Interview Ms. AURÉLIE ADAM ZOULÉ Z./ MINISTER OF DIGITAL & DIGITALIZATION OF BENIN

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The Digital: An instrument to further reveal Benin

Interview with Ms. Aurélie ADAM SOULÉ ZOUMAROU, Minister of Digital and Digitalization of Benin.

Panafrican Bilingual Corporates Magazine ( PBCM):

Hon Minister,  Please introduce yourself to our readers.

I’m Aurélie ADAM SOULE ZOUMAROU, Minister of Digital and Digitalization.

PBCM : Madam Minister, through the implementation of the Government Action Program (PAG) of President Patrice Talon and the creation of the Ministry of Digital and Digitalization, we have observed a clear interest in the digital. What are the key achievements to date in this sector?

Aurélie ADAM SOULE ZOUMAROU:

Since the assumption of office of President Patrice TALON in 2016 and the establishment of his team, the digital sector has experienced considerable growth. The vision of the Head of State for the development of the sector is very ambitious. Moreover, the digital economy constitutes one of the priority sectors of the five-year term as well as agriculture and tourism. These are, therefore, the three flagship sectors of economic recovery in our country. And when you have placed a sector on such a pedestal, it becomes easy to understand that it is being given the means to achieve results. This has been a reality since 2016 through a holistic approach in terms of projects, programmes to be implemented. Projects such as the deployment of high and very high speed internet. On this front, we have several achievements, such as our fiber optic backbone. Today, we have nearly 2,000 km of fiber that we have either rehabilitated or deployed in addition to this rehabilitation. From north to south and with loops in some major cities and also suspenders in several localities. Then, we relied on this deployment to bring fiber within the reach of populations through the establishment of community digital points, digital rooms in schools, and ICT access points in post offices . In concrete terms, there are 40 community digital points, to date. We will continue to roll out at the other localities.

Community digital points are centers where we have brought an internet service provider who installs a Wi-Fi point (in youth centers in most cases) and at the same time sets up a digital center so that populations have access to training in the digital sector to develop digital skills but also to benefit from digital resources: computer or connection for their activities. As a result, artisans, students, pupils, the public sector, that is to say civil servants, all of these now have a place where they can at least access internet. Of course, the internet service provider, from the moment he is in the locality, can also connect all of the services that are around both public and private companies, the town halls and the homes of these localities. This is particularly important because we want to bring tchnology closer to our people.

The digital code that we have implemented since the President of the Republic promulgated it in 2018, is an illustration of this. Today, we are one of the few countries in Africa that have a complete legal arsenal for the digital sector. It’s good for investors because it gives them the right framework. They now know what to expect to come and invest in Benin. This is a good situation for companies that are established in Benin, because they are aware of the obligations and the rights to which they can be subjected. It’s the same for our startups. Our young companies can thus see the whole array of opportunities available to them and we are, more and more, working to make the application texts of this law on the digital code available. The latest texts were voted in July 2019. They helped fix the landscape and the elements that should regulate the digital sector a little more. I cannot cite all the achievements. These are some of the major ones that can show for the sector.

PBCM: What are the indices and / or figures that show that Benin is on the right track?

 Aurélie ADAM SOULE ZOUMAROU:

The first clue is the one you can easily notice: the internet penetration rate. When we talk about broadband, right away, we think of the internet. We have gone in terms of penetration from a rate around 28% before 2016, to almost 48% now, according to the latest ARCEP estimates. These figures show that we are on an upward curve both in terms of deployment and infrastructure. The mobile connectivity index of the GSMA has shown a positive development in Benin with regard to 3G and 4G infrastructure. And we are continuing this momentum. Then, when we observe the use of digital technology, the first index that has experienced growth is the financial transactions sector, which concerns mobile financial resources: mobile money has experienced truly exponential growth, simply from year to year. The growth is even more noticeable when you consider a number of years. For example, according to ARCEP, between 2017 and 2018, we went from 1,700,000 active subscribers to nearly 2,600,000. More than 50% year-on-year increase. And it continued like this. These are all figures that show that we are doing the right thing; from the point of view of the platforms that we set up, especially the e-visa platform which facilitates the procedures for people wishing to come to Benin for various reasons, tourism or business … Before the implementation of the e-visa, we issued around 12,000 per year, or 1,000 visas on average per month. After the launch of the e-visa platform in April 2018, we went from 1,000 per month to more than 4,000 visas issued on average. These are all figures and you can well imagine that behind these figures, there are economic aspects, spin-offs in terms of revenues for the State. So today, the telecoms and digital sector shows its importance in the development of our country.

PBCM: Since 2018, you have been the president of the French-speaking network of ministers for the digital economy, and Benin is home to the permanent headquarters of this network. What is the French-speaking network of ministers for the digital economy and what does Benin gain from being a member?

Aurélie ADAM SOULE ZOUMAROU:

(Smile)

The French-speaking network of ministers of the digital economy is first and foremost an instrument for the Francophony and for the member countries of the Francophony. This network was desired by the Francophony and by the Heads of State who, at regular intervals, meet at summits of the Francophony to take a certain number of decisions. And at the last summit in Yerevan, the former secretary general of the Francophony presented this network’s project that she and the President of the Republic Patrice TALON thought of, when she was on an official visit to Benin.

The idea of ​​this network was welcomed and it is quite natural that the Heads of State made this decision in Yerevan to create this network which has its permanent headquarters in Benin and to entrust the first presidency in Benin to my very person. The objective of this network is to unite our national initiatives so as to develop synergies, to allow us, all the ministers of member countries of the Francophony, to find the right way to share our experiences, to have common initiatives and of course , to accelerate the implementation of our digital strategies in each country. It’s really an instrument of implementation.

PBCM: As President, what is your roadmap? Under what sign do you place your mandate?

Aurélie ADAM SOULE ZOUMAROU:

You know, when you set up this type of crucible, the first success is to make it dynamic, active and to continue to stimulate the interest of all the stakeholders around this work. This is what we are working on. If you attended the first meeting of the network here in Benin, in May 2019, in concert with the OIF and the other members, you would realize that my counterparts came, supported by all our partner French-speaking networks. We are therefore working to put in place its instruments, the statute, the rules of procedure, how the presidency will turn and the operating framework of this network. But besides that, we have also defined a certain number of projects. Projects that we proposed to members of the network who found them interesting. Projects that revolve for example around artificial intelligence, youth issues, fake news as they are called. At the same time, we are trying to advance this aspect. And this is how we move forward. It’s on these two aspects that my presidency is working together with my team.

 

PBCM: What are the concrete benefits of your leadership for the people of Benin?

Aurélie ADAM SOULE ZOUMAROU:

(Smile)

This question is interesting because it was already asked in Parakou by students. And I will give you the same answer as I gave to them: first, why among all the member countries of the Francophony, we chose Benin? Second, the fact that the choice is focused on Benin, the fact that at this international meeting, the name of our country was mentioned as being a country able to host this network and to preside over it is something important for the people of Benin. When you are a citizen of a country, you want it to be a country that counts in the comity of nations, and this is proof that our country counts in the comity of nations. And all of us, Beninese, we can suddenly say: yes! Benin holds the presidency in the comity of nations. It’s a fallout that isn’t palpable. But that is important. Another spin-off is of course all the projects that we are going to develop within this network, the sharing of experiences.

Beninese youth are also affected. The Beninese youth will also benefit from the education that we are going to give through this project. The questions around artificial intelligence which is today inseparable from technological and digital development, the fact of having a project that will help the French-speaking world to be able to understand its challenges… Let us take for example the project on the artificial intelligence that matters in the lexicon. Today most of the terms related to artificial intelligence, unfortunately, are English terms. When you are French-speaking, you will first have to understand the concept, but in addition we explain it to you in English, and that constitutes a gap. So we thought it was important that the French language glossary relating to artificial intelligence be in place to allow French speakers to grasp these concepts and understand them in the language we are used to, even if we know that English constitutes a compulsory passage. This is what I see as spinoffs and of course, as the network grows, there will be more. Recently, there was the Fab Lab network in French-speaking countries and the fact that Benin currently manages the French-speaking network meant that we still had some collaboration with young people who came from all countries. They were also present at the digital week.

PBCM: Your ministerial department has worked hard to organize the digital week from 12 to 16 November last. What are the benefits for the people of Benin? What is your assessment of this 2019 edition and what can we hope for 2020?

Aurélie ADAM SOULE ZOUMAROU:

Digital Week is the flagship event of the digital sector for our country. Every year we see this week getting away. We see it as the week of others. Not just that of the digital ministry and the agencies. And that’s what we want. Each edition holds surprises for me in terms of commitment from the ecosystem and the population. This year, I noted with great satisfaction that digital week is not only organized in Cotonou. There have been events all over the country, whether in Avrankou, Parakou and Natitingou, I am delighted. I hope that next year we will have even more places and I have no doubt about that.

The theme of this year was precisely around the citizen in the era of the digital economy. Quite often, we use a lot of technical terms. For example, we talk about optical fiber but nobody sees optical fiber because it is buried. We said to ourselves, let’s go back to basics, which is central, the citizen. We went all out. We had panels, keynotes, workshops. The managing director of the Smart Africa Alliance was there and shared his vision of this digital Africa. He also talked to us about how policymakers and the private sector are getting started to deliver this, and again, he said that within the alliance, Benin has always been an active country. For example, we will lead the working group on digital identity at the regional level, at the African level, within the Smart Africa Alliance.

We also had competitions on several themes including: education, art, digital security. We had a lot of activities during this week. Activities that showed the richness of this sector, the fact that the populations are at the center of everything we do, many young students came. There were also professionals from all fields of activity, because it was not only digital. We also talked about health, education, tourism… And the 2020 edition will be even more beautiful.

PBCM: What is the contribution of the Beninese Agency of the Universal Service of Electronic Communications and Post (ABSU-CEP) in the realization of your projects?

Aurélie ADAM SOULE ZOUMAROU:

The Beninese Universal Service Agency for Electronic Communications and the Post (ABSU-CEP) is our agency responsible for ensuring that every Beninese, every Beninese, whoever he is, wherever he is, whatever either its sector of activity, whatever its social status, can benefit from digital services and not be left behind. Through these different activities, the agency implements this mission. The community digital points that I mentioned earlier serve to bring digital technology closer to all populations, multimedia rooms to train young generations for the future challenge, to the future world which will be highly digital. The agency has an essential mission which is the strengthening of digital skills. I recently visited one of the centers we use for the assessment of public administration personnel around digital skills. Quite simply because we believe that everything we are doing as a project in the sector must be supported by

strengthening the skills of public service agents. The agency also has this mission of building skills. It does so through a flagship activity, the Benin Digital Tour, which creates an avenue every year in several municipalities in the country to train artisans, students and teachers who are in these localities.

PBCM: Benin’s ambition to achieve intelligent administration is underway. It is within this framework that the government initiated, and implemented, the Smart Gouv project. What is this project about?

Aurélie ADAM SOULE ZOUMAROU:

The Smart Gouv project is one of the major areas today of our ambition in terms of the digitization of our country and of Beninese society in general. The Smart Gouv project aims to set up all the bases, all the repositories, all the platforms and all the applications that are necessary for our administration to deliver public services to populations regardless of where each individual is located. You are in Natitingou, you need a document which is in Cotonou, you do not need to come to Cotonou. You are in Malanville and you need to be able to correspond with the public administration, for a given transaction (a payment, your taxes, take stock of your business …) you can decide to do it at 3 p.m. as at 11 p.m. To achieve this, we must set up the base that will manage our databases. Currently, with our partner, Estonia, we are in the process of setting up the government database. It is a platform which will integrate all the databases and which makes it possible not to ask citizens for documents that the administration already has. It sounds obvious like that but in practice today we know that the administration asks you to bring her documents that she is supposed to have. We will then be one of the countries in the sub-region to have a bus that has a decentralized approach.

Secondly, we have a major component, it is the national portal of public services that we are also implementing. Very recently, I reported to the Council of Ministers on the implementation of this project. We will start with seven (7) e-services. There are registers of major services such as the Commercial Register, the Certificate of Environmental Compliance… It is a portal that will allow not only to have e-services to be able to make transactions with the administration from anywhere, but also to have information on each public service delivered by the State.

Still within Smart Gouv, there is an important aspect which is, digital identity. The digital identity will allow an individual to be able to authenticate and identify himself to consume digital services in the same way as you can authenticate yourself in the physical world.

We are going to dematerialize the file of state officials, to allow people to retrieve them without any difficulty, without having to go through complicated files. Lots of benchmarks to set up. You know, a company that has to interact with the administration is apprehensive of this moment. Because when you go into administration, you have to chat with people, you have to understand what they expect from you to benefit from the service even in terms of administrative documents without counting the waiting time and unfortunately not counting the high risk of being faced with an insensitive individual who expects a certain gesture from you before rendering you the service for which he is paid. Having these items online right away for a business allows them to overcome all of these constraints. For our companies too, this is important. And then, finally, within the Smart Gouv programme, you have an aspect that people do not often see, it is the interconnection of all administrative structures. Internal communication within state structures is essential for the delivery of smooth administrative services. A document that the ministry of the digital economy needs or the ministry of the public service needs and which is in the ministry of finance for example, if there is not a fluid communication between the ministry of finance and the ministry of public service, it greatly slows down the transmission of information and forces you to transport the document from one department to another. These are all things that we do within the Smart Gouv programme.

PBCM: What horizon can we actually expect to set up intelligent administration in Benin?

Aurélie ADAM SOULE ZOUMAROU:

So the modern, transparent, intelligent administration that we have as ambition is already in place, we are improving on it. It’s a continuous improvement. There will never be a time when

we will say, we have finished, because it will not end. We are condemned to evolve very slowly. So when you ask me this question, I have no date to give you. What I can tell you today is that we have interconnected departments; fiber optic interconnection. And this is already a major change. Second, our databases today communicate to each other. Every day between the Commercial Court and the APIEX which deal with the creation of companies and the promotion of investments in Benin, every day, between these two entities, there are documents circulating and we have today, companies can take them from one place to another because information circulates instantly. Every day between the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of the Civil Service, databases interact with each other. So the transparent, intelligent administration we want is already there. Only, we do not intend to stop there. As I said, we really want to dematerialize, digitize all of these transactions. And this is where our actions are directed. In a few months we will launch the public services portal. By the end of the five year term, in the digital sector, it will be a country that will be cited as an example, it already is. Recently when African digital story, a regional event taking place in several countries, looked at the sub-region and wanted to choose countries to carry its events, quite naturally Benin came to mind. Better still, when they came, foreign delegations extended their stays to learn from our experience.

PBCM: We’re going to talk a bit about start-ups. What is their contribution to the Beninese economy?

Aurélie ADAM SOULE ZOUMAROU:

Asked like this, the question may seem theoretical. I could give you a percentage and tell you that start-ups contribute x% to our economy. But I think the indication of the contribution of our start-ups to the economy is elsewhere. It is found in the dynamism of our ecosystem. When we look at the way our ecosystem works, we see more and more that the world of start-ups is hatching and stealing the show in the positive sense, from the other actors who were there at the start. We see less and less the public sector players that we are and start-ups are taking center stage. And this is what shows that we are on the right track in terms of the contribution of our start-ups. I was in Tunisia a few months ago for the African summit of start-ups (Afric’Up) and Benin was strong. We had a presence not only quantitative but really qualitative.

PBCM: If you were to encourage investors to take an interest in our start-ups, what would you tell them?

Aurélie ADAM SOULE ZOUMAROU:

I will simply tell them that there is potential here in Benin. Dear investors, if you are looking for a country in which you want to have potential, Benin is a country well suited for you. We need to have even more incubators, accelerators too, because there is, in fact enough to source to have start-ups that can be followed, to which we can bring elements to grow and bring returns and in return, investors will be able to gain benefits. What I also want to say to investors is that the education sector follows in this trend. The government has a frank desire to prioritize technical and professional training in our country. And you know that the biggest consumers of those who leave technical and professional fields are the private sector, especially the innovation sectors such as the digital sector. Investors should therefore know that all the forces involved are directed towards the production of talents, skills, capacities to support life, production, to support businesses. I therefore invite them to come to Benin. The regulatory framework is in place. The young “start upers” are there at different levels of maturity. The state sector also supports this.

PBCM: So as a final word, how do you see digital Benin in the next five (5) years?

Aurélie ADAM SOULE ZOUMAROU:

By 2025, the digital sector will have fully reached a level of maturity. We don’t plan to stop at some point to say we’re done. We will always be in continuous improvement; but we will have a completely dematerialized, digitalized administration. An administration whose procedures or processes will be dematerialized. Anyone who needs to transact with the administration can do it from anywhere, anytime. We will have in place an ecosystem that will innovate around new services, new technologies that will have appeared at that time. 5G has already made its way, as have artificial intelligence technologies. There is no doubt that the ecosystem will mature and will therefore always be innovating. In 5 years, in terms of the network of our territory, we will have reached a level much higher than what we have today. And the important thing for me, because I’m going to push for it, is that we will have different construction habits. Today when you put up a building you have to be aware of the fact that you have to pull the fiber out

automatically. It is no longer conceivable that we put up buildings, houses, offices without immediately putting fiber optics in them. This is an important prerequisite. Our country will be an advanced country in terms of digital technology. And I don’t want to compare with other countries because we also have our digitization and digitization model. But we will not be among the countries that will be behind when it comes to digital. So I am very confident and we are in this dynamic.

Thank you