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Benin tech hub Etri Labs targets West African expansion

etrilabs

The small West African nation of Benin could very soon be one of the most important centres for technology and innovation in the region if members of its first innovation hub, Etri Labs, fulfil their goals.

Situated in the business hub of Cotonou, Etri Labs has been in existence for a year and in that time has already started to influence the culture surrounding ICT and technology innovation in Benin.

The creation of this incubation space is the result of the work done by an umbrella organisation originally founded in the United States known as Educational Technology and Research International (E-tri).

“I founded E-tri in 2006 with the goal of using it to promote the use of ICT in education. EtriLabs is a project that emerged from that and its goal is to help African developers, social entrepreneurs, non-governmental organisations, businesses and governments create and use innovative technology solutions,” explains E-tri founder and Etri Labs chief technologist Senam Beheton.

Beheton has a background in both education and in international development and so saw a natural outlet for those skills to be used in ICT. Between 2007 and 2010 he worked with several African countries to develop national strategies for the use of ICT in education.

However, he grew frustrated with the lack of action when it came to the actual implementation of the strategies.

“In essence we were writing very good proposals that were sitting on ministry desks and gathering dust. That is when we decided to do some work ourselves by putting together the Etri Labs and the goals of these labs was to act upon the things we were writing about in these big national documents in the related countries,” says Beheton.

Using his own resources, both financial and intellectual, this self-styled social entrepreneur has worked tirelessly to build Etri Labs Benin into one if the biggest innovation spaces in West Africa.

The hub consists of four computer labs, four co-working spaces as well as a lounge and, while very big, Beheton admits that often times the space is still not large enough to accommodate the interest it has generated amongst Benin’s burgeoning tech community. “None of our rooms can accommodate more than 30 people seated. When we have large groups for training so we have to either break them into smaller groups or rent a larger facility,” says Beheton.

While space has proved an issue for the hub, its main challenge is that of internet connectivity and more specifically the high costs and low speeds. While Benin, and Cotonou in particular, is a landing spot for the South Atlantic 3/West African submarine cable, this has not translated into improved service or costs for the country’s residents.

According to Beheton, a 1Mbps connection in Benin will cost in the region of $200 US per month, while in nearby Senegal, the same connection is only $50 US. To add insult to injury Benin even sells bandwidth to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Togo.

“At our hub, for example, all we can afford is the 1Mbps connection because above that you get a 2Mbps connection which is asymmetrical but that costs, I believe, $3,000 dollars a month which is out of reach for us,” says a clearly frustrated Beheton.

The other major challenge that Etri Labs has identified is the lack of practical experience many of its new members demonstrate when they first join the hub. Much of the learning done by computer science students is theoretical.

However, Beheton is confident that the positive attitude towards technology and innovation in Benin is fast gaining momentum. The hub is already assisting its members in developing their practical skills through a combination of training sessions and work opportunities.

“At Etri Labs we also contract with companies outside of Benin for app development and that sort of work so we have a database of developers that we are giving work too and we have noticed that by doing that sort of work they are beginning to develop their own projects because they feel more comfortable in light of what they are doing,” says Beheton.

In terms of membership Etri Labs has worked to make it as simple as possible to become a member of the space. To become a member is simply a case of filling in an application form, paying a nominal once-off fee and receiving a badge that allows a person to access the hub.

“We are trying to have a network of members and have our services offered a la carte. Once you are a member then you can come in for daily co-working or free training and that is where we have our 500 members, some of them never come and others just go the website. We have about 100 active members who are co-workers, who come to us with ideas, participate in our hack-a-thons and are very active,” explains Beheton.

Looking forward, Beheton has identified key goals such as making the hub sustainable and at the same time opening a new Etri Lab annually in every country in West Africa. Ultimately, Beheton plans to make the Senegal location the regional hub due to the country’s strong ICT infrastructure and mature developer community. Currently, funding is sourced through the contract work that Etri Labs does with the plan to further develop that side of the hub as well as invest in ideas and projects emerging from the space.

“We want to open a hub in every country in West Africa every year. We already have a program in Senegal and in Mali; we have done training with one of the organisations that contracted us to do social media work and help organisations use technology. If it wasn’t for the war in Mali we would already have been there with a physical hub there,” Beheton says.

Etri Labs has shown that although a young and relatively small player in the innovation space that it punches far above its weight. With strong leadership, a clear roadmap for the future and a solid foundation it will not be long before the EtriLabs is established as a role model for the entire West African tech community.

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