Like most of Africa, Benin’s education system is riddled with problems. Its educational woes start at the primary level. The main language of instruction in Benin is French. Educational resources written in Beninese languages hardly exist. Therefore, children whose native language is Fon or Yoruba have to learn material while trying to understand a new language. This problem is particularly evident in the rural north of Benin. As a friend of mine said to me, it would help if more students started school in their native language and gradually transitioned to French. But this is a long-term goal.
Students must pass two national exams in order to graduate from high school; however, the pass rate of both exams is very low. The first is the BEPC, Brevet d’etudes du premier cycle, taken at age fourteen. Then students take the Baccalaureate, or Bac, at the end of high school. When you visit Benin’s national education website and scroll through Bac results, it is startling how few students pass. Because entry into the few national universities is guaranteed to students who pass the Bac, the exam is very difficult. Therefore, many students struggle repeatedly just to pass high school. Even smart, dedicated students have trouble moving to the next level. Many are simply unprepared to advance.
Unfortunately, things are far from ideal even for those who are lucky enough to pass the Bac and go on to university. Cotonou is the only major economic center in Benin and few jobs exist even for the brightest of the bright. It is no wonder that everyone wants to move to Europe or the United States. Imagine how frustrating it must be to graduate at the top of your class and have no opportunities to use your talents. Many are also frustrated by visa requirements and a lack of fluency in English.
And yet, despite the odds, education remains an important priority for people in Benin. I was sitting at a hotel lobby a few weeks ago, watching TV. The hotel manager came running into the room and asked if he could change the channel. The BEPC results were set to come out that day and they were to be announced on TV. Judging by his excitement, I imagine that he had a child or another close relative who had recently taken the exam. Soon enough, more people trickled into the room and we watched the results together. It was obviously a big day in Benin.
Education is the starting block for progress and success anywhere. It is how people get ahead in life. People in Benin, like anywhere, want to get an education and succeed. But without a well-established, functioning system, people have to look for any work they can find. That’s why so many people are selling the same goods along the side of the road; they do whatever they can to survive. This is where Alidé and other microfinance institutions can help. By offering loans, microfinance institutions are teaching people how to manage their money. I have witnessed many training sessions during which loan officers explained interest rates, repayments, and loan terms. This is important information to know. Also, the access to credit gives people the opportunity to innovate and be more successful. With the help of a loan or two, a vender might be able to sell a new product and to increase sales. It might give someone else more time to study for a test. It is a small step, but an important one. As well, how could microcredit be used to further expand educational opportunities? Could microcredit function as a source for student loans?
There is no simple answer to correcting large problems in education and economics. Benin, Africa, and the whole developing as a whole will all hopefully become more prosperous in the future, but it will likely take a long time. A lot of work needs to be done to address huge problems. If anything, the importance placed on education in Benin is a good sign for its future. In the meantime, we can continue to support the financial system, which is helping people to learn money management and to improve their standard of living. Many borrowers in Benin rely on Kiva lenders for funding and we have the unique opportunity to help provide assistance.
Andrew Whiteman is a Kiva Fellow (KF8), currently working at Alidé, a Kiva Field Partner, in Cotonou, Benin./>