Entrepreneur Looks Beyond Africa's Problems To Focus On Solutions
Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.
Vital Sounouvou comes from Benin, a small country in West Africa. To help promote global trade in Africa, he founded the company Exportunity.com after some sobering advice from a college professor.
"When I was 16, I graduated from high school and I started college," Sounouvou says, "and the first thing the professor told me: 'After the three years you'll spend here, you won't find a job, so you better create your own company.' "
Exportunity is an online platform that connects producers with traders. It allows a farmer in Benin to sell his products to a buyer in South Africa — or even the U.S. — with just a cellphone.
Sounouvou was one of 500 African leaders chosen to be part of President Obama's Young African Leaders Initiative, which met in Washington this past week. He tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that his company was inspired by sites like eBay, but adapted Exportunity to the African market.
"We built the only mobile application that works on all types of mobile devices, including non-smartphones," Sounouvou says.
In Africa, Sounouvou says, there are 700 million mobile phones, but a large percentage of them are not smartphones, especially those used by farmers.
"Almost 70 percent of whatever crop is produced in Africa is wasted because the producers have no way to get the product to market," he says.
Sounouvou says that after bad deals with other countries, including China, the U.S. has an opportunity build a new trade relationship with African nations.
"We see America as a hope ... to build a genuine relationship based on trust and cultural understanding," he says.
Sounouvou says focusing only on the problems in Africa — war, poverty and disease — it's hard to come up with change and innovation. He says what's needed is less focus on the problem and more focus on solutions. One of those solutions, he says, is empowering people.
"We need to empower people economically," he says. "When somebody has food to eat, he can think about innovating."
VITAL SOUNOUVOU: When I was 16, I graduated from high school, and I started college. And the first thing the professor told me (unintelligible) was, after the three year's you'll spend here, you won't find a job, so you had better create your own company.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
That is Vital Sounouvou. He comes from a small country in West Africa called Benin. And he took his professor's advice to heart when he founded the company Exportunity. It's an online platform that connects producers with traders so that a farmer in Benin can sell his products to a buyer in South Africa or even the U.S. all with just a cellphone. He was one of 500 African leaders chosen to be part of President Obama's Young African Leaders Initiative which met in Washington this past week. When I sat down with Mr. Sounouvou, I asked if what he was creating was a little bit like an African version of eBay. Vital Sounouvou is our Sunday conversation.
SOUNOUVOU: Ebay inspired us a lot, but we actually adapted it to the African market. We built the only mobile application that works on all type of devices, including non-smartphones. And in Africa, you have 700 million mobile phones. But 530 million of them are non-smartphones, and they are used by the farmers. And even when the farmers have a smartphone, they only know how to call and send an SMS. So we built an interactive software that asks four questions simply; do you want to buy or sell? What do you want to sell? Tomato, which quantity? And when will it be available? So it gives us a real-time knowledge about the offer. And then we can connect them with the demand. And one last data that is important to know is that almost 70 percent of whatever crop is produced in Africa is wasted because the producers have no way to get the product to market - so definitely inspired by eBay. We adapted it to the African context, which is the biggest mobile phone market in the world.
WERTHEIMER: You said you wanted to develop this in an African context. Could you explain what that means?
SOUNOUVOU: Most of our infrastructures were built to ship our mineral resources to Europe mainly. So nothing was really built to facilitate the trade in between the countries. It's only now that people are craving for trading between each other and finding new partners back in the United States to trade with. And that's the African context.
WERTHEIMER: One of the things that many countries - sometimes private people, but the United States has been involved in the idea of micro-lending.
WERTHEIMER: You know, where you lend...
WERTHEIMER: ...Very small amounts of money to people who are - like, wanted to build a stall in a market or something like that.
SOUNOUVOU: Yes. Yes.
WERTHEIMER: But you're obviously talking about something that is much bigger than that.
SOUNOUVOU: Much bigger than that because I think we want to build companies that can actually grow. And with micro-lending, to be realistic, the company's people can survive but cannot live. There is a big difference between surviving and actually, you know, growing to a level where you live well with your family.
WERTHEIMER: Now, the United States is trying to figure out what China is up to in Africa. Do you think that this is a competitive situation between the U.S. and China?
SOUNOUVOU: It is a competitive situation, but we need to look at the things the way they are. China found an opportunity in Africa when African people were craving for simple solutions. OK, we don't have electricity; we need light. So Chinese people would say, OK, I will bring you a solar light. They sold it. They made a lot of money. But the problem with China - they come, they tell the government, we'll build you a nice building for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, and after five years, the building is falling apart. Five years ago, we trusted them. We felt like, OK, at least they're speaking our language. But we feel betrayed somehow 'cause Africa has been so traumatized by so many people coming just for our resources and didn't care about our people. And China came and did the same thing. So today, America has the opportunity to do things differently. And today we want to open up. We see America as a hope - and build a genuine relationship based on trust and cultural understanding.
WERTHEIMER: Your organization, Young African Leaders Initiative - do you think that this has been a helpful conference? I mean, one of the things that happened was that African representatives coming in were saying how they want to talk about business, and they wanted to talk about opportunity. And the Americans wanted to talk about Ebola, and they wanted to talk about poverty and war. Do you think that you're sort of on the right level with the people that you want to be talking to? Are you reaching them?
SOUNOUVOU: I think we can't solve a problem by focusing on the problem. We solve a problem by focusing on the solution. When people are able to innovate - try to find local solutions to local issues - we don't have to always come back and get help from the United States. American people have their own problems.
SOUNOUVOU: And the thing is we need to empower people economically. When somebody has food to eat, he can think about innovating. And when you invest in the youth of a country or of a continent, when those young people grow up, they remember. And I think that's what America is doing now - building a friendship.
WERTHEIMER: Vital Sounouvou is an entrepreneur. He is from Benin in West Africa, and he is the founder of exportunity.com. Thank you very much for coming in.
SOUNOUVOU: Thank you very much for inviting me. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.