Podcast 🎧: Benin has taken off on its digital journey

12.11.2020 | Federico Plantera

| The project is responsive to the following SDGs of the United Nations: 58916 |

What do a small north-eastern European country and the massive continent of Africa have in common? Originally, very little. At first glance, even less. And still, these two dimensions introduced through only a few words (time and relations) are exactly what’s bringing them closer together.

For some years now, Estonia has entertained a very fruitful cooperation with a number of countries in Africa. From sector-specific solutions to projects of more widespread digital transformation, e-Governance Academy and Estonian companies from the ICT cluster have established valuable connections to help partners in Africa get closer to their Sustainable Development Goals – by means of digital development.

Latest in is Benin, where a data exchange platform and a citizen portal are now fully up and running. These results have been accomplished as part of a project that saw e-Governance Academy, Estonian company Cybernetica and national partners in the Beninese government work together to drive digital transformation in the country.

 

Listen to the Digital Government podcast featured Serge Adjovi, Director General of the National Information Systems and Services Agency (ASSI)  and Project Manager Marit Lani ! They talk about the lessons learnt by the Beninese government, gained through the implementation the Estonian-origin backbone for government e-services – the secure data exchange platform – and the development of the citizen portal for the provision of government services.  Tune in!

 

 

From state visits to tangible results for citizens

Marit Lani, Project Manager for the Benin activities at the e-Governance Academy, looks back on how it all began – with political will and high-level meetings. “Estonian foreign policy strategy puts significant attention to development cooperation activities in Africa. In this case, it all started from a state visit of the Beninese president to Estonia. But such onboarding was possible because there was already a political agenda in place in Benin, and they were interested in taking Estonia as one of the examples of reference to develop their own e-state,” Lani explains.

Photo: Ms Aurélie Adam Soulé Zoumarou, Beninese IT Minister and Arvo Ott, eGA signed MOU in 2018

 

Indeed, the visit to Estonia gave Beninese representatives insights and shaped their own digital transformation strategy. Serge Adjovi is Director General of the National Information Systems and Services Agency (ASSIE) in Benin, points out his main lesson learned:  “It was clear that if you want to do the reforms, the development projects, levelling up the digital maturity of our country had to be imperative. So, digitalization has been put at the centre of everythingin the government programme, as a transversal type of necessity or prerequisite for development.”

Photo: (From the left) Arvo Ott, Serge Adjovi, Riho Kurg

The needs identified by the Beninese government that required the implementation of digital technologies were as simple as essential. “Why do we still have people queueing to pay bills? Why do they have to queue to get administrative documents from one office, only to take them to another public agency to access services? We can do things more transparently, cheaply, and comfortably for the citizens,” Adjovi says.

 

Data exchange and accessibility – the two projects, in practice

The winning card identified by the Beninese was digitalization. Having conducted projects of digital transformation all around the world, e-Governance Academy provided consultation and introductory sessions on digital governance to Beninese operators. Then Cybernetica, as the technology partner in the consortium, implemented its its Unified eXchange Platform (UXP) solution jointly with Beninese organisation ASSIE to serve the needs of the local public administration.

Interoperability, through a functioning data exchange layer based on the technology that initially animated X-Road, was paired with service accessibility. The latter has been achieved by developing a one-stop shop portal to access services and relevant information – Service-Public.bj. Tangible outcomes after just a little over 2 years of cooperation, allowing the public administration in Benin to assist more efficiently its citizens.

“At the moment, 12 services can be accessed through the citizen portal. Among these figure applying online for environmental certificates, or for one’s criminal record. These 12 are the cases where the interaction goes two ways, while for the rest, the citizen portal provides all information about services that can be accessed physically. But we’re looking forward to moving online up to 50 services very soon,” Lani announces.

Photo: ASSI worshop with Riho Kurg

In turning these results from possibility to reality, a lot of the merit goes to the Beninese people. Riho Kurg, Head of Data Exchange Technologies at Cybernetica, said on the matter: “I’m happy to admit that we were positively surprised by the amount of technical expertise that the people involved in the training have in Benin. They kept our technical staff really on their toes with all their questions. In this sense, African countries have demonstrated once again that they have potential. Leaders are trying to make a change, and people to have an impact.”

With quality services, demand will come. But engaging top-level talent is key

On a similar note, Marit Lani highlights that people are a critical factor behind the success of these projects. While in the beginning there might have been struggles to find a sufficient number of own, prepared staff, now the Beninese administration has managed to attract more talented people to bring skills and knowledge. “Working with their team has been a very interesting experience. You can see the determination, passion, and how the team involved there continues to get better with the passing of time,” Lani says.

Photo: Workshop on Interoperability in Benin

 

On par with the mobilization of such talent, the projects’ success also come down to the approach adopted by the local partners. Until now, digitalisation has largely been a top-down approach adopted by the Beninese government.
“Switching to a bottom-up approach will take some time, citizens first need to see that digital services are of good quality, here to facilitate every aspect of their life. But I’m proud of this international cooperation and the results achieved. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel – while it is right that we proceed on our own route to a more digital state, if technology out there can help us, we will buy it. We’re proud to talk about something that we have done, completed, and that happened with the help of our Estonian partners,” Adjovi outlines.

A diversity of approaches is possible, from country to country, based on the specific capabilities of the partners involved. However, the general framework for shaping cross-agency cooperation must always be clear and in place. “A solid e-governance architecture framework is always the starting point. Now there are many things yet to come, to build on what has been achieved – improving the maturity of the system and data quality, reengineering services. I’m sure there will be even more to learn on this path, the more Benin progresses on its route to a digital government,” Lani concludes.