The country’s young people are chasing their entrepreneurial dreams amid a digitalization boom powered by e-government tools developed by UNCTAD.
© UNCTAD | Entrepreneurs Richard Odjrado (left) and Caludia Togbe.
Not everyone can turn the theft of a cell phone into a good experience. But then again, not everyone is Richard Odjrado. When this young Beninese entrepreneur’s phone was stolen – for a second time – he transformed calamity into ingenuity.
Mr. Odjrado, 34, has created a revolutionary anti-theft tracker for smartphones that alerts the owner if the phone is moved without their permission, enabling them to locate it if it’s lost or stolen. The tracker is also operated from a smart watch he’s designed.
He spent nearly two years researching and developing his anti-theft solution before launching his company AS World Tech, which also makes glasses and laptops.
Boom for registrations
Between 2019 and 2022 the number of young people opening new businesses in Benin skyrocketed, more than tripling from 7,416 registrations to 23,312.
“That’s growth of 212%,” says Laurent Gangbes, chief executive of the Agency for the Promotion of Investments and Exports (APIEx) in Benin, who’s behind an initiative to digitize government services and make it easier to do business in the West African nation.
The boom is powered by low-code software developed by UNCTAD, and “demonstrates a national demand for digital services that support entrepreneurial ambitions,” Mr. Gangbes added.
UNCTAD developed the MonEntreprise.bj platform in 2020, using its ground-breaking software custom-built to help businesses launch efficiently online.
Benin is committed to establishing a digital business environment that delivers innovative services to the private sector and enables businesses to thrive. “Their story is one of an enabling environment realized,” says Frank Grozel, UNCTAD’s head of business facilitation.
The UNCTAD-Benin business facilitation project is supported by the Netherlands.
The software has been deployed in 10 other developing countries and counting, lowering barriers to entry into the business world in Argentina, Bhutan, Burundi, Cameroon, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iraq, Lesotho and Mali.
Mr. Odjrado’s company is now thriving because of the digital-first approach taken by Benin’s government. The MonEntreprise.bj platform saved him a lot of time and hassle, he said.
"I didn't have to run around to different government offices to get the necessary documents. I was able to do everything online, from registering my business to obtaining my tax ID number.”
He registered AS World Tech in a few minutes in June 2021. Less than two years later, it exports to 56 countries including France and China. The company is about to build a new factory of 16,000 square metres in Benin that will employ 218 people.
“If you stay in the informal sector you are no one. You have no legitimacy and aren’t known. You can’t have any serious business relationships. So you need to formalize,” he advised.
More women taking the entrepreneurial leap
More women than ever are using the MonEnterprise platform to open companies.
The number of women-founded companies doubled between 2019 (8,936) and 2022 (18,764), with women like Caludia Togbe taking full advantage of just how easy it is to do so.
“I didn’t believe the online business registration system would work as promised but it did,” Ms. Togbe said. “It’s every entrepreneur’s dream to be able to create a company from home. In other countries in the sub-region it takes three weeks to do the same thing.”
Women represented 33% of the 56,579 new businesses opened in Benin in 2022.
For Ms. Togbe, the formalization of her business helped change perceptions. When she started looking for work early in her career, she was told by would-be employers that she was too young for the job.
But she bypassed their opinions to launch Origine Terre, a natural product cosmetics company. “In only three to four clicks,” she added.
“I couldn't wait for someone to hire me, so I decided to create my own job, and hire myself,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to be my own boss. But it wasn't until I hit rock bottom that I decided to take the leap and start my own business."
She began by making natural cosmetic products in her kitchen and selling them at local markets. As her business grew, she moved into a small workshop and began to hire employees.
Now Origine Terre is a popular phenomenon in Benin. Opened in 2020 on MonEnterprise, it has expanded to include skincare, haircare and body care products. Her products are sold in stores throughout France and online.
Origine Terre exports to Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Togo, and imports from China, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Across Benin, its products are stocked at local supermarkets.