Tag: Benin

Bringing museums into homes: Benin’s Wakpon app

A man tries out Wakpon, a new smartphone application that allows people to view pictures and works of art. (Pic: AFP)
A man tries out Wakpon, a new smartphone application that allows people to view pictures and works of art. (Pic: AFP)

Admiring paintings or photographs by Africa’s greatest contemporary artists is a luxury in Benin, where museums are scarce and most people lack money to travel farther afield.

But a new application developed by a foundation based in Cotonou, the largest city in this West African state, is seeking to bring art to the masses by allowing anyone with access to a printer and smartphone or tablet to turn their place into a museum.

“For 10 years, the Zinsou Foundation has been striving to bring contemporary art to people who don’t have access to it because we think culture is a right, not a luxury,” said Marie-Cecile Zinsou, the Franco-Beninese head of the foundation that created the “Wakpon” app.

Budding art enthusiasts need only print out colourful images available on the app’s website onto pieces of A4 paper and hang them on the walls of their home, school or government building – just like paintings in a museum.

Visitors can then aim at these images with their smartphones or tablets using the app, and a painting by Benin’s voodoo artist Cyprien Tokoudagba or a photo of Nigerian hairstyles by J.D. Okhai Ojeikere will pop up, alongside information on the work of art.

All in all, 44 pieces by 10 artists are available on the app, all taken from the foundation’s collection.

Low visibility for African art

Zinsou said she convinced her father, who has just been named Benin prime minister, to set up the foundation after she realised that like many other African countries, there were no museums in Benin to showcase the continent’s contemporary art, despite its growing popularity elsewhere.

Leading African artists were virtually absent from art sales just a decade ago but now contemporary works feature strongly in several international auction houses.

Bonhams in London recently described the continent as “one of our hottest properties on the art block”.

Since 2005, the foundation’s show room in Cotonou puts on free exhibitions of Beninese and foreign artists, and once showcased US legend Jean-Michel Basquiat – a first in Africa.

In 2013, it opened a museum in an old building of the former slave trade hub of Ouidah, some 40 kilometres away from Cotonou.

All in all, nearly five million people have visited both places in a decade – most of them them children who often come the first time with their schools, return on their own and then bring their families.

Zinsou said the Wakpon app – which once downloaded does not need to be connected to the Internet – aims to widen access to a broader population.

‘Tomorrow’s museum’

Mobile phone penetration has been low in Benin, particularly for smartphones, because of poor infrastructure.

But competition from international mobile operators and under-sea cables is increasing take-up, as prices come down for both handsets and Internet services.

“This application is amazing,” said Beninese artist Romuald Hazoume, whose work has been showcased abroad and is also available on the app.

“African people will be able to have access to their culture, to their artists who are known around the world but whom they cannot see due to a lack of exhibition sites, of money or visas.

“It’s like a bait. People will know works of art, their story, and they will want to see them for real. It’s tomorrow’s museum and it’s what all big collections should be doing.”

In the Cotonou showroom, those who visit are given a Wakpon demonstration at the end of their tour.

“Wakpon” means “come and see” in Fon, the most widely spoken local language in Benin.

“It’s great. My cousin has a good telephone, I’m going to plead with him to activate the application and our entire district will take a look,” says Obed, 15, who came with his class.

Zinsou said people in Africa had a tendency to think that culture will emerge only once their countries are developed.

“But no, culture is essential for development,” she added.

Organic farm in Benin looks to set example for Africa

With his pilgrim’s staff and panama hat, Father Godfrey Nzamujo nips up and down the paths of Songhai, the organic farm he created nearly 30 years ago to fight poverty and rural migration in Africa.

The small farm covered barely a hectare when it was set up in Porto Novo in 1985 but has since become a pilot project for the rest of the continent badly in need of new ideas to maximise yields.

The centre in Benin’s capital now stretches over 24 hectares and employs an army of workers and apprentices, who toil from sunrise to sunset growing fruit, vegetables and rice, as well as rearing fish, pigs, poultry.

“Nothing is wasted, everything is transformed” according to Nzamujo’s principle, with even chicken droppings turned into the bio-gas that powers the centre’s kitchens.

Father Godfrey Nzamujo, director of the organic farm  Centre Songhai. (Pic: AFP)
Father Godfrey Nzamujo, director of Centre Songhai. (Pic: AFP)

Songhai in tiny Benin has big plans for Africa. It already has similar operations in Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone and wants to set up shop in 13 more west and central African countries.

Nzamujo’s raison d’etre is how to help Africans increase yields through simple techniques, without using pesticides or fertilizers, and while cutting production costs and protecting the environment.

The Nigeria-born priest, who was raised in California on the US west coast, said he was shocked by the appalling images of famine in Africa on television at the start of the 1980s.

He then left to discover the continent to see how he could put to good use his university training in agronomics, economics and information technology and fight against poverty on his own terms.

How it began
After visiting a number of countries, he ended up in Benin where the country’s then-Marxist government gave him a small plot.

“It was abandoned land, killed by chemical fertiliser and conventional agricultural practices. It didn’t work,” he told AFP.

“There were seven of us. We dug wells and watered with our own hands. And during the main dry season, this grey surface became green,” he recalled with a smile.

Nzamujo’s secret is in imitating nature, encouraging “good bacteria” present in the soil to maximise production without having to rely on chemicals.

Yields at Songhai speak for themselves: the farm produces seven tonnes of rice per hectare three times a year, up from one tonne per hectare once a year at the beginning of the project.

“Songhai is facing up to the triple challenge of Africa today: poverty, environment and youth employment,” said Nzamujo proudly.

The cleric’s system centres on local production and distribution, creating economic activity to tackle poverty head on.

At Songhai, jam simmers in large pots while chickens are roasted and soya oil, rice and fruit juice are packaged for sale in the centre’s shop or served at its restaurant.

Discarded parts of agricultural machinery are reused to create ingenious contraptions and used water is filtered using water hyacinths.

A man wheels coconuts in a wheelbarrow at the Centre Songhai. (Pic: AFP)
A man wheels coconuts in a wheelbarrow at the Centre Songhai. (Pic: AFP)

The centre also has an internet point and even a bank so that local people can avoid going into the city centre.

Youth employment is encouraged and some 400 farm apprentices – selected by competition – are trained every year. The 18-month course is entirely free.

Apprentices, interns
Paul Okou is one of them. The 25-year-old from Parakou, northern Benin, would like to follow his parents into farming but is hoping to work in a more profitable way.

“My parents use traditional, archaic methods while at Songhai we learn the modern way, albeit makeshift,” he said.

“What we used to do in two days now we do in two hours.”

The apprentices are sent into villages where they apply what they have learned. Once in charge of a farm, they join the Songhai network and are checked regularly.

Songhai also welcomes interns who are paying for their own training.

They include Abua Eucharia Nchinor, a Nigerian in his 30s, and Kemajou Nathanael, a 39-year-old former salesman from Cameroon, who both want to open an organic farm in their respective countries.

According to Nzamujo, Songhai is not a cure-all for Africa’s problems but tackles their root causes.

“Imagine if all the young people who hang around big cities did their training here and we equip them. … Imagine the productivity of Africa today.” he said.

Cecile de Comarmond for AFP

Dreaming of an African tennis champion

While football is wildly popular in Africa, tennis is an almost invisible sport. However, this could be changing if new developments in two small West African countries, Togo and Benin, are anything to go by.

About ten years ago, several young Africans successfully gained good classifications from ATP, the governing body of men’s professional tennis circuits. Currently, however, there is not one black African among the 500 best tennis players in the world, as tennis enthusiast Boniface Papa Nouveau explains. The Ivorian is an initiator and promoter of two new tennis tournaments in West Africa and aims to develop his favourite sport across the continent.

An early passion
Papa Nouveau works as a delegate for the international transport company Hesnault in Togo and Benin, where he currently lives. Having grown up in France, he discovered his passion for tennis early in his life. At the age of ten, when the French-Cameroonian tennis player Yannik Noah won the Roland Garros tournament, he got his first tennis racket. Since then Papa Nouveau never got away from the sport. Due to a severe arm injury in his youth, he had to give up his dream of becoming a professional player and taught tennis for many years instead. Today he still is an enthusiastic tennis player and hopes that one day an African could become the next world tennis champion.

Boniface Papa Nouveau (centre) with two participants. (Pic: Tanja Schreiner)
Boniface Papa Nouveau (centre) with two participants. (Pic: Tanja Schreiner)

International players coming to West Africa
After organising his first successful tennis tournament in West Africa in 2012, Papa Nouveau decided to organise two more in a row in the following year. The first, called Open du Togo, was held from 9th to 14th of December 2013 in Togo’s capital Lomé. Fifty-four players from 12 different countries participated. The second, Open de Cotonou, ran from 16th to the 21st of December 2013 in Cotonou, Benin. With 78 young players coming from 13 different countries, the level at the tournament in Benin was already higher than the previous year. Among the participants were international tennis players such as the French Alexandre Renard, the Colombian Juan Gomez and the Franco-Beninese Alexis Klegou. The latter is the unbeaten winner of all three tournaments since 2012. Wanting to motivate numerous young players to participate in the tournaments, prize money was even handed out to players who only won one single match. The winner’s prize money from the competition in Togo was 700 000 CFA Francs (around USD$1500) and 1 000 000 CFA Francs (around USD$2100) in Benin. As Papa Nouveau explains, he was able to realise the tournaments thanks to the support of sponsors and corporates, but it is a challenge to find funding in general.

A sport for the rich?
There are questions whether tennis – not being the cheapest of sports – has the potential to ever be really successful in developing regions like West Africa.  “If you want to buy equipment in Africa, sometimes a city doesn’t even have a sports shop that sells rackets. If they do, it’s three times the price in Europe,” Frank Couraud, International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) development projects administrator, told CNN. Even though West Africa is one of the poorest regions in the world, Papa Nouveau does not think that tennis is a sport reserved for the rich. Take Clément N’Goran, one of Côte d’Ivoire’s greatest tennis champions. He grew up in a family of 13 in a poor neighbourhood in Abidjan. As his parents could not afford tennis rackets for their son, he learned how to play with wooden paddles that he made himself. At the height of his career he was the 150th ranked player in the world.

Also, many young Ivorians that succeeded in having a good classification were born into poor families. When they played well, the International Tennis Federation supported them. “After the age of 18 it should be up to the state to back them up. But as [the state] does not do so, most of them in the end become tennis coaches”, Papa Nouveau says.

Football wins over tennis
One reason why it is so hard to implement tennis is because football still is the most popular sport in Africa. There is almost no visibility of tennis in the media, Papa Nouveau explains. ITF’s Frank Couraud told CNN: “If you look at our budget ($ 4.3 million each year) it’s what FIFA gives to maybe one or two nations. There’s a huge discrepancy.”

There are a lot of young talented tennis players in sub-Saharan Africa but many of them do not get the possibility to further develop their skills on an international level. One of the reasons for this is that there are not enough tennis matches in Africa, Papa Nouveau says. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example,  there used to be professional tennis tournaments a decade ago which gave players the chance to win ATP points. Today, national tournament don’t even exist. When young African players finally get the chance to compete professionally, they are not able to give their best because they are not used to playing in a match, Papa Nouveau says. He’s had many requests to organise tennis competitions in countries as Niger, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire.

According to CNN, Africa has not produced a grand slam singles finalist since South African Kevin Curren lost against Boris Becker at the 1985 Wimbledon Championships. Looking at the current ATP single rankings, there is only one African among the best 100 male players in the world – South African Kevin Anderson on rank 21. You can say as much for the best 100 female players, with Chanelle Scheepers from South Africa being the only African to be ranked 79th. This shows that tennis does not have the same reputation in all African countries. The situation in North Africa is much better – in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt there are a lot of tournaments, clubs and many young players with good classifications.

South Africa's Kevin Anderson celebrates his victory against France's Edouard Roger-Vasselin during their men's singles match on day five of the 2014 Australian Open. (Pic: AFP)
South Africa’s Kevin Anderson celebrates his victory against France’s Edouard Roger-Vasselin during their men’s singles match on day five of the 2014 Australian Open. (Pic: AFP)

There are a small number of professional tennis tournaments where players can earn ATP ranking points in Africa. In 2013,  Morocco was the only African country to host the ATP Wold Tour – the global professional tennis competition organised by the Association of Tennis Professionals. However other African countries have already hosted the Pro Circuit by the International Tennis Federation, which is an entry level of professional tennis tournaments. Last year, three North African countries (Egypt, Morocco, Senegal) and four sub-Saharan countries (Burundi, Gabon, Nigeria, Rwanda) hosted one of the ITF Pro Circuit’s tournaments.

A future for African tennis
What is necessary for tennis to become more popular in sub-Saharan Africa? According to Papa Nouveau, three things: a big tennis tournament in every African country; tennis federations and governments need to do more to develop the sport; and more tennis clubs in order to initiate tournaments.

Papa Nouveau wants to continue promoting tennis in this region. “It would be great if we could add a competition in the women’s and doubles categories. Moreover I would love to have more young people coming from all over the world.”

He plans to organise three professional international tennis tournaments in West Africa this year – one in  Côte d’Ivoire, one in Benin and one in Togo.

Tanja Schreiner studied journalism and communication in Germany and France. She has worked in several African countries and currently works as a journalist in Germany. Connect with her on Twitter.