I recently spent two weeks in Cotonou, Benin, West Africa, on a volunteer business mission in tandem with Montfort Hospital and uOttawa's medical student international rotation. While they were there to work with Benin doctors, surgeons and nurses on a critical medical development initiative (which began in 2003), I was there to offer Mindful Business Leadership (MBL) training services to various entrepreneurs. My goal was to lend my insight on management and leadership, but the perspective I gained from them made this experience doubly impactful.
Let me set the stage for you.
Contrary to nearby countries like Burkina Faso or Nigeria whose security and political crises are at a high, this French colony is relatively peaceful. Benin flies under the radar because it lacks resources; no oil, no technology, no natural resources. It has its beautiful areas, clean spots and pockets of education that help provide some opportunity to escape poverty, but the general standard of living is far below average Canadian comforts. Public places are unhygienic and the high risk of disease keeps Benin’s life expectancy around 56 years old! Cost of living is expensive but incomes are nominal (for example, their gas is the same price as Ottawa’s, meanwhile their wage is $1 per hour).
Yet, despite these difficult circumstances, all the people I met with still found the determination to develop their businesses.
I first met with the owner of a retail store called Bepomag who supports local African artisans by selling their high-quality products. They currently have boutiques in Cameroon and Nairobi, as well as an online shop. We discussed several opportunities, including creating more welcoming boutiques, offering more depth in a few products and strengthening their brand online to appeal to the international market.
Secondly, I sat down with the managers of the Zinsou Foundation, a wonderful organization that provides work and support to local women who weave coloured fabrics called “pagne” (a staple here in Benin), each with a different meaning behind its pattern. The fabrics are worn by women and men alike, and they’re also used to remodel furniture and various artifacts. I connected them to the Value Retail Outlets in Europe who are doing a “Best of Africa” summer theme pop up experience in their outlet village in 2020 - they will most likely work together and create a Zinsou Foundation pop up. If you are ever in Benin and looking for a place to work and enjoy a fresh fruit juice check out their café: @zinsoufoundation.
Finally, I worked with the owners of Flex Fitness, a gym and lounge bar in an area called Ganhi. I shared my insight with one of their yoga teachers on how to structure a yoga class, specifically how to create consistency and a space for yogis to come back. We discussed the value of creating various levels of yoga classes to encourage participation, as well as how to develop their teacher roster. We will be working on creating a yoga teacher training as well as some leadership and management develop for their other trainers.
On this trip, I also had the opportunity to meet inspiring doctors. Two of them specifically, Dr. Dossou-Gbété and Dr. Theophile Houhouendo are doing a lot for the Cotonou health and medical community. Refusing to wait around for the government to create changes, they’re taking action themselves in their private clinics to offer medical assistance safely. Dr. Dossou-Gbété recently acquired a decontamination machine that safely desterilizes medical bio-waste, a much smarter alternative to letting it be thrown in the “general garbage” where it would decompose in landfills close to homes, contaminating the soil and water with potential infectious diseases. These two doctors are recruiting more doctors to help them mobilize the medical community and establish more ethical and educated medicine practices.
From the doctors to entrepreneurs to ministers, there were specific leadership traits I found they all had in common:
Listening. When we meet and gather around a table, they will not be the first to speak. They are hospitable and respectful, they will let you speak first and discuss the subject needed. It is only fifteen to thirty minutes in, once they have given you the opportunity to express your concerns, that they then add or help find a solution.
Patience. They’re very aware of the challenging situation they’re in as individuals or as a country and they understand that change will not happen overnight. With the right regulations, processes, systems and consistency change will come.
Perseverance. Perhaps closer to hope, all of the leaders I met know that there is a light on the other side of the tunnel. They persevere in learning, collaborating and educating themselves to be at a higher level of standard.
Connection. The political climate takes a big toll on any type of project development. Who you know and build rapport with at a higher political level has a major impact on whether or not you get support for your ideas to improve the country.
As leaders in our own lives, we can learn a lot from developing countries. Simply being immersed in this was a shocking reminder of how well off we are in Canada. You wonder, what do I have to complain about? Free health care, accessible public education and a government, that despite all opposing opinions, makes sure we have paved roads, rules and regulations to maintain order and cleanliness. Our jobs come with comfortable seats, desks and resources.
We also have the power to help others. Offering support to people in places like Cotonou doesn’t have to be as complex as providing medical assistance. Simple things like a language lesson, a yoga class or training on software programs like Word or Excel can be hugely impactful. I will definitely be going back and I highly recommend it for those of you who might be curious enough to try. In the meantime, I will be organizing a Benin photography exhibition fundraiser in early 2020 here in Ottawa to help bring awareness to the Benin Project and more.
Please stay tuned!