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Benin’s digital revolution

Over the past five years, Benin has made significant progress in terms of digital infrastructure and making its public administration's services paperless. All of which provides the basis for building, in the near future, the West African digital platform sought by the President of the Republic.

© Mr. Patrice Talon, President of Benin

At the start of his term in 2016, President Patrice Talon promised his compatriots that he would make Benin the West African digital services hub, a lever for accelerating growth and social inclusion. The signs of a true digital revolution are now discernible. They can be seen in both the modern infrastructure put in place and the digitalisation of public administration, as well as the adoption of a Digital Code, establishing the country as a pioneer in the sub-region.

Modern digital infrastructure

  •    Optical fibre has been deployed over more than 2,000 km nationwide, making high-speed Internet access possible. This network is being densified and extended.
  •    To ensure that the power of the fibre can be harnessed quickly by Benin’s citizens, particularly those living in non-urban areas, the government has set up a service specific to Benin: Points Numériques Communautaires (Community Digital Points; see interview), which provide access to broadband for the populations of the communities concerned.
  •    In addition to the SAT3 and ACE cables serving the country, the construction of a connection point for the landing of the 2AFRICA cable, one of the largest submarine cable projects in the world, has just been approved by the Council of Ministers. This will double the bandwidth capacity in the medium term.
  •     Despite the pandemic, Benin is working hard to get its data centre up and running before the end of the year. This modern strategic storage and processing infrastructure is designed to host the country’s data and information systems, as well as those of the sub-region’s governments and companies. The secure data centre is in the process of being certified to the most demanding standards (level 3 of the ANSI/TIA 942 standard).
  •    As a result of the installation of the network and the setting up of broadcast infrastructure, households in Benin will now be able to enjoy Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT), as and when the appropriate decoders become available.
  •    The Beninese Education and Research Network (RBER) which has been progressively commissioned since December 2020 targets no less than 115,000 students and 3,000 administrative staff at 10 universities and public research centres in its first phase. With 45 kilometres of a capillary fibre network deployed and 752 Wi-Fi access points installed on campuses, the RBER enables the university community to be interconnected and to access national and international educational resources. Benin joined the West and Central Africa Education and Research Network (WACREN) in February 2019.
  •    The e-learning platform launched during the Covid-19 health crisis offers more than 35,000 course videos and at least 2,500 other online teaching aids. This mine of digital solutions made it possible to ensure that classes could continue, despite the restrictions and, most importantly, to help students complete their year.

© One of the 29 TNT sites in Benin
  •    An interoperability infrastructure and a secure data exchange framework (xroadBJ) has been established, enabling all public administration databases to be interconnected in total security, thus facilitating data exchange for a more efficient delivery of paperless public services to citizens and businesses.
  •    Benin now has a Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) that delivers industry-standard digital certificates to secure platforms, online transactions and identity documents such as the National Identity Card and passports. A strong vision in terms of digital security, which can be seen through the national strategy dedicated to this issue and the establishment in 2020 of the oversight body for trusted service providers. This will foster the emergence of an ecosystem based on trust services for a sustainable digital economy.

 The Digital Code: a sub-regional exception

Benin has adopted a comprehensive and coherent legislative framework through its Digital Code, essential to making the digital sector an integral part of the Government’s Action Programme (PAG 2016-2021). This law, adopted by the National Assembly in June 2017, was promulgated by the President of the Republic in April 2018. In addition to electronic communications, the sections of the Code cover trusted services, electronic commerce, personal data protection, cybercrime and cybersecurity. This provides a regulatory framework for the new activities of the digital economy, and also enables citizens to defend themselves against defamation and other online crimes. The legislative component and the implementing provisions that complement it are being communicated to the national and sub-regional public through awareness raising events.

© Madame Aurélie Adam Soulé Zoumarou, Minister of Digital and of Digitalization

 

“I call on ISPs to take advantage of the environment that we have set up.”

Aurélie Adam Soulé Zoumarou, Minister of Digital Economy and Communications

 

Community Digital Points is an original solution implemented by the government; what do PNCs consist of ?

We quickly and boldly implemented President Patrice Talon’s vision in the Digital and Communication sector. We wanted the massive investments made in infrastructure, particularly in the deployment of fibre optics, to have a swift impact on populations. Why did we want to do this? Because we could not digitise public services, make it possible to create more and more online tools, and not allow users to access them comfortably. The PNC model, which we have developed in non-urban areas, meets this objective. The PNC is first and foremost a cyber-café type space equipped with 10 computers and reserved for all possible digital uses. It is also a free public Wi-Fi access point set up in cooperation with the town halls, often in the youth centres of the municipalities concerned. Lastly, it offers public or private organisations, as well as households, the possibility of connecting to the fibre via an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to whom we facilitate the extension in the said commune.

Are you satisfied with the results obtained to date by the PNCs ?

Yes, because 43 out of 77 municipalities have been equipped since 2018, representing an impact on more than one million people in non-urban areas, which are usually poorly covered by electronic communication services. Users are extremely enthusiastic about the service. We also notice a change in usage. Whereas people used to come mainly to surf the Net, more and more people are now taking training courses provided by the managers of the PNCs. Through the testimonials collected, the National Public Services Portal is also very much in demand, as more and more teachers visit the PNCs to use the platforms dedicated to the education sector.

© Community Digital Point

The PNC model requires a strong ISP involvement. How is the Beninese government supporting them ?

People’ expectations are very high and the state has already done a lot. Along with investments in infrastructure, we have revised the regulatory framework to make the conditions for the operation of ISPs more flexible. From now on, operators no longer need a licence to become an ISP, only an authorisation issued by ARCEP Benin [Benin’s regulatory authority for electronic communications and the post office, editor’s note]. We have also introduced legal provisions that allow for better infrastructure sharing. The Société Béninoise des Infrastructures Numériques (SBIN), a wholesale operator, has also revised its catalogue to provide easier access to its network. For greater flexibility, the smallest location that an ISP can choose to cover is now the municipality. The old model, exclusive to national ISPs, proved its limitations, which is why we now want to encourage entrepreneurs to get involved, municipality by municipality.  The political will is there. This is why I am calling on the ISPs to take advantage of the environment we have set up.

A paperless public administration more accessible to citizens and businesses

Through the reforms and flagship projects of the successful implementation of the Government’s Action Programme, between 2016 and 2020 Benin moved up 20 places in the world ranking of countries according to the state their E-Government development.  It is now the West African leader in the provision of e-services, according to a sub-indicator of the United Nations E-Government Development Index (EGDI). Furthermore, according to UNCTAD, Benin is (alongside Estonia) the fastest country in the world in terms of business set-up via a mobile phone.

    •    From taxes to business formation, several sectors have undergone an almost total digital transition. Here is an overview of the measures implemented for the digitalisation of Benin’s public services that enabled the country to achieve such results.
    •    The National Public Services Portal, “service-public.bj”, now provides access to comprehensive information on more than 560 public services and online delivery of more than 72 state services, including 10 totally paperless e-services.
    •    With 50,000 e-visas issued in 2020 to citizens of some 50 countries, nearly 30,000 online applications for criminal records just under six months after the launch of this e-service, and more than 40,500 businesses set up online in 10 months, the digital platforms deployed by the Beninese government are meeting expectations that extend beyond the country’s borders.
    •    Several capacity-building initiatives for digital ecosystem stakeholders have been launched through the National Fund to Support Digital Entrepreneurship, the “Benin Digital Tour” initiative and the roll-out of the Learning Lab, a centre set up by the Ministry of Digital Economy and Communication to provide free periodic training in digital professions. These actions encourage the emergence and development of local skills, with startups redefining Benin’s new economy.
    •    The School of Digital Professions is another example. Given the go-ahead by the Council of Ministers last August, it will not only fill a gap in Benin, but also in the sub-region, for “specific training, based on practical, professional and short-term input”, dedicated to the human resources needs of companies in the digital sector. In November last year, the government appointed the members of the Board of Directors of this school.
  •    The “eRESULTS” platform has revolutionised the way in which national exam and entry exam results are announced in this time of Covid-19. More than four million searches were carried out in less than six months, with a peak of 710,000 searches during the period when the results of the 2020 baccalaureate (high school diploma) were published.
  •    High school graduates no longer have to worry about career orientation thanks to the “apresmonbac.bj” website that is now at their disposal. Due to the platform’s integrated ranking methodology, nearly 20,000 scholarships have been awarded following a completely paperless and transparent procedure.
  •    The modernisation of the personal identification process and the setting up of a secure national register means that paperless public services are now within everyone’s reach.