Over the past decade, Benin has emerged as a hub for entrepreneurship and innovation in West Africa, with a growing number of startups and small businesses.
Benin is uniquely positioned for innovation due two major components: the proximity to Lagos, Nigeria, and its large and educated youth population. The latter is both a triumph and dilemma when it comes to the development of the country’s business ecosystem and employment. With an unemployment rate of over 10%, many young people in Benin are struggling to find meaningful work and build stable careers.
Over 60% of Benin’s population is under the age of 25, creating a significant pool of talented and educated young people who are eager to contribute to the country’s development. Entrepreneurship provides a path to renew and improve the ecosystem in Benin, creating jobs, driving innovation, and addressing some of the country’s most pressing challenges.
To make this vision a reality, Benin needs support from a range of stakeholders, including municipal organizations, venture capitalists, and corporate investment. Undoubtedly, a major stakeholder in this effort is Sémé City, a headquarters and campus for Benin’s innovation and entrepreneurship. Sémé City is home to a range of initiatives and programs designed to support local entrepreneurs, including co-working spaces, incubators, and accelerators.
In December 2016, the Republic of Benin launched an unprecedented investment and development program called “Benin Revealed.” The program’s mission and initiatives are “to ensure inclusive and sustainable growth through increased collaboration with private sector partners. It is notably based on 45 flagship projects in 9 strategic sectors. One of these flagship projects is the creation of the International City of Innovation and Knowledge called Sèmè City. Sèmè City aims to provide a stimulating framework for meeting the skills needs of African markets through training, research and entrepreneurship.”
Building the Innovation Infrastructure: MassChallenge’s Footprint in Western Africa
In 2022, MassChallenge announced a partnership with Zeleus, a Boston-based corporation, founded to empower professionals and propel entrepreneurs as they work to build successful careers and businesses. The collaboration’s aim is to position Benin as an emerging entrepreneurial hub and leader of innovation in Africa. The partnership will support entrepreneurs in developing and executing game-changing ideas and connecting them with markets, networks, and capital in the global innovation ecosystem.
“MassChallenge is proud to partner with Zeleus to foster cross-sector innovation, identify and nurture industry trends in the region, and nurture cooperation across the significant industries and innovation stakeholders in Benin,” said Sunanda Narayan, MassChallenge’s Bridge to MassChallenge leader. “Bridge to MassChallenge Benin will help grow the highest-impact, highest-potential startups across Benin, while connecting them to MassChallenge’s global network. We are excited to discover, partner, and equip the top Beninese startups to be market-ready, both locally and globally.”
Zeleus CEO, Gildas Bah, a Benin native and MassChallenge judge himself further commented, “This is an exciting and important partnership that will foster the growing innovation community in Benin and beyond. Benin is a country full of incredible entrepreneurial talent; now we can tap into that talent, and increase their presence in the global startup community. Zeleus is proud to leverage our relationships and our team on the ground in Benin, and MassChallenge is the perfect partner to help make this initiative a reality. We hope to add value to the framework they have already built in Nigeria, Morocco and other global regions.”
Bridge to MassChallenge Nigeria
Through 2021 and 2022, the Bridge to MassChallenge Nigeria Program was in partnership with Nigeria National Information Technology Development Agency. The program kicked off with an in-depth innovation ecosystem assessment that featured a combination of relevant stakeholders’ groups which are government agencies, universities, venture capitalists and angel investors, entrepreneurs, corporates, as well as media and influencers.
Subsequently, two series of immersive bootcamps were held. Participating startups had access to classes with curated curriculum on global best practices around innovation and entrepreneurship, custom-made mentoring and coaching offered by renowned mentors, and access to MassChallenge’s global network of alumni and experts.
The collaboration brought together 121 Experts and +1k applications. 30 high-potential startups were selected across the six geopolitical regions of Nigeria. At the completion of the program, three startups were selected to be fast tracked into the U.S. Early Stage accelerator program.
The program consisted of two startup boot camps where all 30 startups participated in the first cohort and a select 10 in the second. Across Nigeria, in total, the ecosystem engaged with:
• 5 corporations
• 5 foundations
• 3 investor groups
• 5 universities
• 7 government offices
Top 3 Startups of Bridge to MassChallenge Nigeria
Negs Empire (Founder: Nwakuba Ezinne): Negs Empire is an agritech venture that used the bee-keeping method to improve food security, especially crop production and honey production in localities to remedy insecurity in food supply and reduce low food production output and scarcity and inaccessibility of pure honey by packaging them in affordable pack sizes.
Dozzy Agriculture (Founder: Nnadozie Ukaegbu): Dozzy is an agritech venture focused on closing the market gap between the fish consumed and fish produced in the fish value chain, through sustainable fish seed productivity and processing.
Maximus Recycling Solutions (Founder: Johnson Obute): An envitech that helps people gain financial value for their waste. It uses web technology to help people gain value for their waste and provide a reliable supply of raw material to the local recycling industry in Nigeria.
Bridge to MassChallenge Benin
Building on the experiences in Nigeria, Bridge to MassChallenge launched its first mini-accelerator program, colloquially referred to as a “Startup Bootcamp,” in Benin in April 2023.
The engagement aimed to strengthen the Benin innovation ecosystem by providing exposure and access to global business networks, funding opportunities, and extensive knowledge to give Benin founders equal opportunities for their startup ventures to compete globally.
MassChallenge employed the below dimensions, and corresponding sub-criteria and sub-questions, when conducting interviews with key stakeholders to evaluate Benin’s ecosystem:
As Bridge to MassChallenge does with every new-market partnership (19 to date), it assembled a thorough analysis of the region’s strengths and challenges to build the collaboration around.
Benin’s Economy is growing
By all accounts and reports, the overall economy of Benin is growing very well after the difficulties and global turmoil following the COVID19 pandemic. The World Bank clocks GDP growth in 2021 at 6.6%, GDP at $17.79 billion, inflation at 1.7% and unemployment at 1.6%.
Regional startups solving local problems
Startups like Gozem have entered the market, made strategic hires and are using Benin as growth market in their broader expansion plans in francophone Africa. Gozem is a Togolese ‘super-app’ that provides Francophone, West and Central African users with e-commerce, delivery, transport and financial services. The app is completely in French which ensures it is a compelling competitor to Uber.
Limited corporate engagement and local market for startup-corporate collaboration.
As observed during the Corporate Roundtable, there are very few large companies operating withing Benin and even fewer large tech companies. This posits a challenge for in-person engagement, partnership, or business development for startups as they start to scale and grow.
Income in Benin is very low which presents a market challenge with a range of barriers
A repeated refrain during the roundtables with various stakeholder groups is that many families live on $100 a month. The World Bank reports 19.9% of the population living on $2.15 a day.
Plan of Action
View all of francophone Africa as the total available market for startups
Benin has a population just under 12.5 million people with a limited number of first adopters. If a startup were to maintain an expansion perspective from the beginning of their journey as a founder, their total potential market increases to 120 million people with a forecasted population of 845 million+ by 2050. The repeated feedback is conducting business in English at this stage is laborious and unappealing to founders. If founders developed and maintained as perspective of regional growth they could access a market 10X their own without having to contend with translation or language barriers.
Align with and support initiatives like GDIZ and Seme City which will grow the local market considerably
As an entity, Zeleus has an opportunity to align with the various government funded entities that will shape the market of the future. Where Seme City is driving innovation, the Glo-Djigbé Industrial Zone (GDIZ) is driving industry. As a joint public-private venture between the Benin government and developer Arise Integrated Industrial Platforms (“Arise IIP”), it will host a state-of-the-art industrial park with a focus on agro-industry, principally cashew production and cotton transformation, but catering also to other industries and agricultural sectors. GDIZ will also provide integrated logistical services, commercial space and warehouses with critical infrastructure including fire and police, to ensure safety during processing.
One of the more interesting components of GDIZ is the positioning of global capital in bringing the project to fruition including Olan International, Afreximbank, BGFI Bank Group with strategic advisement from London Headquartered Watson, Farley & Williams.
Arise IIP is jointly owned by Olam International, the leading Singapore-based global agribusiness with a significant presence in Africa (itself majority owned by Temasek, one of Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds), and Africa Finance Corporation, an international financing organization with a mission to finance infrastructure, industrial and agricultural assets across Africa.
Founded in 1993 and headquartered in Cairo, Egypt, Afreximbank is the leading African trade finance institution. BGFI is a large financial services conglomerate headquartered in Gabon and with subsidiaries in Benin, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Madagascar, France and Cote d’Ivoire.
- Achieve nuanced understanding of all components of Benin’s startup ecosystem
- Network and knowledge share with key stakeholders in the Benin startup ecosystem
- Engage with startups to drive applications to startup bootcamp competition
- Introduce a new and objective perspective of the Benin startup ecosystem to key stakeholders through knowledge exchange and MC expertise
- Impart global best practices in startup ecosystem development and entrepreneurial support to Benin’s ecosystem leaders
- Promote partnership between MassChallenge and Benin with Zelus at the center
- Attain holistic exposure to the Benin startup ecosystem and facilitate productive dialogue at the week’s close about our collective observations and initial reactions
- Allow dialogue, observations, and evaluations from MC team members to inform the Ecosystem Assessment report which will be presented by MC to Zeleus
There was a total of 15 startups that were selected to participate in the B2MC Benin week-long bootcamp where 4 Experts took the cohort through a curated 4-day curriculum after which there was a selection of the Top 6 Startups.
“I knew many concepts, but I didn’t have the right understanding or how to operate it. But After the bootcamp, I better understand them and now I Know to do them” – Glewe
“The meetings, the exchanges, the energy shared between us entrepreneurs and with the mentors. It’s been an amazing journey!” – Siwen Pharma
“One: I felt home. Two: the positive énergie of the Coaches and organizers” – AfriCereal Group
The Future of Innovation in Western Africa Is Bright
With the emergence of Lagos, Nigeria as an entrepreneurial hub over the past decade, other countries in the region have been able to build and accelerate their own innovation ecosystems. With its proximity to Lagos, Nigeria and large population of educated young people, Benin already had the ingredients for innovation. Adding the federal investment and infrastructure Sémé City provides, the future is promising.
Is Ghana Next?
Just as Benin’s proximity to Nigeria is an advantage for its industries, Ghana could benefit similarly from its proximity and ties with Benin. With a population exceeding 30 million, Ghana is a prominent nation in Africa, recognized for its potential in innovation. It is ranked as the third most peaceful country in sub-Saharan Africa and its economy has long been considered a key driver for the West African region, according to the U.S. State Department.
The COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected Ghana’s economy, with a staggering 80% decrease in annual GDP growth from 2019 to 2020. Despite these challenges, the government of Ghana, and specifically the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology & Innovation, continue to demonstrate their commitment to promoting gender equality, protecting natural resources, and taking action on climate change.
The success of both the Benin and Nigeria MassChallenge initiatives demonstrates how bright and talented the founder pool is in West Africa. Additionally, these collaborations also show the importance of partnerships between local organizations and international entities to support and develop entrepreneurial ecosystems in any region, which have been smartly, pursued from these countries’ governments. The possibility of exponential economic development growing from Benin and Nigeria to further countries is not only promising but already in action.