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BENIN | Cotonou, where tomorrow’s startups are invented

Posted on Wednesday, 11 July 2018 13:02

Ulrich Sossou, a young tech entrepreneur and founder of EtriLabs.

Since setting up his FabLab (“fabrication laboratory”) in Cotonou in 2015, Médard Agbayazon continues to create and invent and told us enthusiastically about his recent projects. In March, he raised €4,300 through crowdfunding which enabled him to buy a small 3D printer and a milling machine. He plans on making an even bigger printer to build prostheses. He has approached the teachers at the Cotonou CNHU (university hospital) orthopaedic centre, who are very interested. Médard says he can count the number of “very talented” people in digital printing and milling in Cotonou on one hand. Therefore, to improve the skills of the younger generation, he organises various training sessions every weekend. In his search for budding developers outside of Cotonou, he wants to create a mobile FabLab in a container, and is now seeking funding for this project. Among the projects he has funded himself is Wala Wala, a startup that gives the Benin people living abroad a way to offer gifts to their loved ones, through partnerships with local businesses. One of his greatest successes is something he and some children manufactured in his FabLab over a year ago, and what he calls the “jerry”: CPUs from old computers mounted on jerry cans.
Developing your own startup
If Benin is still far behind Nigeria or Kenya in terms of number of incubators, Cotonou’s digital citizens are among the best developers in the sub-region. Training youngsters is an ongoing ambition. Ulrich Sossou, whose name is associated with several recent successful startups (Botamp, TEKXL, FlyerCo) is one of these mentors. He is an international programming and marketing consultant who, in 2010, created EtriLabs with entrepreneur Senam Beheton and, currently, there are ten or so young adults busy behind their computers developing their startups. Among these developers are Basile, who is working on improving “Queezly”, an app that helps businesses interact with their clients, and Hadjara, who is refining “Mentorat Club”, a tool that enables users to learn and gain experience through mentors. Both benefit from the advice as well as the financial support provided by EtriLabs. In 2018, the Tech Hub, which trains about 25 people a year, launched a six-week module dedicated to ICT and digital marketing. These skills are highly demanded by local businesses. To meet this demand, EtriLabs is opening a new venue which can accommodate up to 200 people, compared to around 60 today. Its other major goal for 2018 is to create an acceleration fund to support approximately 15 startups a year, with funding ranging from €5,000 to €50,000, in partnership with a German NGO.

Training women entrepreneurs
While EtriLabs gave up asking the government for help because of its slow response, Boris Padonou, co-founder of KhulaTech, is persisting. One of his protégés, the founder of a connected incubator, has been the recipient of awards at international events which he attended thanks to the government. Padonou continues to work with the state with Women Ed Tech, an app created by Elodie Akotossode aimed at training women entrepreneurs. The Director of Benin’s Digital Economy Agency, Serge Adjovi is extremely proud of the quality of his country’s developers, and ensures that the government will continue to support the creation of infrastructure for skills and capacity development, including that of the city of innovation and knowledge, Sèmè City.

Sèmè City, the international city of innovation and knowledge
This is one of the “Revealing Benin” programme’s flagship projects. Sèmè City’s ambition is to promote the development of a knowledge economy that provides jobs and resources by bringing together students, researchers and entrepreneurs on a modern campus. Located in Sèmè Podji, 10 km from the Nigerian border, this campus will offer academic and advanced training courses, as well as professional courses.
The goal by 2030 is to train 130,000 people, at least 40% of them women, create 190,000 jobs and incubate hundreds of startups. Planned as a smart city, integrated and connected across a 350 hectare area, Sèmè City is being built in successive phases, with a focus on quality of life for all its residents via the implementation of sustainable and innovative solutions.
The Sèmè City Development Agency, in partnership with the World Bank and the National Agency of Heritage and Tourism Promotion launched a competition for entrepreneurs called the “Challenge Fund”, to identify innovative tourism-focused projects with a potentially rich socioeconomic impact. The winners will be announced at the world’s first Innovation Made in Africa Forum (FORIMA), which takes place in Cotonou on 31 May to 1 June 2018

From the June 2018 supplement to The Africa Report, INVESTING BENIN

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