"Small investments can create enormous social added value"

The Flemish 3D printing pioneer Materialise has invested in sustainable projects in the South for years. One of these is African Drive, with which CEO Fried Vancraen and his companions offer safe and punctual public transport to people in Benin. The project is running like clockwork thanks to the help they received from Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs.

“We like to find extreme situations,” says Fried. “Whether it’s handling the medical emergency in Chernobyl or assisting civilian casualties during the Gulf war, our technical knowhow is best utilized to create as much added value as possible for those who need it. Africa, with its many challenges, was a logical next step in that story.”

Unifying power

Through Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs Fried came into contact with Huby & Vinciane, an NGO based in Leuven. “That meeting was instrumental in positioning ourselves in the African market. Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs creates the bridge between businesses here and those in Africa and facilitates a meeting of minds”, says Fried.
“In cooperation with Huby & Vinciane we give three people in Benin an opportunity every year to attend university. To select the lucky ones, we deploy eight candidates to do various feasibility studies in medicine, agriculture and economics. That allows us to assess their strengths and decide who will continue with the program.”
In many cases these studies lead to full-blown projects. “Then we set off in search of enthusiastic partners who are willing to set sail with us on this initiative. African Drive is a great example of such a project, where the binding force and extensive network of Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs was a key factor.”

Baobab Express

Fried: “The poor condition of the roads, the questionable quality of fuel and limited training of local mechanics makes driving around in Benin a perilous undertaking. We wanted to address that problem with proper bus transport and give the local economy an injection at the same time. That is how African Drive and its arm in Benin, Baobab Express, were born.”
A team from Belgium regularly travels to Benin to support local entrepreneurs with driver training, management techniques, bookkeeping and marketing. “Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs helps us find good, enthusiastic coaches who make sure that the project stays properly on track either on site or remotely through the use of Facebook, YouTube and Skype.”

“We tackle the mobility problems in Benin through African Drive and we simultaneously spark local entrepreneurship”, according to Fried Vancraen, CEO of Materialise.

The director of Baobab Express in Benin is a self-employed entrepreneur and the drivers can operate one or more buses through a franchise model. “In this way we encourage entrepreneurship in Africa and make people in Benin less dependent on handouts. That is a truly sustainable business practice.”

Creative financing options

The bus service hit bullseye: on average the buses are 85% full and sales have exceeded all expectations. However, it is not so easy to expand the business with more and bigger vehicles. “Belgian investors are not always eager to get involved in a project in Africa,” says Fried. “They feel the risks are too great. That is a pity, because those are precisely the places where a small investment goes a very long way in creating huge social added value.”
“Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs came up with a brilliant solution: crowdfunding. They helped us open causes, build a website and eventually collect enough money to expand our fleet. They also helped shape our great value proposition: we are not really able to have a big impact in Africa with our 3D printers at the moment, but by sharing our knowhow regarding business models, managing technical assets and management skills, we make the world of difference with just a little bit of effort. A simple, but very successful idea.”
That’s not all for the Baobab Express; this year Fried and his team plan to double the fleet. “In addition to the ongoing expansion of the bus project, we continue to test new ideas in cooperation with Huby & Vinciane. For projects that show potential for growth we gladly turn to Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs again to match us up with the right partner. For example, at the moment we are considering starting a banana plantation. Why not?”
Louise Haspeslagh, Com&Co
Discover more about how we work and make an appointment without obligation with a volunteer consultant at Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs via anne-lise@ondernemersvoorondernemers.be or call 016 32 1072.