Cracking the Code: The Women Breaking Into Benin’s Tech Scene

Starting in school, women in Benin are steered away from careers in tech. But now a new generation of women tech developers is emerging, serving as mentors for others and showing that coding isn’t just for men.

Written by Festus Iyorah Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
In recent years, tech hubs like Women EdTech have been sprouting up around Benin to help women learn the skills they need to build careers in computing.Festus Iyorah

COTONOU, Benin – Software developer Akotossode Elodie always knew there weren’t many other women working in Benin’s tech sector. But she only realized just how exceptional she was when she was selected to compete in an app-designing challenge organized by telecommunications company MTN in 2014. “I was the only female out of 25 finalists,” she says, frowning.

Elodie didn’t win the app challenge, but as a finalist she received a month’s training to launch her app, Mobile School, which uses geolocation tools to let parents and prospective students learn more about schools and university in Benin republic.

Spotting the opportunity to build a business that would also have an impact, Elodie launched Women Edtech two years later. The tech hub trains women in the West African nation in programming, design, mobile and web application, business management and marketing. So far, her organization has trained around 300 women, many of whom have gone on to jobs in tech.

“I established this [company] to help other women grow,” Elodie says. “When I started out as a developer, I had no mentor. So here’s me giving back to women.”

There are no official statistics on women in Benin’s tech sector. But experts and people working in the industry say there is a dearth of women in the field, pointing to cultural challenges that start in school. Over the past few years, a growing number of organizations like Women EdTech have sprouted up to tackle those challenges head-on and help more women build their careers in computers.

Changing Minds About STEM

Rachael Orumor, a technology lecturer at Universite Africaine de Technologie et Management in Cotonou, Benin’s equivalent of Silicon Valley, says the exclusion of women from tech starts in Benin’s high schools. Girls are steered away from the STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) topics, which are seen as better suited to men, and instead they are encouraged to study the arts and social sciences with the intention of eventually working in the entertainment industry, banking or the civil service.

Orumor saw the effects of those choices when she was studying software development. “When I was in university, I found myself in a class of 40 boys and only two girls,” she says.

“[Young women] often ask me if, when I started my tech company or started working as an engineer, did people find me less attractive. That’s another kind of barrier we need to work on.”

Raodath Aminou, cofounder of OptiMiam, a tech startup fighting food waste, says cultural factors also hold girls back from studying tech, including parents who don’t see coding as a useful job skill for women.

There is also resistance from the girls themselves, with many thinking that working in STEM-related industries will make it hard for them to find a husband.

“Some women believe being in tech is not as sexy as other professions,” says Aminou. “[Young women] often ask me if, when I started my tech company or started working as an engineer, did people find me less attractive. That’s another kind of barrier we need to work on.”

Creating Opportunities

When Women EdTech cofounder Elodie first launched the tech hub, she was training women for free, using a grant of $15,000 she got from the U.S. embassy in Benin and the Canadian government. When the scholarship funding ran out, Elodie knew she had to start charging for the training and worried it might deter potential applicants. But she found there were plenty of women happy to pay for the opportunity to break into the tech sector and currently has 81 trainees.

Today, around 20 of them are sitting around a rectangular table, hunched over their computers as they work on different projects. Bocove Gladys, a 22-year-old medical student, is working with a design app to create a flyer for the upcoming Children EdTech program, a summer coding camp for kids in Benin.

“I plan to establish a hospital after school, so this knowledge will come in handy. No knowledge is a waste,” she says.

In other parts of the republic, too, there are signs of the emergence of women on the tech scene. Based in Cadjehoun, 18 miles (30km) from the capital Porto-Novo, the Etrilabs incubation and acceleration hub has been running training programs specifically for women for the past three years.

In 2015, Etrilabs vice president Ulrich Sossou established the Women High Impact Startup Preparation Academy (WHISPA), a yearlong course to teach women programming, digital marketing, design, business and entrepreneurship skills.

“Women don’t have a chance to learn and explore opportunities in the ecosystem. So we decided to start the WHISPA program to address that need,” he says.

Since the program’s launch, 60 women have been trained for free. Kpanegan Axelle, 24, signed up to learn programming and digital marketing. She studied computer science at a university in Cotonou, but learned computer programming by reading textbooks and leaflets in her spare time. The WHISPA program is the first time she’s had any practical experience writing code.

When she’s done with the program, she plans to open a computer center where girls can learn coding. “It’s hard for women to find opportunities in tech because of their gender,” she says. “After this training, I want to give back to the community – especially to girls.”

Hermine Gbenoudon graduated from WHISPA in 2016. After graduation, she and a male tech developer cofounded Chaperone, a startup that runs out of the Etrilabs offices. The company uses technology-based solutions to help clients increase user engagement on their sites. With about 2,800 users in 82 countries, Chaperone has made $21,000 in profits so far.

As one of the few women tech developers in Benin, Gbenoudon hopes that she and her peers can foster an environment that means more women “are likely to benefit from the ecosystem,” she says. “We would serve as mentors to women likely to follow this career line.”

OptiMiam cofounder Aminou believes the successes women have had so far in Benin’s tech scene bode well for others who are willing to go up against cultural barriers and workplace stereotypes to aim for a career in tech.

“They will make women believe that they can create their own jobs and sell products online as well as their male counterparts. They can also create their own company and bring money back home to take care of their families,” she says.

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