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BENIN: In Benin, digital take-off.

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EtriLabs

Creation of new applications, multiplication of start-ups, the former kingdom of Dahomey lives its digital revolution. A dynamism that brings more and more people with him.

The atmosphere is studious at EtriLabs. The murmuring of dozens of boys and girls leaning on their laptops, in the white open space, is covered by the breath of air conditioning. On the walls, from the ground floor to the floor of this house in a residential neighborhood, posters with inspiring English slogans, like this one: “A great idea is not enough. ”

“These are sentences from start-up bosses,” explains Ulrich Sossou, 29, who made himself known in Benin for selling his own (a marketing tool for real estate agents) at a high price to an American company . With Senam Beheton, a forty-year-old economist who lives between Africa and the United States, in 2010 he opened the “techhub for development”, a shared work space and training.

Young people come here to transform their ideas into application and learn entrepreneurship. Among them, Armand Accrombessi and his three comrades: they tweak Akwewa, a platform launched this summer. “It is to connect individuals who want to transfer funds in opposite directions, and avoid the cost of international transfers.” They dream of having the same success as the first two start-ups born here, employing eight people.

EtriLabs is one of the initiatives that have boosted the digital world in this country of 11 million inhabitants, where 5 to 10% of the population have access to the Internet, mainly via mobile networks. “Five years ago, we had about 20 start-ups, currently there are over a hundred. Everyone is DG of something! “Said Igor Koucoï, digital marketing expert and co-host of the Benintech blog.

Shared work spaces have been opened, competition for application creation has multiplied, stimulating the ecosystem, the name given to this set of actors and technologies. And then access to equipment has improved: the prices of laptops, smartphones (nine, from China, or second hand, from neighboring Nigeria), and the Internet have fallen. Above all, young self-taught precursors have seized information and communication technologies (ICTs) from their infancy in Benin.

They chose to return home

Ulrich Sossou and Igor Koucoï are among them, along with Jimmy Kumako, co-founder of CoinAfrique, a pan-African platform for good business, and Gilles Kounou, boss of Open Si. “They are talents and digital activists who inspire and supervise an entire generation entrepreneurs. They are active throughout the subregion, to my home in Senegal, “analyzes Tidjane Dème, who headed Google Afrique francophone.

These “mentors” chose to stay, or return, to the country. Like Boris Padonou, co-founder of KhulaTech, a start-up incubator opened last year and has already put two in orbit, including an online academy awarded by Facebook: “We could all go to Silicon Valley. But we want to give life to the beautiful ideas here to develop the country.

In Benin, there are between five and six hundred developers, according to the Association of Developers of Benin and coders (1). They are trained at an early age in places like the Blolab, a digital manufacturing laboratory.

Reliable, low-cost broadband remains a challenge

However, despite innovations in services and trade, it is not yet possible to speak of a digital economy that generates jobs in all sectors. Today, ICT accounts for 6% of GDP, thanks to mobile telephony. “Benin could have taken off faster if there was the basic infrastructure, because proximity to Nigeria is an asset,” according to Tidjane Dème.

Basic infrastructure means stable and quality electricity and Internet. In Cotonou, there are still loads. And reliable broadband at a lower cost remains a challenge. “We have ten 4G modems and it costs us 600 € a month. Benin has fiber optics but it is not deployed everywhere! “, Deplores Senam Beheton. The largest Nigerian techhub has it for free. It starts there. “

Also lack investment. Incubators and start-ups operate on own funds or raise capital abroad. This is the case of CoinAfrique. When Matthias Papet, one of the founders, Frenchman, regrets it, to visit Cotonou to present a new formula for the application. “Capital is found in France. In Benin, investors want to put their money into profitable business in the short term, without taking risk. ”

The government of Patrice Talon, elected in April 2016, understood the need to support this sector. To this end, it opened the Digital Agency, located just next to the presidency. At its head, Serge Adjovi, former senior executive in computer science. He is ambitious: “We want to establish ourselves as a power of digital, to be in the top 3 African and first in West Africa. “To do so, it announces 80% coverage by the end of the mandate in 2021, including 40% optical fiber (with Huawei), investments in training, and support for start-ups. Digital will be generalized in administration, education, commerce. Target: 90,000 jobs.

These announcements, however, are relativized by the digital players: “It is to clear themselves of their inability to create jobs,” says one of them. But they share the optimism of Boris Padonou: “The gestation is long but good things will emerge from this bubbling. ”

The digital revolution in Africa

In 1995, less than 2% of Africans had access to the telephone. By 2020, they will be 7 out of 10 to have a smartphone, according to the World Association of GSM 2016 report.

The number of active mobile accounts rose from 61 million to 103 million between 2014 and 2015. 24% of Beninese use mobile money.

According to consultant PwC, 160 million euros were invested in African start-ups last year. In comparison to the 4 billion invested in India for a similar population.

In Nigeria, Rwanda, Tunisia, governments support smart-cities, connected cities.

Source La Croix / By Delphine Bousquet

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