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Insights from Benin’s EtriLabs

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Technology hubs give young innovators and entrepreneurs the unique opportunity to develop their products and services and to make them marketable. The lack of awareness about the opportunities that e-agriculture has to offer, is one of the main obstacles to succeed.

The youth in Benin are increasingly connected to the internet by smartphones. They mainly use mobile apps to gain information and exchange it with family and friends. Mobile apps are also used for agriculture purposes by some. There is a growing, but still weak recognition of the opportunities e-agriculture could provide for young entrepreneurs and innovators. To develop a product or service that is marketable and suits the demands of all the stakeholders that are involved in agriculture needs time, money, and networking skills. To help the youth entrepreneurs and innovators to improve their skills, to connect them in local and international networks, and to make their innovations suitable for end-users, is why technology labs spring up all around in Africa.

In Benin, Etrilabs is such an incubator that welcomes e-agriculture innovators. Benin is a country heavily dependent on agriculture. The agricultural sector contributes to more than 30% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), provides 75% of export earnings, and 70% of total employment. The sector could give young innovators and entrepreneurs in e-agriculture many opportunities to strengthen their business case.

Mentoring and advising

EtriLabs is a project of Educational Technology and Research International (ETRI), an NGO dedicated to the use of ICTs for development. It aims to support technology developers, entrepreneurs, civil society, businesses, and governments to create and stimulate the usage of innovative technological solutions in agriculture.

The lab supports youth through mentoring and advisory. It provides a workspace in which innovators can exchange their ideas with others. EtriLabs also facilitates dialogues between stakeholders in agriculture, which helps the young innovators a lot, because their network is still limited. Strengthened with EtriLabs’ support some innovative products and services for agricultural usage have been developed and marketed yet. These include Agri-Help, an enabling platform to determine urgent problems in food production that was developed during the Space Apps Challenge 2016, a competition organised by NASA. Another app that has been launched from EtriLabs is Smart Grange, an automated management system for farmers that allows them to develop parallel activities while managing the farm via the app.

Partnerships

In addition, EtriLabs has partnerships with other technology hubs and incubation programmes. For instance, it is a partner in the AgriHack Talent Programme in West Africa, also known as the Youth Enabled AgriHack Fish Farming (YEFFA). This is a project supported by CTA and managed by Wennovation Hub Nigeria. Within YEFFA many stakeholders, such as fish farmers, wholesalers, retailers, academics, and policy makers participate with the young innovators. In August 2016 a site visit, boot camp, and a hackathon were organised simultaneously in four cities: Cotonou (Benin), Lomé (Togo), Warri (Nigeria), and Lagos (Nigeria). At the EtriLab in Cotonou two protoypes were selected for further development and support: e-MAS and Fisher_Innove. The regional final is scheduled to take place in Lagos.

EtriLabs faces different challenges to support young innovators and entrepreneurs. Inadequate financial resources, lack of direct support from the government in Benin for e-agriculture innovations, the inadequacy of local stakeholders to build an enabling environment that suits particularly the young entrepreneurs, are among others the most important challenges. According to Murielle Anatohon, Programme Assistant at EtriLabs, young innovators that successful went through the mentoring process still face difficulties to find further financial support dedicated to technological innovation in agriculture, inadequate promotion and subsidies for young agronomists, and low awareness of the opportunities of e-agriculture entrepreneurship within Benin.

To boost technological innovation in agriculture in Benin and in the sub-region, EtriLabs suggests to clearly define successful cases to increase awareness on opportunities. It also would like to involve more agricultural youth organisations in the debates to define agricultural policy recommendations that include references to e-agriculture. Furthermore, hackathons and e-agriculture competitions should give investors, policy-makers, and the youth the chance to understand the business opportunities in agriculture through innovations.

Related links

Website of EtriLabs

Louis Agbokou's blog: https://suivifermesdelevage.wordpress.com

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