Benin has a slightly larger population than its neighbor to the east, Togo, with about nine and a half million people. Only about 336,000 of these are internet users as of mid-2012. During the Middle Passage present-day Benin’s portion of the Bight of Benin coastline (along with what is now Togo) was known as the Slave Coast, due to the prevalence of the slave trade. It comprised the bulk of the Kingdom of Dahomey until the Scramble for Africa in the 19th century, after which French colonial authorities ruled the region. In 1960, Benin established its own democratic government. However, this democracy gave way to a dictatorship that lasted from 1972 through 1990, ending in severe economic crisis. Benin’s present government and economy have been working through this tangled history over the last twenty years, and their ongoing struggle forms the backdrop for their economic and technological situation.
About a third of the population lives below the international poverty line, but growth continues in Benin’s economy at a rate of about 5%. That growth focuses mainly on agricultural trade and exports for national-scale revenue, while the prevalence of subsistence agriculture mirrors the highly localized religious, linguistic, and ethnic demographics of the country. Beninois schools do not teach in the state’s official language, French, until several years into a child’s education. Benin also has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. Systemic illiteracy extends to computer and internet use as well as reading and writing, persisting more acutely in the rural than urban areas.
However, most Beninois live along the coastline, especially in the largest city, Cotonou. The SAT-3/WASC submarine fiber optic cable, one of several present in the region, lands in the city, and the country depends heavily upon it for internet access. This is supplemented by satellite service, which has excellent coverage in the country and serves at least two million Beninois. While those subscribers can select from a wide range of satellite service providers, their choices in broadband (if they can afford it) are more limited. Competition in this sector was not liberalized until the late 1990s, when the national telecom company began to allow private firms to provide internet access through the single national gateway.
Policy in this subject area has indeed remained strained in the decade since then. However, the interventions of non-governmental advisory groups such as the Benin Internet Society have provided governance in the absence of cohesive national policy. And the annual Internet Week sponsored by the government and third-party institutions has also provided an outlet to discuss the feasibility and importance of national architectural development for the internet. One area to watch in Benin over the next year or so will be the possible establishment of an Internet Exchange Point (IXP), similar to Ghana’s Internet Exchange Association (GIXA), to enable more robust large-scale networking traffic through the country’s resources.