startup boasts a global customer base, charging between $9 and $249 for its services, says product manager Mashkour Abdel Aziz. So far, the firm has earned $30,000 in profits.
“These hubs provide the best environment to learn everything from the development of the product to design and marketing,” says Basileyou Barrincio, a Cotonou-based developer. “They train entrepreneurs to discover a problem and bring high-impact solutions to address them.” Barrincio’s startup, Iwaria, sources stock images from contributors and its own occasional photo shoots.
For sure, Benin’s fledgling startup ecosystem faces challenges. Internet access is costly, Benin doesn’t have an angel investor ecosystem, and banks are reluctant to trust startups, says Mylène Flicka, a Beninese blogger and the founder of Irawo, a Cotonou-based storytelling platform that showcases African writing talent. For the moment, the startups are making do with limited resources. “But at some point, finding [an] investor is imperative if you want to make a bigger impact,” says Flicka.
That isn’t stopping the country’s young entrepreneurs, or their equally young mentors. Botamp, the customer relations chatbot, already boasts more than 1,700 subscribers (subscription fees start at $500). On GoMedical’s platform, around 250 patients book appointments with doctors each day for 160 West African francs ($0.25).
The boundaries these innovators are testing aren’t limited to technology alone. The tech sector in Benin — like elsewhere in West Africa — has traditionally been dominated by men. TEKXL and EtriLabs are trying to change that. One of their programs, called Whispa, consists of yearlong training at EtriLabs for women in programming, design, marketing, business and entrepreneurship skills. It’s an initiative
Laetitia Desquont, a Whispa graduate in her early 30s, co-founded Akwewa, the money transfer platform. Its principal market is Africa — those sending money to and from the continent. “The experience as a tech entrepreneur has been blissful,” says Desquont, flashing a wide grin.
It’s an experience Sossou wants to take beyond Benin, to other parts of Francophone Africa — a part of the continent, he says, that hasn’t witnessed the emergence of a startup ecosystem to the extent Anglophone Africa has. When he goes to neighboring nations now, it’s with that mission in mind.