Sometimes the best business ideas come with an aha moment. This was the case for Vital Sounouvou, who started the trade platform Exportunity. Based in Benin and Mauritius, the goal of Exportunity is to promote global trade in Africa by connecting farmers and producers with traders.
Say a farmer in Benin wants to sell his products to a buyer in the U.S. Exportunity makes this happen with just a cellphone call.
Exportunity was launched in 2012 and it works with producers and wholesalers of goods and raw commodities in emerging markets.
Sounouvou, 27, was born in Porto-Novo, Benin, and attended a primary school founded by his parents. He went on to earn dual bachelor’s degrees in electronics and computer sciences.
A 2015 Tony Elumelu Entrepreneur, Sounouvou told Moguldom how he’s helping African farmers broaden their markets.
Moguldom: What made you want to start Exportunity?
Vital Sounouvou: In 2008 I volunteered to help organize the International Innovation Crossroads in Benin, a trade exhibition organized by college students. That was a turning point in my life. I will always remember the lady who pulled me into her booth at the International Crossroads. She offered me water and said, desperate: “How can you help me find big buyers? I have to feed the children. I cannot succeed because I am too busy with production, tired of fairs. Help me dispose of my goods.” I organized fairs but I still did not solve the problems of these producers.
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In fact, in most sub-Saharan African countries there is no bridge between big buyers — people who can pay for 100 containers of rice per month — and local producers. (Observing) this gap launched me in this adventure that is today Exportunity and still drives me every day.
Today, the same lady and hundreds of other Beninese producers sell their goods both locally and internationally through Exportunity, resulting in a significant increase in their production, which also allowed them to hire more and create new sustainable jobs for their communities.
Moguldom: What does your company do?
Vital Sounouvou: Our trade management platform allows producers and wholesalers of goods and raw commodities in emerging markets to trade in accordance with international trade rules without major changes to their usual trade practices. We provide escrow and payment aggregation and direct payment instruments using mobile payment, Visa, Mastercard, Verve, Bitcoin, and blockchain platforms.
Moguldom: Did you have any startup challenges?
Vital Sounouvou: Having founded an online business, I’ve experienced how hard it can be in a country like the Republic of Benin, which all online payment systems blacklisted. Before paying our web host we had to be outside of the country as all IP addresses from Benin are considered potentially fraudulent. Benin, just like many other countries in sub-Saharan-Africa, has earned a very bad reputation in the internet industry due to the large amounts of web scams being registered.
Trusting a Benin-based company was just an issue for our potential investors and customers, especially due to the large sums involved in the wholesale trade. Most trade platforms in Benin chose the easy way: dealing (with) companies without due diligence and stay(ing) away from the regulatory world by accepting undocumented funds. As a startup founder, I made a difficult but ethical choice: (I) underwent the tough due diligence of the banking system, solved the online payment collection issues of the region in partnership with UBA bank and enrolled only the duly registered companies in each country, allowing big and small buyers to place their orders safely through escrow mechanisms. We did all this with a view to clear the reputation of the region, strengthening a sustainable economy, increasing social responsibility on the continent.
Moguldom: Can you tell me the advantages of having a business in Benin?
Vital Sounouvou: Thanks to our 700-kilometer border with Nigeria, and the fact that we are their only neighbor with a seaport and in the same economic zone with Nigeria. This geographic advantage of Benin positions the country as a natural hub and crossroad for business in the sub region.
Moguldom: How did your lifestyle growing up play into your being an entrepreneur?
Vital Sounouvou: Saying that I’ve grown up in poverty would not completely be true. I have parents who are both teachers and educators. Instead of investing in materials things, they prioritized our education. Even when my father became a member of the parliament, those rules of modesty never changed. I can clearly remember the day that I asked for my first bicycle. I had to write a letter to my father justifying why I needed the bicycle, and (what I) was going to do to deserve it. I can also remember those days where our father brought the whole family to farms to learn how to plant, grow and harvest crops, and also hunt. Events such as that one shaped my personality into understanding that everything had to be earned and that nothing was to be granted, and definitely planted the seeds of my entrepreneur life.
Moguldom: How many people has your company reached?
Vital Sounouvou: We recently launched our free online shops, allowing 1,276 Beninese businesses to benefit from e-commerce (for example athome.exportunity.net), and offer their products to the world without even leaving their house.
Right now, 15,000 trade points are under implementation in the Benin Republic with MTN mobile money Benin through a direct enrollment of small businesses. Exportunity also offered 150 of the most dynamic SMEs on its platform a 10 percent interest service loan valued at $500 each for purchasing an executive online shop for a year and $400 of advertisement on the platform. SMEs pay Exportunity back by spreading the payment from their daily transactions during the first months of their activity according to a timetable adapted to SMEs.
And 700, 000 national post users are indirectly impacted by the 108 e-commerce shipping points established with the National Post of Benin.
Our 1,500,000 MTN mobile money users are indirectly benefiting from our 15,000 e-commerce trade points.
Over 360,000 users who have visited the trade platform installations are indirectly benefiting from the information and the opportunity to buy local products being shipped at the lowest rates on the market.
The platform is available in more than 100 languages and eight currencies. It opens an opportunity to the 4 billion Internet users across the world to discover, order and be delivered goods from Africa.
Moguldom: What has been the biggest surprise about being an entrepreneur?
Vital Sounouvou: In the entrepreneurship journey, surprises occur all the time. One of those which come to my mind now is the day when, after investing over $40,000 in Mauritius in order to obtain a bank account allowing Visa and Mastercard collection, we realized that it would take another year to set the whole process up for due diligence purposes. Entrepreneurs are often very optimistic but blind optimism leads to surprises, and surprises can be very expensive. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that preparation lowers the cost of expensive surprises.