Marc-André Loko: “Benin’s digital strategy involves a diversified portfolio of best-in-class partners”

Marc-André LOKO is the Director-General of the Agency for Information Systems and Digital (ASIN) of Benin. ASIN was formed following the merger of the four (4) implementing agencies in Benin’s digital sector, including the Agency for Digital Development (ADN), of which he has been Director-General since 2021. He now manages the implementation of flagship digital projects of the Benin Government’s Action Programme.

Marc-André Loko
Marc-André Loko

This interview is also available in French.

What is the digital development strategy in Benin? How does this strategy intend to close the digital gap that prevails in some parts of the country and how does this strategy fit into the broader African regional picture?

The digital component of the 2016 Government Action Plan was built in collaboration with Deloitte Monitor. The new 2021-2026 plan builds on this and becomes the new framework. This new strategy is to be driven by a new, more home-grown focus on the adoption of digital services. Some aspects of the plan have progressed more rapidly than others. One such area is digital payment infrastructure and platforms as well as projects related to financial inclusion (including mobile money). Building digital skills and entrepreneurship are key priorities if we are to achieve our vision for the benefit of our people. Integrating into the regional context remains a major challenge. We do not have the same frameworks. Benin has a digital code, for example, which covers all the levers needed to put digital at the service of other sectors. In Benin, the digital code was drawn up in collaboration with Jones Day and includes the legal and regulatory framework for electronic communications, cybersecurity and personal data protection. Cybersecurity is the field where there is the most collaboration at regional level and the synergy is particularly strong. In terms of digital infrastructure, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has brought states together to work on the interconnection of fibre optic infrastructure. Similarly, in the field of education and research, the West African Education and Research Network (WACREN) promotes synergies between countries on higher education research matters. This facilitates networking among teacher-researchers, particularly in teaching. Having a common infrastructure on different themes makes it possible to link the different education and research networks of these countries in West and Central Africa. Finally, the Smart Africa organisation is financing the digital identity project, for which Benin is the project lead. This project will, among other things, put in place a framework for the interoperability of identification data in a secure way and a technical solution to enable citizens of one country to subscribe to mobile services in another country with their national identity, notably Senegal, Togo and soon Ghana.

What is the role of external partners in the development and implementation of this digital strategy? Who are the main partners? What is the role of China, which seems to be particularly active both in terms of supplying equipment and developing digital infrastructures?

The partnerships we have can be grouped into two categories. The first category are those that complement our strategic objectives through partnerships to develop expertise, as with Estonia and Rwanda with which Benin is developing a long-term approach. They provide solutions (including e-government) that we implement with technology companies such as Cybernetica and eGA. The other category consists of business-oriented partnerships that are set up through specific projects included in our project specifications. Here, Chinese companies are privileged partners because they provide financing (Huawei or CITCC via China Development Bank and China EximBank for example) and offer favourable debt payment deferrals. We also have partnerships with companies certified by Microsoft and Oracle. Feasibility studies for infrastructure projects have often been commissioned from French companies such as Sofrecom, Tactis or Horus. This allows us to benefit from French skills and know-how. As far as its digital strategy is concerned, Benin is developing a diversified portfolio of best-in-class partners. Among them are Tunisian firms such as Digitalis or MGI BFC providing economic studies on digital service adoption and economic models such as PKI. This South-South collaboration was strengthened in 2021 by the implementation of the delegated management contract of the Beninese digital infrastructure company with Sonatel, the Senegalese telecom operator and subsidiary of the Orange Group.

How are these contracts negotiated? What about the transfer of technology and skills in these contracts?

In general, China is a flexible partner in negotiations provided that one has a robust and structured negotiating team. Beyond the global challenge of competing technological standards, there is a sense that they are eager to do business, which leads them to be less rigid. Chinese companies also have local subsidiaries established in Africa with which we can dialogue directly. Huawei, for example, puts a lot of emphasis on the skills transfer dimension. This is not the case with a number of Western companies that are more rigid and come with pre-established frameworks into which we are expected to fit. As soon as the project reaches a certain size, Benin uses western auditing firms as AMOA from the definition of the project, during its execution and for evaluation after the project.

In addition, the Smart Africa alliance provides technical support, feedback and pilot project expertise and helps African countries to pool resources. The alliance appears more reactive than the African Union, which tends to be more bureaucratic. Benin, for example, shares its expertise in digital identity while Kenya shares its expertise in broadband infrastructure. Smart Africa is financed by many private actors. Each country leads a project. They can also help to finance a supervisory firm but on regional projects.

For the conclusion of contracts, Benin has a public procurement code that incorporates a collective component, requiring the presence of national consultants for the public procurement of intellectual services. It also promotes consortia between international and national partners to reduce dependence. But this practice is still marginal and not deliberate enough, especially for PPP contracts. With regard to the execution of projects, there is a strong presence of local companies to boost the local ecosystem. Issues of change management, training and skills transfer are now systematically included in project specifications and addressed in negotiations with the same degree of importance as financial issues.

There is a lot of rivalry between powers in the digital domain, especially between the United States and China. African countries are also calling for more digital sovereignty. What is your analysis?

It seems to me that the business attitude that I observe in Benin is pragmatic: the enemy of my friend is not necessarily my enemy, at least in the context of concluding contracts. These rivalries are above all driven by protectionist thinking. Companies like Huawei are bigger than the European leaders like Ericsson and Nokia combined. For us, the challenge is to accelerate our digital transformation.

We are well aware that there is a global battle around digital sovereignty issues. African countries have identified the cyber-security risks to which they are exposed and the war in Ukraine has reinforced this geopolitical reality. Concerted action on a national cybersecurity strategy/policy, particularly for critical infrastructures, is consistent thanks to the regulatory framework in place. All infrastructures and information systems with systemic risks will soon be required to undergo an audit and inspection process. There is also more collaboration between the government structures whose countries are known to be the origin of cyber-attacks, notably China.

Public financing that Benin has received is mainly for energy and roads, but opportunities could open up in the current geopolitical context. USAID funding is mainly focused on feasibility studies in the digital sector for digital applications in the health and social sectors, for example.

We have observed in other countries in the sub-region that, when it comes to matters such as the implementation of video surveillance projects, rivalries can have an impact on the choice of technological partners. In addition to the factors linked to conditions of financing and technologies used in the equipment, the dimension of digital sovereignty is becoming increasingly important. It is worth mentioning that Benin has built its first Tier 3 datacenter. This project allowed Beninese to be trained at national level, which increased our technical skills and contributed to the progress of our digital maturity. The purpose of this national datacenter is to be able to store sensitive data locally for better control of the use of our data.

But there is still a huge gap when it comes to digital sovereignty. This sovereignty requires the acceleration of projects to develop digital skills and facilitate the emergence of Beninese technological players in the digital sector. Strictly speaking, however, this sovereignty is a challenge for all countries: our data is everywhere, and data is trafficked via various international operators and carriers. We are going to invest in our local internet exchange point in order to confine as much traffic as possible to the local level and improve the quality of services to users.

Current efforts are helping to bring this concern of digital sovereignty to the forefront. In the meantime, it is necessary to choose and collaborate with actors who evolve in a legislative framework closer to our own. This will help to reduce our sources of vulnerability.

What is Benin’s position on issues related to internet governance, digital rights and data protection in international forums?

Benin will soon ratify the Malabo convention on cybersecurity and personal data protection, and the Budapest convention on cybercrime. The country is aware of these issues and participates in multilateral bodies such as the ITU and ICANN. We do not yet have a lobbying strategy to have more influence on the policy directions. The negotiation teams are not very influential. However, there is an awareness internally that we need to build a strategy and forge alliances. The Ministry of Digital Affairs coordinates these multilateral issues.

This interview is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships: interview series led by Dr Folashade Soule with African senior policymakers, ministers, private and civic actors to shed a light on how African actors build, negotiate and manage strategic partnerships in the digital sector in a context of geopolitical rivalry. The series is part of the Negotiating Africa’s digital partnerships policy research project hosted at the Global Economic Governance programme (University of Oxford) and supported by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).


If you liked this text, you will like many others. Click on the link to join our Telegram and WhatsApp channels, so you don't miss any of our strategic information and our exclusives.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


More News

Orange Digital Center and Coursera join forces to offer...

Orange Digital Center is launching a free high-level certification training program in partnership with Coursera, the world...

Eutelsat Ku-band capacity selected by InterSAT to extend its...

Strategic multi-year partnership for satellite capacity over Central and Eastern Africa on EUTELSAT 70B satellite Complementing...


- MWC Barcelona 2024 welcomes the most iconic names in connectivity for nine keynote sessions; event features...