Lauded as the “Digital Nobel Price” by former Prime Minister of Benin Lionel Zinsou, Ulrich Sossou is a prolific tech & social entrepreneur whose story is as baffling as is his humility sharing it. You’ve probably never heard of the man, and I can’t blame you. The Beninese tech mogul’s journey is the classic zero-to-hero tale: made of dreams, passion and sacrifices. All the way from the slums of Cotonou to becoming one of the quiet yet influential shapers of the West African digital landscape.
I had to meet the guy. Be blessed with his Sossou grace, you know, like the legendary Midas effect. From his science & engineering studies to creating millions of dollars’ worth tech products, incubating budding start-ups in Benin and sharing his ambitious—yet pragmatic—vision for Africa, I give you Ulrich Sossou.
Making other people rich, isn’t that kind of a funny career choice?
It’s rather hard for me to describe what I do in just a few, simple words. That’s why I define my work by the impact it has on the people I work with. I help creators build a career doing what they love. I train people who would otherwise struggle to find employment in this evermore digital economy. I help companies create great products to fulfill their vision, and I partner with nonprofits to help them optimize effectiveness.
More than generating revenue & financial wealth, my purpose when working with all these people and organizations is to help others gain access to knowledge, freedom and happiness or, in other words, true wealth.
Takitiz, FlyerCo, Etrilabs and TEKXL: would you describe yourself as a serial entrepreneur?
Takitiz was my first company. Launched in Benin in 2010, it was a web agency based in Cotonou. At the time, we sought to offer digital solutions to a nationwide market of less than 50,000 internet users. The adventure didn’t last more than a year.
FlyerCo was born in 2014 to address the needs of real estate agents. Mostly established on the US market, the company currently boasts a userbase of more than 7,000 realtors.
Etrilabs is a nonprofit founded in 2010 by Senam Beheton that I have joined it recently. We partner with other nonprofits, local governments and international organizations to implement innovative tech solutions designed to tackle social issues.
TEKXL is an incubator we launched in Benin with Senam Beheton to help create a startup ecosystem. Our goal is to train and assist Beninese youth in starting and growing high-value businesses with the potential to reach well beyond our borders.
So yes, I would describe myself as a serial entrepreneur. I have a passion for solving the everyday person’s problems, and it leads me to starting businesses that can sustain the solutions I come up with.I have a passion for solving problems Click To Tweet
And to think at some point, you couldn’t even afford a computer
Yeah, that was around 2006-2008. I couldn’t afford to buy internet café tickets, much less a computer. Even if by some miracle I’d found a computer, home internet costs were way too high for me to even think about it.
That’s why I kept working from an internet café for almost 2 years. However little money I had went into internet hours, which I increased by helping the manager with maintaining the café’s computers and network.
How do you nurture your passion after more than 20 years?
I want to find solutions to the problems people encounter daily; and digital tools & platforms are the most cost-effective way to such solutions.
With a digital revolution, African countries won’t need to invest billions of dollars to develop themselves. That is the light I see at the end of the tunnel for humans in general and us Africans in particular, and it is what wakes me up every single day.
They say diamonds are formed under the pressure — was that your case?
The only pressure I have is the one I put on myself every day. It’s this constant feeling that I have not yet accomplished anything remarkable.
If I were to choose, I would say love—along with its constant requirement for sacrifice—describes my life better than pressure. I was lucky to be brought up by people who taught me an unconditional love for others and my own work.
What are the major achievements of your career?
It’s hard to choose achievements from what I merely consider career events. Not to mention, my view has always been that the greatest achievements are the ones yet to come.
But if I must absolutely single out some career-defining events, they would be:
- My first contract with a client abroad in 2006. I only realized then, that customers are readily accessible all over the world
- The design of a pilot online course platform for Stanford University—the world’s best tech university—in 2011-2012. It showed me how rare and appreciated my skills were
- The design of a web app built to help customers in the UK create new eCommerce pages, in 2013. The app generated more than 3 billion FCFA (USD 5 million) in revenue in less than 6 months
And what achievements have you set your sights on next?
My current goal is to help create a world-class startup ecosystem in francophone Africa within the next 5 years.
Imagine having multiple tech companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars blossoming all over Africa in 5 years. How many jobs can we create in Cotonou, Dakar, Libreville for example if we succeed?
On a scale of manga fan to cave-troll-got-lucky, how stereotypical is your geek success story?
I don’t particularly like manga, nor am I a huge fan of eating 2 weeks-old pizza or any such stereotype that seems to characterize geeks these days. Besides, my rate of failure to success hardly qualifies me as a lucky guy.My rate of failure to success hardly qualifies me as a lucky guy. Click To Tweet
If you were to advise the Government of Benin, where would you start ?
Focus. Political leaders these days have a plan for every sector at once. Our limited resources cannot sustain such ambitions. We must first target and focus on investing in a few sectors with high added-value potential. The value thus created can then be reinvested elsewhere. True enough, our country being among the world’s poorest means that there is work to be done everywhere, but we simply cannot afford it.
That’s why we need discipline, and focus.
A piece of advice for currently struggling Beninese youth?
Less than ten years ago, I used to shower out in the street in Cadjèhoun (a neighborhood in Cotonou, Benin), hiding behind an old, rusted metal sheet because the little shop my friends and I turned into a communal bedroom had no bathroom. I chose to live that way so I could save money to launch my business.
How many young Beninese are willing to do the same? Many would rather take an apartment, buy a fancy motorcycle, and will much sooner eat than choose to starve for their goals. If you really want to succeed, you must be prepared to make sacrifices and never sit on your hands. Click To Tweet
Sometimes, I hear young people complain who have a roof on their head, food in their plates and access to education. I find it extremely saddening.
They have no idea how lucky they are. This isn’t to say there are no legitimate reasons to complain, far from there. Some don’t have access to food, others are in poor health. I couldn’t speak to—much less criticize—their experiences and complaints. As for those who face no such pressures in life and who constitute the majority, however, my first advice is this: learn something new every day.
Learning broadens our range of possibilities and helps us identify or create new opportunities. Learning allows us to glimpse and see a bright light at the end of the journey; a light that helps us move onwards and overcome every challenge.
My second advice? Never give up, never despair.