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Bettering Benin: Improving the Tourism Sector

Comments (0) Africa, Business, Featured

Pendjari National Park – Benin

Benin received a $50 million International Development Association credit to invest in its tourism sector that will, hopefully, add an additional 30,000 jobs.

In March 2016, The World Bank approved a $50 million International Development Association (IDA) credit to Benin to invest in its tourism sector. The IDA provides grants and zero-interest loans, via the World Bank, to the world’s poorest countries to increase business opportunities and, ultimately, reduce poverty and improve standards of living by improving various industries. The tourism industry is Benin’s second largest source of foreign exchange currencies and third largest employer behind agriculture and commerce. The investment is intended to reduce the vulnerability of Benin’s economy, given its high dependency on informal trade with Nigeria, and its reliance upon the cotton sector.

The five year project, Benin Cross Border Tourism and Competitiveness Project (CBTCP), is a part of longer-term 2013-2021 tourism plan. The overarching aims of the World Bank’s funding are to increase and improve the current touristic sites including the physical infrastructure, such as accommodation; to improve the skills of tourist-industry personnel; to effectively promote tourism through branding and targeted marketing schemes; and to improve the management of existing sites by reinforcing leadership frameworks. This project is slowly moving from conception to implementation: in mid-July, the government approved a decree that will establish the creation of the National Agency of Heritage and Tourism. The aim of this project, and its corresponding agency, is twofold. By increasing cross-border tourism and private sector investment, the World Bank hopes to move towards its goals of poverty reduction while boosting “shared prosperity.”

Benin capitalizes upon the ecotourism industry

Visitors to a cultural festival in Benin

Visitors to a cultural festival in Benin

Investment will occur in the country’s key tourist destinations, mainly Abomey-Calavi, Cotonou and Ouidah, and hopes to help more than 1,000 existing tourist firms. More than 20% of these firms are led by female entrepreneurs, a point which both the World Bank and government of Benin are emphasizing as part of a gender inclusive initiative. It is hoped that, by investing in these firms, more jobs will become available for both unemployed Beninese people, and for citizens currently working in less secure industries, such as the cotton industry.

Benin is poised to capitalize upon the ecotourism industry if it can appropriately monetize its natural resources into well-kept tourist destinations. In order to do so, however, Benin will have to make a concerted effort to appropriately allocate World Bank funds. The first step is to clean up the existing potential tourist attractions: Benin’s coastline has been damaged from decades of open defecation, lack of waste removal systems and failure of sanitation infrastructure to remove both human and manufactured detritus. It seems that, hypothetically, the newly created National Agency of Heritage and Tourism may be able create jobs for people both working directly in the tourism sector, and for people working on clean-up projects.

30,000 additional jobs

In fact, according to the World Bank Country Director for Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Togo, “if efforts are made to meet [Benin’s] potential, tourism’s direct contribution to the country’s GDP will be increased by up to 30%, and could generate an estimated 30,000 additional jobs.” Thus far, the tourism industry has failed to develop as rapidly as that of other West African nations, due in part to the inability of private tourism operators to apply for loans. As capital has become less concentrated with the proliferation of tourism providers, individual businesses have been unable to meet the minimum requirements in order to receive loans from local banks, let alone international financial institutions.

The CBTCP will encourage private commercial banks to extend loans to businesses that fall in the “micro, small and medium sized” enterprise (MSME) category. The CBTCP will use World Bank funding to mitigate creditor risks through “first-loss cover,” thereby shouldering some of the risk that banks have been unwilling to absorb.

The National Agency of Tourism and Heritage directly looked after by Patrice Talon

The biggest fear of both Beninese citizens and outside observers is that the funds will be inappropriately allocated without direct oversight: the National Agency of Tourism and Heritage is not, as one would expect, overseen by the Ministry of Tourism, but is directly looked after by the President, Patrice Talon. The government has not issued an explanation of why this is, but hopefully it will not cause any confusion in the allotment of resources.

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African Super Sunday: 5 votes in 5 countries

Comments (0) Africa, Featured, Politics

March 20th marked a large shift in African politics, as 5 countries on the continent voted on key issues.

Citizens of Benin, Niger, Cape Verde, Zanzibar, Senegal, and The Republic of Congo all had the chance to head to the polls last weekend. While some results were as expected, some showed progress towards improved electoral processes.

In Benin, a presidential run-off took place between Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou, and businessman Patrice Talon. Both were seeking to replace the incumbent President Yayi Boni, whose second term in office ends on April 6th. Events progressed well from the first round of the campaign in which there were 33 candidates. Benin has shown great progress in electoral process, and was the first country in sub-Saharan African to transition to a multi-party democracy. After the polls, Lionel Zinsou conceded defeat to Patrice Talon. The victory of the businessman shows a push for change in how the people of Benin wish to be governed.

Denis Sassou Nguesso was elected to his third term in office

In the Republic of Congo, Presidential elections were held under the new constitution which removed both age and term limits for those serving as President. Before the polls, opposition parties had denounced the lack of transparency in the electoral process. Adding to the irregularity, the country experienced a government-initiated communications blackout during the voting. The official statement was in order to avoid illegal leaking of election results. As predicted, the incumbent President Denis Sassou Nguesso was elected to his third term in office. President Nguesso has already served in office for over 30 years.

In Niger, a Presidential run-off took place between the incumbent President Mahamadou Issoufou, and Hama Amadou. Tensions were high before the run-off with the opposition party rejecting the results before the election was even held, and the COPA withdrawing from the campaign stating a lack of transparency in the process. Hama Amadou was arrested earlier in the year on charges of baby trafficking, and had been flown to France recently for medical treatment as it was stated that his health rapidly deteriorated while in prison. President Mahamadou took more than 92 percent of the vote.

Zanzibar was set for a re-run of its elections which were held in October 2015. At the time the Civic United Front claimed victory even before the results had come out, however the election was invalidated by Jecha Salim Jecha (the president of the local Electoral Commission) due to what was claimed as massive fraud. The Civic United Front however, claimed that this was a ploy by Chama Cha Mapinduzi to deny it victory. For these reasons, the main opposition party decided to boycott the elections only 2 days before the polls were held. The incumbent President Ali Mohamed Shein of Chama Cha Mapinduzi was re-elected.

Senegal: Yes or No referendum

In Senegal, voters were called to vote on a yes or no referendum. Among the issues the referendum addressed was reducing the term limit for presidential office from seven years to five years. This was seen as a bold move by President Macky Sall, as other African leaders seek to find ways to extend their term limits. The referendum would also afford official recognition to the opposition leader in the constitution, local councils would be give more power, and new rights would be afforded to citizens regarding the environment and land ownership.

Meanwhile on Cape Verde, parliamentary elections were held which saw the Movement for Democracy win an absolute majority. They will replace the African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde which had been in the majority for over 15 years.

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Businessman Patrice Talon elected President of Benin

Comments (0) Africa, Featured, Politics

Benin’s two-round Presidential election concluded on March 20th with the election of businessman Patrice Talon.

The West-African nation of Benin concluded a peaceful, democratic two-round election on March 20th. Outgoing President Thomas Boni Yayi handpicked his successor, Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou, to run against a former ally turned nemesis, Patrice Talon. This election is notable for several reasons: unlike other African leaders, Boni Yayi did not alter Benin’s constitution in order to remain in power past the two-term limit; Zinsou conceded defeat to Patrice Talon on March 20th after winning the March 6th first-round election, and the election was free from violent protests and uprisings.

Benin’s Landscape

A former French colony, Benin has not followed an easy path to democracy. Despite the challenges of post-colonialism (including a decade-long-stint as a Marxist state, interspersed with bouts of intense unrest and violence), Benin has managed to rise above its neighbors, proving that it is committed to free and fair elections. The fact that President Boni Yayi left power at the end of his two-term appointment is in itself remarkable: many of Benin’s neighbors have struggled to depose rulers who are desperate to cling to power past their time.

Perhaps even more impressive than President Boni Yayi’s peaceful exit is the concession by his chosen successor, Lionel Zinsou. The ruling party candidate and current Prime Minister, Lionel Zinsou faced challenges in his candidacy. Having spent the majority of his life outside of Benin, Zinsou struggled to overcome the perception that he was an outsider in his own country, and that his lack of experience on-the-ground in Benin would hinder his ability to make informed choices for the country. It seemed as though he had proved his worth as a Beninese on March 6th, when he won the first round of elections, but Talon ultimately prevailed.

The Gloves Came Off

Between the first election cycle and the second, Benin’s first-ever presidential debate took place. Talon used this opportunity to outline his vision for Benin, and to launch a litany of personal attacks against Zinsou’s lack of experience in Benin and the likelihood that Zinsou would only continue his predecessor’s policies that had “created a banana republic…[and] become the laughing stock of the world.”

Talon’s platform was centered around his rise to fame and fortune despite his small beginnings. Born in the small coastal town of Ouidah, Talon rose to become a key figure in Beninese business, even bankrolling Boni Yayi’s successful 2006 and 2011 campaigns. Talon’s fortune came through his agricultural business investments, primarily in cotton. After completing his university education in Senegal, Talon moved to France to pursue a career in international business. In 1985, he founded the Inter-Continental Distribution Company (SDI), which provides agricultural inputs like fertilizers and herbicides, to cotton farmers in Benin, Burkina Faso, Togo and other West African nations. Talon profited handsomely from the World Bank driven economic liberalization of the 1990s, winning production and manufacturing licenses for cotton ginning within the country.

A Man Made Through Cotton

It was through cotton that Talon made himself known in politics. Talon formed a relationship with the then-communist-government-owned sugar company, SAVE. Through this connection, communist politicians recognized his potential value as a business ally, and when the country moved to a multi-party state in the 1990s, Talon was able to preserve his friendships within the new government. In 2008, then-President Boni Yayi awarded Talon rights to a total of 15 out Benin’s total 18 cotton ginneries, making the cotton industry a near monopoly.

Boni Yayi

Boni Yayi

Once a close friend an ally of President Boni Yayi, Talon lost favor with the President after being accused of plotting a coup and, later, masterminding a plot to poison the President. Talon fled to France in exile before a Presidential pardon in October, when he returned to Benin, ostensibly in preparation for the election.

The Challenges Ahead

The election of President-elect Talon marks the third truly democratic election in the nation’s turbulent history. Having fought against the odds and being elected to the highest office in the country, Talon has even bigger challenges to face as President.

With his experience in the agricultural and cotton industry, it seems logical that Talon would focus on making these industries sustainable while working to diversify the economy–40% of Benin’s GDP is dependent upon cotton. Talon knows that he has a tough job ahead: he has already voiced his desire to tackle youth unemployment, reduce corruption in politics and business, and improve the health and education for the 10.6 million citizens he now represents.

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