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Songhai Center Benin

by Simplice Davo VODOUHE, PhD, Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, University of Abomey -Calavi, Cotonou, Benin, and Gerard C. ZOUNDJI, MSc, Beninese Organization for the Promotion of Organic Agriculture (OBEPAB) Cotonou, Benin  


For over 20 years now, Benin has been host to an NGO that promotes entrepreneurship in agriculture, namely the "Songhai" center. It is active in the areas of training, production, research and development in agricultural entrepreneurship and agribusiness. From the beginning staff at the center focused on developing a "model of agro-biological production and functional training in agricultural entrepreneurship". This institution for the promotion of sustainable development through youth entrepreneurship aims at setting an extension stage for viable socioeconomic models. Songhai Center has had a legal status of NGO with its administrative and master agreements with the Beninese government since May 11, 1990. It has contributed to dynamic economic development through its strategy of erecting green rural towns in each agro-ecological area in the territory of Benin (Songhai, 2010). 

Songhai has found recognition beyond Benin. The UNDP (2008) regards its approach as successful in the promotion of agricultural entrepreneurship and the creation of decent jobs in rural areas. Thus it will now become a regional label under the UN system to stimulate the rural economy in Africa through the Regional Agricultural Entrepreneurship Promotion Project. This project covers 12 countries including Benin (Songhaï, Ministry of State for Planning, & UNDP, 2010).

The objective of the Songhai Center is to foster the emergence of a new African society based on socio-economic dynamics by promoting a type of social economy based on a duty of solidarity aiming at making the poor producers, to be actors and managers of their own future.


The Songhai Center was created in 1985 by a Catholic priest from the Dominicans’ Congregation, the brother Godfrey Nzamujo. Originally from Nigeria, he traveled to live in the U.S. in 1970 where he studied computer science and graduated in microbiology and chemistry. He then became Professor of Electronics and Computer Science in California. In 1983, the famine in Ethiopia challenged Nzamujo’s outlook on development and he decided to return to Benin, where he established an agriculture and livestock center that later became a network for multiple possibilities.

Thus, the Songhai Center was born, with a team of young people taken out of school who started managing over ten hectares of land made available by the Beninese government at Ouando, in the municipality of Porto-Novo. Having cleared the land and built six fishponds, a "Support Group" helped finance the purchase of 32 quail eggs, 12 ducks, 100 chickens, 10 pigs and 20 sheep and goats. These animals gave a good performance and one year later they allowed the Center Songhai to obtain a financial commitment with "African Development Foundation" for the first time. This funding was used for the construction of 84 fishponds and a barn. In 1987, for the first time, the Songhai Center welcomed 28 students. With these students literally “learning by doing”, Songhai Center expanded and had abundant harvests that helped set up a sale and delivery system. Songhai Center has also invested in removing constraints to the availability and accessibility of energy. To that end, Songhai Center is developing a range of alternatives from bio-gas through solar energy.

Within the Songhaï Center, the training component has become increasingly important and structured. It provides training in agricultural entrepreneurship and runs a network of producers across the country. This fabric of entrepreneurs operating in agribusiness aims not only to manage viable private enterprises but also to train farmers and other stakeholders in their region in a comprehensive and coordinated socio-economic dynamics. Indeed, these dynamic poles aim to develop rural entrepreneurship as an engine for rural growth in order to make rural life more attractive and thereby limit the migration of youth to the already saturated urban centers.

A second Songhai Center was established in 1989 in Chi-Ahomadegbe in the south of Benin. Young men went to settle there and build fishponds and gradually other young villagers applied for training. Out of this experience, seven cooperatives were created on the site and the European Development Fund supported the project by providing it with funding. Subsequently, the Songhai Center opened a shop to sell its products in Cotonou in 1991. The following year, food processing activities began.

The progress made by Songhai Center as an innovative institution, incubation center, and especially its development philosophy based on the notion of economic development through an emphasis community caught the attention of the Beninese Government It actually requested the expansion of Songhai Centers into other regions in 1999. This is how other centers have been created and Songhai Center currently has four centers for the multiplication of its experiences and runs a network of producers throughout the country (Songhai & UNDP, 2007). This network of entrepreneurs operating in agribusiness not only helps manage viable agricultural enterprises but also to train farmers and other stakeholders in their region in a wide socioeconomic dynamic. In this perspective, the Songhai centers work as a socio-economic and rural development center specializing in agricultural production, training and research. It supports an integrated production system based on minimal inputs and the use of local resources. Wastes from one production unit become inputs for others, and production activities become more profitable because they belong to the system in which the different components strengthen each other through what they provide to or receive from others.

The finality of the Songhaï Center is the socio-professional insertion of the trained young people. Thus, the Songhaï Center stuck downstream from the phase of application/installation, to animate a policy of well-targeted agricultural dies which makes it possible and create remunerative enough markets of flow for the farmers and start a true local capacity of creation of the added-value for the development of the agro-alimentary transformations whose Songhaï Center wants to be to be pilot. In the upstream of the implementation phase, in order to optimize the rate of settlement of trained people, the Songhai center engaged itself in an ongoing dynamic recovery of its technological and industrial park in order to definitely be an extension and culture of excellence for entrepreneurs.

As an extension stage, the Songhai Center also developed a network of community tele-service operations starting in 1999 with funding from USAID to give the population in general and farmers in particular access to new information technologies. The first tele-center was built in Porto-Novo and three others in Savalou, Parakou and Lokossa. In addition, a radio communication system connects the centers so that information is cam readily be made available to the people in the region.

 Songhai Center is the result of an economic and institutional dynamic, but also an interpersonal dynamic, because the Songhai Center owes its current success to its members, trainers and trainees (ZOUNDJI, 2007). 


Table 1: Summarizes the results of training activities of Songhai Center (1985-2009)





I- Total trained people 1985 - 2009

(all formulas together: initial + ongoing)


Benin and other countries


I-1. Long cycle (initial training): 1985 - 2009


Benin (mainly)

Training duration: 18 months

+ 1 year of application

I-2. Modular training with
map (ongoing) : 1985 - 2009


France, Cameroon, Congo,
Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Benin,
Togo, Mali, Chad, Gabon,
Canada, Niger, Burundi,


Average duration: 3 - 6 months

II- Average number of people registered in Songhai Center per month



Benin and other countries

 For all Songhaï, including 95 in modular training

III- Number of people settled with activities after benefiting initial training




Including 230 pilot women

Monitoring is effective only
from beneficiaries of
initial training, or a settlement rate of

 65.30 %

Source: GLIN et al., 2011 

Problems Encountered and How They Were Resolved

Songhai had  experienced some difficulties at the beginning of its creation. These were the difficulties related to the management of partnership with its technical and financial partners (TFP) and the supply of raw materials and spare parts for its agribusiness processing plants. Some donors have criticized Songhai, saying it did not give measurable results after few years of operation. As a result, donors tried imposing accountability/reporting procedures to still be eligible for funding. But the Songhai Center is in a process of long-term human development and refused to comply with these rules that were not convenient to it. This refusal of Songhai Center to conform to the orders from donors since its creation had seriously affected the operation of the center.

Songhai provides machinery and processing equipment to certain clients. Concerning the supply of raw materials and good quality spare parts, Songhai has therefore concluded that only the total control over the process and methodology for manufacturing several parts of its machinery would ensure the quality of the equipment delivered to its customers and ensure proper maintenance of all equipment in the medium and long term. Thus, with the support of the "Solidarity Fund for Development of French Cooperation", Songhai Center has established a foundry, enabling it to manufacture its own spare parts for agricultural machinery and food processing equipment that meet the agronomic conditions of the environment. Greater flexibility, improved quality control and enhanced opportunities in research and development in the area of agricultural mechanization are three major advantages of this new foundry.

It is also important to know that Songhai cannot nor does it attempt to solve all the difficulties that its stakeholders/beneficiaries/clients face. Among others, the problems commonly raised by farmers include tenure insecurity, climatic hazards that undermine production forecasts, lack of adequate financing, and difficulties of selling products at fair prices. Add to that the isolation of some farmers and lack of electricity in rural area.

Often there are problems of organization and coordination for the network of farmers trained at the Songhai Center. There are challenges such as the electrification of training centers such as Savalou and the limited capacities of Songhai Center to meet the needs of all its learners. Indeed, the Songhai system has integrated a credit system for farmers, but this system does not meet all the needs of farmers (Dalohoun, Hall, & Van Mele, 2009).

The Songhai Center cannot meet the infrastructure needs such as access roads, access to clean water, schools, recreation centers, which are all factors that inhibit the momentum of young entrepreneurs to settle in rural areas. In addition, the training mode that seeks to attract many young people (namely, that Songhai does not charge school fees) weakens the system's capabilities and willingness to see all trained people start-up their own business. The not grouped installation of the trained young people of these schools requires resorting to the joint actions of the State and the international institutions.

What Was Successful and Why?

The implementation of the Songhai model was a success for the Songhai Center because its application is combined with the entrepreneurial capacity focused on personal leadership of its Director. The later offers training to "change the mindsets" and not training modal that trains project managers. For the Songhai Center, the "change of mindsets" requires efforts and values the work as illustrated by Songhai Center itself. Thus, the trainers must be productive, and if they succeed, they receive a bonus. This is, in fact, a good example of performance based management.

In addition, the Songhai integrated model was a success because the Songhai Center, upon its creation, focused on key systematic relationships to link the activities that are traditionally separated.

Lessons That Could be Applied Elsewhere

The lessons of the Songhai Center that can be applied elsewhere are related to its model. In fact, the Songhai model is based on the interrelationships between environment, agriculture, technology, services and industry. It includes a component of human capacity development. In practice, the model encourages the use of local resources, the combination of traditional and modern agricultural practices, technology adaptation and diversification of activities. Through these practices, Songhai integrates ''zero waste'' and'' total productivity'' concepts through the use of biological and ecological farming practices. Thus, the Songhai model provides opportunities for rural communities to use and manage their resources sustainably while promoting local economic development.

The model mainly incorporates three components of development, namely:

·         involvement  the agricultural centers financially and environmentally in a sustainable manner in the processing of primary products;

·         train farmers on the qualities of entrepreneurs and socio-economic leaders focusing on the concepts'' zero waste'' and ''total productivity'', while including the pre- and post-harvest techniques ;

·         Facilitate access to a community of trained graduate farmers starting poles of agricultural businesses and managing their own farms, through a network of service provision and market access.

Songhai Center has attracted a lot the attention from the Government of Benin, and in recent years also from prospective and technical and financial partners. This is reflected through changes in the strategic development of the Beninese agricultural sector which, in addition to family farming, fosters agricultural entrepreneurship. It is now also being promoted by the United Nations since 2008 as a regional center of excellence for Africa and by the Economic Community of West African States since 2009as a regional center of excellence. Thus, the Songhai model is already being applied in many African countries like Nigeria, Liberia etc. (UNDP, 2008; Songhai , 2010).

Disparities in economic performance in Sub-Saharan Africa, excessive increase of youth unemployment and food crises are the main challenges with which many African countries are faced. These challenges justify the urgent need for scaling up initiatives such as "Songhai model" to spark and promote what works elsewhere on the African continent.


Dalohoun, D., Hall, A., & Van Mele, P. (2009). Entrepreneurship as driver of a self-organizing system of innovation, the case of NERICA in Benin. International Journal of Technology Management and Sustainable Development 8(2), 87–101. doi:10.1386/ijtm.8.2.87/1

Glin, L. C., Zoundji, C. G., Fiamohe, R. E., et Abitor, K. (2011). Promotion de l’entrepreneuriat agricole au Bénin: Etat des lieux et perspectives/promotion of agricultural entrepreneurship promotion in Benin: Current status and prospects. Study commissioned by the Council of Economic Analysis (CAE) of the President of the Republic, 63 p.

Nzamujo, G. (2002) : Quand l'Afrique relève la tête/when Africa emerges. Editions du Cerf, Paris, 140 p.

PNUD info (2008): Regional Project for the development of agricultural entrepreneurship; realization of South-South cooperation. Newsletter, May 2008, 10 p./ Projet régional pour le développement de l’entreprenariat agricole ; concrétisation de la coopération sud-sud. Bulletin électronique, Mai 2008.

Songhaï, Ministry of State for Planning and UNDP (2010): Promotion of entrepreneurship in agriculture for socio-economic transformation of Beninese rural areas. Project document, Benin. 78 p./Ministère d’Etat chargé de la Prospective et PNUD (2010): Promotion de l’entreprenariat agricole pour la transformation socioéconomique des zones rurales au Bénin. Document de projet, Benin. 78 p.

Songhaï et PNUD (2007) : Songhaï: a Project of Integrated and sustainable development. Report of the Ministerial Seminar on Rural Entrepreneurship in Benin, 4 p./un projet de développement Intégré et durable. Rapport du séminaire ministériel sur l'entreprenariat rural au Bénin, 4 p.

Zoundji, C. G. (2007) : Analysis of the Organization of rice parboiling at Songhai Center in Porto-Novo. Memoir of Professional License Diploma in Agricultural Science and Technology, submitted to the FSA / UAC in Benin, 76 p/ Analyse de l’Organisation de l’étuvage du riz au Center Songhaï de Porto-Novo. Mémoire du Diplôme de Licence Professionnelle en Sciences et Techniques Agronomiques, soutenu à la FSA/UAC au Bénin, 76 p.

Acknowledgments: The authors thank Songhai Center staff for the fruitful collaboration.