Leaving no smallholder farmer or micro entrepreneur behind: Cell phones come to the rescue and boost jobs in post-COVID Benin
04 May 2022
Starting and growing a business without having access to a bank account is a daunting task
Anne Owa is a well-known food vendor in Boukoumbé, a town in northwestern Benin. She does not have a bank account and cannot save money on her income: Her husband often steals the money she hides under her bed or in her loincloth.
"My husband knows where I hide the money. He borrows it from me regularly and never gives it back. My children steal from me, too. With the training I just received on financial management and savings, I will be able to put my money on Mobile Money and I won't have to worry anymore," she explained, looking relieved and determined.
The Mobile Money service was developed by cell phone companies authorized to distribute electronic money in Benin. It allows for easily and securely paying bills, depositing or withdrawing money and making transfers with just a smartphone.
Like Anne, many women and youth in Benin have started a small business or farm to support themselves and their families, but lack a bank account where they can invest and expand their business by making money transfers and accessing loans or savings plans.
The financial situation of these already vulnerable persons further deteriorated with the COVID-19 crisis, which forced them to discontinue their businesses and revealed an urgent need for governments to invest in resilience-building programmes using digital solutions—which help ensure the continuity of local revenue-generating activities.
Communities better equipped to recover from the COVID-19 crisis: The Recovery To Resilience (R2R) project
In this context, the United Nations funded a one-year project to train thousands of micro/small-scale entrepreneurs and small-scale farmers in entrepreneurship, financial management, and digital solutions, to help them start new businesses, provide for themselves, and preserve newly-created jobs.
Trainings are being provided in Beninese border localities with high potential: Nikki, Kalalé, Boukoumbé, Glazoué, Avrankou, Aplahoué, Grand Popo, Zagnanado, Bassila and Kétou.
Digital solutions that change everyday life
Everyday actions as simple as withdrawing money from an ATM or making a transfer with a bank teller are not guarantees for disadvantaged families that may not be able to afford opening a bank account, may not have the time to do so, or may not have access to affordable transportation to the bank, especially in rural areas.
Sossavi Kodjo, a farmer in Grand-Popo, a locality in southern Benin, is very happy to use the Mobile Money service to get around these challenges:
"I use Mobile Money to send money to my children in Cotonou. This saves me time and money as I no longer need to make the trip."
In the same locality, Denise Mensah, a palm nut and oil vendor, no longer has to worry. After each working day, she deposits her earnings in her Mobile Money account and withdraws money when she needs to, using her cell phone, a new habit that was completely unfamiliar to her until now.
Securing digital tools for more effective post-COVID-19 economic recovery strategies
But using a digital device to manage one's accounts, cash flow and financial transactions is not a given. For a small farmer for whom every fruit or vegetable harvested counts, or an inexperienced micro-entrepreneur who has overcome a wealth of challenges to start a business they depend on for survival, keeping financial assets in a safe place is not merely a luxury.
This vulnerability is partially what explains the reluctance of small producers and vendors to use digital tools to manage their operations. The concerns that hinder the adoption of digital solutions to personal financial challenges in Benin include limited knowledge of the process of cell phone-based digital transactions, fake news that generate the fear of seeing one's money vanish if a phone is lost, and the fear of consequences of having personal codes stolen.
That is why the trainings provided by the United Nations R2R project places as much emphasis on digital technology - through the Mobile Money service - as it does on entrepreneurship and financial management.
The staff that has been delivering these trainings have noted, to their great satisfaction, that each time they answer security-related questions on the Mobile Money service, participants immediately become enthusiastic as they realize that the service will help them protect their assets and optimize their business operations.
"I did not know that my mobile phone could improve my business and allow me to better manage my income," said a woman after taking a training course in Boukoumbé.
In the communities where these trainings are taking place, beneficiaries express clear excitement about learning new entrepreneurial, financial and digital skills. And rightly so: They know that these skills will help them recover their confidence in both the future and their ability to become financially independent.
”Leveraging digital solutions to improve the Recovery to Resilience of vulnerable populations in Benin,”or the R2R project, is implemented by several service providers including Tic AgroBusiness, a Beninese start-up working to disseminate good agricultural practices through digital technology. The project is co-funded by the United Nations COVID-19 Response and Recovery Multi-Partner Trust Fund (COVID-19 MPTF), the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
Micro-entrepreneurs and farmers participating in the project’s trainings have been mobilized through agricultural cooperatives and women's savings groups. The trainings provided have already reached more than 10,000 people (6,000 micro- and small entrepreneurs and 4,000 smallholder farmers), at least 60 per cent of whom are women.