Twenty young Beninese women, ages 16 to 24, who have dropped out of school, will learn to sew masks and make liquid soap, and will then take trainings on COVID-19 preventive measures, sexual and reproductive health, gender-based violence, and the basics of leadership and women's entrepreneurship.
“Our idea is to sensitize, train, mentor and empower these girls, so that they in turn can impact 1,000 other girls in their community,” says Sèna Montonhessa, one of the leaders of Gnonnou Asuka, which means “capable, brave woman” in French.
Gnonnou Asuka is one of twelve projects selected by UNICEF
and its partners in Benin as part of an innovation challenge to young entrepreneurs to propose solutions in education, health and social support during the pandemic. They presented their solutions this February at a hackathon event called “HackCovid-19 Benin Challenge
,” and are now preparing to carry out those solutions.
Hacking the pandemic
The hackathon was sponsored by members of the “Task Force Innov COVID-19 Benin,” which include the Sèmè City Development Agency (ADSC), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA
Benin), Sèmè-City, Epitech, the Benin Bloggers Association, and the MTN Foundation.
“The objective of this initiative is both to support the solutions provided by young people but also to mobilize new partners to continue to accompany them in their social entrepreneurship approach,” says Djanabou Mahondé, UNICEF Representative in Benin.
UNFPA Representative Barbara Laurenceau adds, “Innovation is both a means to accelerate solutions to the pandemic, but also a great way to allow young women and men to play their part in inclusive and sustainable civic and economic solutions.”
With a little help from artificial intelligence
Another team of young entrepreneurs proposed what they called the “Asuka chatbot,” which uses artificial intelligence to provide young people with reliable information about COVID-19 at any time of day or night. Users then can share that information via their social networks.
Alvin Kassa, one of the two initiators of this project, says that the chatbot doesn’t just provide information, it also collects it. “Through social listening, Asuka will generate important data on the major concerns of young people to enable decision-makers to take them into account in solving development problems," he says.
The chatbot, available on Facebook Messenger, was developed as a digital tool for the U-Report Benin initiative
, which aims to mobilize young people on issues that concern them.
"For the first few months, the Asuka chatbot will focus on the coronavirus theme. But we plan to gradually enrich it with new themes: education, sexuality, gender-based violence, and in the long term, make Asuka available in other languages such as English and our local languages via other social networks," says Kassa.
Solutions for the pandemic and beyond
Samya Barfleur-Dancale, head of the learner ecosystem at the Sèmè City Development Agency, one of the HackCovid-19 partners, says, “Private- and public-sector actors can work hand in hand with these young people to ensure the sustainability of their solutions.”
One private-sector partner is Epitech Benin, a computer school. The school’s director of development, Johanne Bruffaerts, says, “We support the HackCovid-19 challenge because the solutions presented are all very relevant and will be viable beyond the health crisis.” Epitech takes a particular interest in supporting projects that have a digital character.
UNICEF provides each winning team with up to US $10,000 to help them implement the pilot phase of their projects.
Addressing the 12 winners of the challenge, UNICEF’s Djanabou Mahondé said, “In a country where two out of three young people are under 25 years old, it is our duty to listen to you, to support you and to help you reach your full potential to imagine the future of your dreams.”
Story by Marion Desmurger and Yézaël Adoukonou, UNICEF Benin. Editorial support by Paul VanDeCarr, Development Coordination Office. To learn more about the work of the United Nations Country Team in Benin please visit: Benin.UN.org.