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In bustling Cotonou, Benin’s commercial capital, a homegrown company has tapped into the global technology revolution and, over the years, has made giant strides.
Located in the suburb of Cotonou, inside a magnificent white duplex overlooking Cadjehoun Airport’s runway, is EtriLabs, one accelerator at the forefront of the silent uprising of Benin’s technology revolution.
The accelerator is visited daily by over 100 individuals; including developers, designers, digital marketers, content creators and young entrepreneurs that make up the EtriLabs ecosystem. There, they receive training, mentorship and other business development resources that generally help them build products for the world.
With its core team, EtriLabs could build tools and solutions for global consumption. But instead, it leans towards an inclusive ecosystem that caters for young people through several entrepreneurship programmes.
Every year, 21 young entrepreneurs brace up for the EtriLabs Accelerator programme — now in its second cohort — buoyed by the prospect of getting as much as $15,000 investment to scale their ideas.
Its women impact programme, WHISPA (Women High Impact Startup Preparation Academy) has been lauded for helping to change the gender make up in the Benin tech ecosystem with its five-year (starting since April 2015) agenda to train 25 women yearly in soft skills.
When I spoke with some of the individuals, they expressed mixed emotions about their success. But for Ulrich Sossou, EtriLabs couldn’t have been more than he had hoped for. At 30 years of age, he has grown from being a mere mentor to now Vice President of EtriLabs.
In terms of products, Chaperone, a SaaS tools and guide which helps companies onboard training and user retention, arguably stands out among the products of EtriLabs. The startup boasts a global customer base of 2500 unique users across 80 countries, charging between $9 and $249 for its services.
For the many young entrepreneurs and individuals that greet the four walls of EtriLabs daily, building products that will be used across the globe isn’t just a wishful thought; they are defying the odds to birth this reality.
Where it all started
A lot has gone into building the EtriLabs dream. But it wasn’t all rosy at the beginning. Around 2009, Senam Beheton — EtriLab’s founder — made the decision to relocate back to this 10 million population-strong French West African nation from the US, in search of startups he considered might be investment ready.
But given Benin’s abysmal 2.2% online population at the time, it wasn’t surprising to see his efforts yield no desired result. In 2014, he teamed up with the young and experienced software engineer, Ulrich Sossou. And this time they ran with the idea of a startup studio (of sorts) which would accept ideas, transform them to products and then take the products to market.
While some of the products went on to gain market success, as is the case with Chaperone, Senam noted that the builders of these products were lacking in the necessary skills needed to keep up with growth.
“They didn’t have the skills in marketing, customer success and other developmental skills,” says Senam.
As original investors, Senam and Ulrich were able to make a strategic exit in one of the startups and witnessed many more collapse. The few good ones that managed through the shortfall equally faced a certain death without access to continuous funding.
“There was one way to fix this, and that was to create a more robust network and, at the same time, creating both a regional and international network of investors who have interest for Africa,” Senam explains.
By applying this, EtriLabs was reborn, into the new light.
A bright future
Benin’s fledgling startup ecosystem faces many challenges. One of them is the costly Internet. But in spite of this the country’s Internet population continues to surge. Every year since 2009, the figure has increased.
From a mere 5.6% in 2016, Internet penetration increased to about 12% in 2017, its highest leap ever.
Surely, the smart entrepreneurs at EtriLabs will poise themselves to reap the harvest of building solutions that will meet as many local needs as possible.
As a matter of fact, EtriLabs has a five-year plan to raise $5 million which it plans to commit into its startups. Already, $808,327 (€700,000) has been secured in a little over a year, €500,000 of that amount was raised from just one growth fund in Europe.
In all this, Senam names his preference in business.
“As opposed to looking for talent, I’m looking for entrepreneurs because it’s one key thing I’ve realised through this past 9 years is important.”