BBtv World: Green tech and internet at the Songhai Center in Benin (Africa)

In this installment of Boing Boing tv's ongoing BBtv WORLD series, I travel to the West African nation of Benin to visit the Songhaï Center, a green tech project designed to develop a new generation of "agricultural entrepreneurs," and foster economic sustainability.

Benin is nestled between Ghana, Togo, and Nigeria along the continent's midwest coast -- this shore was historically known as the "Slave Coast," and Benin was a major center in export of slave labor to the Americas. Today, Benin's people are struggling with a cultural shift from a traditional, mostly agrarian society, to a more urban, industrialized economy -- and the largely impoverished country depends on foreign aid.

The Songhaï Center was founded in the mid-'80s by Father Godfrey Nzamujo, a Dominican priest and Nigerian native, on a few acres of swampland granted by Benin's former president. What began as an experiment in small-scale sustainable development to fight poverty has since become a popular institution, and a symbol of Africa's potential for self-determination and prosperity.

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Aid creates dependence, but small businesses foster independence, the group's logic goes -- and unlike other anti-poverty projects, this one exports more than it imports: specialty food and beverage products produced here (cashew butter, cookies, fruit beverages) are sold and shipped to France and elsewhere around the world.

In this episode, we walk through the main Songhaï Center in Porto Novo, a coastal town near the Nigerian border, and we witness a variety of projects in action -- "integrated farming, biomass gasification, microenterprise and IT for rural communities." Here, agricultural and technical pursuits merge in uniquely African ways.

We see women hulling cashew nuts; mango soda whooshing into bottles in a soda bottling factory; barnyard critters (including the furry and tasty bush critters known as "sugar cane rats"); people sifting maize flour and baking fresh bread for sale; workers harvesting manioc, papayas, and giant mushrooms; and buzzing activity in the adjacent internet "telecentre."

Each of those parts interlock to form a massive, carefully-engineered, green tech puzzle: scrap metal is welded into parts that would cost too much to buy from overseas. Insects grown on scraps from the restaurant feed fish cultivated in the aquaculture area; water hyacinths at the edge of those pools help filter "black water" in the sewage system; solar panels power the internet cafe; coconut husks discarded in food production serve as a base on which to cultivate giant mushrooms. One area's waste becomes another component's fuel input, and the resulting products cost less than they would through contemporary, Western means.

There are 6 Songhaï Centers throughout Benin, and plans for opening more tech/agriculture hubs in Nigeria, Gabon, Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. They offer voice over internet and wifi at current sites in Benin, and plan to expand into rural telephone and ISP services, as the project grows.

-- Xeni Jardin

(Xeni shot the video footage, and the stills in this blog post; special thanks to Leonce Sessou, the center's head of technology.)


  1. YES! Oh this is fantastic. Using green technology to help bootstrap African nations is such a laudable thing. Great story!

  2. WOW…that looks amazing. New word for the day: Biodigester.

    I’m going to look at all the video right now… but, are those quail eggs? They look so petite, and so edible! I like aid groups that provide chickens for eggs and goats for milk. That sort of thing. These folks are miles of head of anyone I know on the solar thing. Great job.

  3. Fantastic! Thanks for posting this. I lived in Benin in the early 90’s while in the Peace Corps. I would love to go back and visit one of these centers.

  4. Lovely BB post. I do have a question though regarding the t-mobile commercial…anyone know the group who is playing the song in it? Sounds like a country-type song. I can’t seem to find out anywhere what it’s from.

  5. Father Nzamujo, Leonce, and the Songhai crew are inspirational. But those aren’t simply “insects” that feed the fish — they’re maggots. It’s a maggot farm. Seeing how they produce food from garbage was one of the highlights of visiting Songahi.

    1. @christineprefontaine, you are right! That’s cool, you’ve visited too! The critters growing on that trash, which by the way smelled truly horrible, were maggots. I don’t know why I didn’t use that word, it’s more precise. Forgive me. The stuff they were feeding on included carcass waste, like, meat scraps and stuff, and was super rank in the hot Beninese sun… but I went to the center’s little restaurant and noshed on some fish grown on those mealygrubs. The fish was delish. The whole place was very cool.

  6. We get some pretty gnarly grubby maggoty looking things in our compost. I figure they can chow down on a lot of kitchen scraps and eventually they just sort of get mixed back in with the soil.

    Feeding them to fish is so smart. Fish farms have a reputation for being polluting, but on a small scale it seems like a good way to raise food.

    Xeni- first you interview David Byrne and then you go to Africa to report on this? You are too cool for school.

  7. That was awesome. And it seems the right way to do it. Take people with almost no infrastructure to be attached to and give them a new, better one than is used almost anywhere.

  8. Xeni,
    Thanks for posting this. I just want to add some ideas. As you said, the Songhai model is based on the interelationship between environmental resources, agriculture, technology industry and services. It also explicity incoporates a human capacity develpment component, an integrated package of technical, managerial, value based leadership and entrepreneurial skill development. The model therefore creates opportunities for rural communities to participate in the sustainable use and management of their local resources while promoting local economic development. In this business, we call it “business unusual”, Songhai acts as a mother enterprise surounded by small agri-entreprises created by the young graduates. This experience is recognized globally as one of Africa based initiatives which achieved notable success in addressing rural growth and poverty. It has been highlighted last year during the UN South-South Cooperation Conference as one of the best practices that have to be promoted for South-South cooperation. Hence the UN system in partnership with some African governments is scaling up the model ensuring that its services benefit the Africa region (this is the vision of its founder Fr Godfrey Nzamujo). 12 countries and 5 UN agencies are already involved in this project that will progessively be extended to the others.

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