I SPECIALIZE IN BUSINESS?! And other surprising facts about my life here

Recently several people have asked me what I do here—what my responsibilities are and what a day in my life looks like. I’ll try to give you an idea of that although sometimes I am not so sure myself. This will be broken up into several posts, one on the economic context of Benin and Bante, one on my work and one on “a day in the life.”

THE CONTEXT

My job here is to be a Community Economic Development volunteer. This means that I am working towards sustainable, small scale solutions to huge, seemingly unsolvable problems. Here are some statistics about the workforce in Benin:

Population occupied

(as given to me by Peace Corps…not sure where this data comes from but seems accurate based on observation)

Formal, Private sector (people working for companies registered with the government. For example: major communications companies, large supermarkets): 2.4%

Formal, State/government (Government jobs, teachers, some health workers): 2.6%

Informal sector (EVERYONE ELSE): 95.6%

Ok so right there we can see some issues. Benin has virtually no private sector. That means there are not many stable jobs and also means it is very hard for the government to collect taxes. It used to be that everyone who was educated through university could work for the government, but now there are more and more educated people (yay!) so there are no more available government jobs. Basically if you want to work here, educated or not, you need to work for a friend or family member in the informal sector or you need to become an entrepreneur. Ok, so imagine this common scenario: you have never taken a business course, you may or may not be literate, you have only very basic math skills and you have almost no capital to start with. What will you do? Here are some common options in Bante:

  • Sell food to people from coolers on your head or at a roadside stand
  • Sell produce or other basic goods like candles or packaged foods at the market
  • Break rocks harvested from the granite hillside next to my house and sell the pieces as gravel (This is what most of my neighbors do. They go up the steep hill, break off a chunk of rock probably weighing 50 lbs, carry it down on their head, and then spend the rest of the day hitting it with a hammer so that it breaks into appropriately-sized pieces.)
  • Become an apprentice for a seamstress/hairdresser/welder, etc. and learn a trade, then set up your own shop after. This can be expensive as you generally don’t get paid for any of your work while you are being an apprentice, which lasts several years, and actually have to pay for your training.
  • Start a small store out of your house where you sell things like tomato paste, cookies, and phone credit
  • Practice subsistence agriculture and sell the excess (pretty much all people work in the fields at least sometimes and harvest their own corn to make the staple food here—pate, or congealed grits.)
  • Raise chickens and goats and sell them to people when they are going to have a party (animals here are rarely eaten by the family who raises them…a big problem is that people here don’t eat much protein day-to-day.)
  • Make something—liquid soap, beaded jewelry, palm oil, etc. and sell it.
  • Sell black-market Nigerian gas out of old alcohol bottles to cars and motos passing on the road

Some people of course are very successful–they have family money, are well educated, or are just born with business savvy. Some start with basically nothing and manage their business well and grow. But those scenarios are fairly rare—usually people stay at the same level they start at and don’t make much profit. I think that part of the reason for this is that the educational system here does not generally value innovative or creative thinking, which is at the base of entrepreneurship.

Business growth issues are compounded because generally people don’t understand why you would need to keep business and personal money separate and they usually don’t have a system of accounting other than memory. Almost nobody has a savings account at a bank, although some participate in community savings groups.

Is this making you uncomfortable yet? I just re-read what I had written and I’m starting to get heartburn. What if America’s high school graduates and dropouts couldn’t get a job at a coffee shop or bagging groceries? What if there were no drug stores, no gas stations, nowhere where you could hand in a job application and get a job with an hourly wage? What if university graduates couldn’t find any jobs in their field vc? GAA!!

If you are the richest person in the family then you are responsible for helping out your less-fortunate family members. Which means that things like homelessness are basically non-existent here, but also means it is hard for anyone to save any money. You see a lot of partially finished houses because that is one way to save—you build as you get the money—no family member can ask you for your house (although they can ask to stay there.) There are also problems with budgeting—very few people know how to do it. Bante is a huge producer of cashews and every year around Easter the cashew harvest comes around and everyone gets rich. But only for a minute. They go out and buy a bunch of new clothes, drink a lot of beer, and spend most of their money instead of spreading it out throughout the year.

The infrastructure of Benin is also a problem. There are two main north-south roads that are paved, but there are significant potholes. To get from the eastern road to the western road is very difficult. To transport goods and services costs a lot and is not easy. To transport people is not easy. On the other hand, Bante is situated on one of the main roads, so that is helpful to its particular economic situation.

Brain-drain is another issue for Benin and Bante. The most accomplished people in Bante tend to move to the big cities in Benin. The most accomplished people in the big cities in Benin often go to France or other countries to seek their fortune. So the people who have the power to create big change often leave.

So my job is to help address these issues. Dear God. You laugh or you cry—sometimes I do both.

After re-reading this I realize it isn’t particularly well written or easy to follow. Sorry about that. I’ve had it half way done for a really long time and feel like I just need to post it so I can get on to another topic. Maybe I’ll go back and edit it but in the meantime if you have any clarifying questions please ask!

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