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Etrilabs, the lab that boosted digital innovation during the coronavirus crisis

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Alert, false information! “Garlic + honey: miracle recipe to cure Covid-19”. “The vaccine contains poison and the West wants to wipe out Africa. “ “Blacks would be immune to the coronavirus. “ These unfounded rumors went from phone to phone in West Africa at the start of the pandemic.

In Benin, Etrilabs, a digital innovation lab based in Cotonou, the country’s economic capital, compiled and dismantled dozens of them on a 100% Covid-19 website, created in March. On the platform, a red label signals and decrypts the infox. On the contrary, a green tab gathers the good advice, verified, that the West African authorities lavished on citizens at the height of the crisis.

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“There has been total disinformation about Covid-19 in West Africa. A lot of fake news has circulated. We quickly realized that they were more important than the disease itself, which affected us very little ”, emphasizes Ayéfèmi Oro, director of public relations at Etrilabs.

This technological hub combining start-up incubation, digital training and Web solutions for organizations, set up its Web platform dedicated to the pandemic in barely a week. “We stopped all our activities to put ourselves in hackathon mode and provide a response to Covid-19”adds Mr. Oro.

Monitor the health crisis in real time

In addition to disentangling the true from the false, their site also gathered statistics allowing to follow in real time the propagation of the virus in eight French-speaking countries of West Africa. On Etrilabs’ evolutionary map, a click on Benin and the data are displayed: as of November 25, 2,916 cases have been declared positive for the new coronavirus and 43 people have died from it.

In the eight countries of the study area, the laboratory counts 72,473 cases and 1,100 deaths. Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Togo and Senegal: there, the Covid-19 officially killed as many people in nine months as there were in France in just three days.

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In contrast, West African economies have been hit hard. In Benin, the restrictive measures taken by the authorities to combat the spread of the coronavirus have forced thousands of workers to cease their activities. “Restaurant owners, hairdressers and even drivers found themselves unemployed overnight. Behind them, whole families have been deprived of all financial resources ”, explains Oro.

To relieve some of these idle families, Etrilabs put their digital tools and community on the bridge to organize an online fundraiser. In total, 2.9 million CFA francs (4,420 euros) were distributed to more than 65 Beninese families affected by the pandemic.

“By Africans, for Africans”

“It’s local, but it’s concrete”, underlines Senam Beheton, director of Etrilabs. In 2009, tired of seeing his work as a digital strategy consultant to West African governments producing little effect, the economist set up Etrilabs to take concrete action on the ground. He then imagines an innovation laboratory “Created by Africans, for Africans”, whose mission will be to provide, via digital, concrete answers to the problems that arise on the continent.

Eleven years later, his laboratory is present in ten African countries. In Cotonou, the HQ is a large villa of 1,200 m2 where the walls are carefully tagged with quotes calling on entrepreneurs to innovate. Phones are ringing everywhere and computer keyboards are ringing. In the corridors, the young leaders of the five incubated start-ups meet and exchange experiences and skills. The place is swarming. Even more, since the pandemic.

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Seated at one of the conference tables, Hadjara Idriss, boss of a 26-year-old startup, watches the statistics of her platform skyrocket. Launched in 2018, Sewema offers young Africans online training courses in digital professions.

“We went from 800 learners in February to more than 11,000 in September. And it continues ! Before, people did not understand the value of having online training, but since the health crisis, everything has changed. People understand that digital is the future ”, smiles the young woman. In June, she and her eight employees took the opportunity to launch a new dematerialized training service for companies. Sewema Business allows them to have their own 100% digital and customizable training platform.

“All this digital innovation made in Africa, we must celebrate it”, enthuses Mr. Beheton, visibly happy to see the continent having for once extracted its negative clichés during the pandemic. “Everyone thought this crisis was going to be a disaster in Africa. In the end, little happened and, on the contrary, African innovation developed around this pandemic. It’s great and it must be said. For once, Africa was where we did not expect it ”, he concludes.

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