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Dossier. Les entrepreneurs et leurs associations : ethnographies du secteur privé en Afrique

Business associations in Benin “at work”. The paradoxes of private sector development

Agnès Badou et Thomas Bierschenk
p. 87-105


Répondant à l’attente des chercheurs et des praticiens du développement selon laquelle des associations d’entreprises fortes sont d’une importance particulière pour le développement économique, cet article analyse le fonctionnement réel de ces associations en république du Bénin. Dans ce pays, les grandes organisations fonctionnent en étroite relation avec la politique et l’État, le gouvernement essayant de les contrôler par une politique de divide et impera ainsi que de cooptation politique afin de générer un soutien politique et de minimiser l’opposition. Les grandes associations d’entreprises sont davantage des acteurs de la politique politicienne plutôt que des représentants d’une classe capitaliste autonome. Ceci est conforme à une tradition historique de gouvernements successifs visant à capturer et à contrôler le secteur privé. Dans le même temps, les petites associations sont souvent étroitement liées à l’arène sociale de la politique internationale de développement. Toutefois, la promotion des petites associations par les agences de développement n’empêche pas leur politisation. L’effet paradoxal est que la politique de développement du secteur privé affaiblit celui-ci plutôt qu’elle ne le renforce et l’engagement en faveur de slogans tels que le développement du secteur privé n’est souvent que l’occasion pour les acteurs locaux de nouvelles formes de recherche de rentes. La variante béninoise du capitalisme rentier reste fortement inféodée au régime politique.

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1Private Sector Development has been a separate field of development policy for some time now, loosely coordinated within the Donor Committee on Enterprise Development.1 It entails the promotion of small and medium enterprises (SME) in particular, and is carried out by programmes such as Investment Climate Reform or Business Environment Reform (BER), and especially the Doing Business agenda of the World Bank. In the wake of this policy reorientation, which supplements older paradigms like “good governance” and the reform of public institutions, a topical line of economic development research on the private sector has emerged. This research and the ensuing debates take up the old, but as yet unanswered, question of the conditions for catching-up economic development, particularly in Africa. Like modernization and dependency theories before, research on private sector development is trying to identify the drivers of sustained growth and structural transformation of the economy, the actors behind this dynamic, and the barriers to their unfolding.

2Within this broader debate, there is a specific thread that involves the links between the private sector and the state. The genealogy of this perspective goes back to the debates on what makes a state “developmental”, in the context of which a particular interest in development-friendly “growth coalitions” between public and private actors emerged (Woo-Cumings, 1999; Bräutigam et al., 2002). A now bourgeoning body of literature under the label of state-business relations addresses this question, often based on quantitative research. There is a widely held – albeit contested – conviction that strong and efficient business associations are essential for effective state-business relations and in turn for economic growth and economic development (for a critical overview, see Taylor, 2012).

3The present study does not try to ascertain whether strong business associations foster economic growth, nor do we content ourselves, as much of the quantitative literature has, with noting the existence or otherwise of business associations. Most, if not all, African countries seem to have a standard organizational structure they have inherited from colonial times. Everywhere we look, we find chambers of commerce and industry, country-wide organizations of various shapes and sizes and associations by sectors like industry, trade, banking and agriculture. In some countries, there are also associations of foreign investors. The country under study in this text, Benin, is no exception in this respect, as we will see.

  • 2 For example, the otherwise useful literature overview by S.D. Taylor (2012) only references two – e (...)
  • 3 Our fieldwork was carried out intermittently between October 2016 and March 2018: 38 formal intervi (...)

4However, the practices of these structures – what we might call “business associations at work” (an allusion to T. Bierschenk and J.-P. Olivier de Sardan, 2014), – their policy formulations, and the self-concepts of their leaders have not been extensively researched. Furthermore, there is a particularly striking dearth of topical studies on Francophone African countries.2 Against this background, this paper is a contribution to the realities, and the paradoxes, of private-sector development in Africa (what might be called economic governance: see Muñoz, 2018), as carried out by states and international donors.3 We will argue that, in Benin, the country-wide business organizations are an extension of the field of regime politics, while the smaller associations partly overlap with the social arena of development policy but cannot escape their politization either.

5After this introduction, we will first offer a sketch of the context in which business associations work: that is, Benin’s particular variant of rentier capitalism (see Bierschenk and Muñoz, this issue, introduction), which is dominated by trade and development rents, with a flourishing sector of mainly small and very small, and often highly informalized, enterprises. The subsequent core of the article is divided into three parts: first, we will describe the bourgeoning landscape of business associations in Benin, and identify personalization and cascading segmentation as essential characteristics of their operations; second, we will turn to Benin’s larger (country-wide) business organizations, which we will characterize as players in the field of regime politics, the logics of which have a profound effect on them; and third, we will argue that the spoon-feeding of business associations by international development agencies is entangled in these dynamics of competition and segmentation, thereby weakening the stated objective, which is private sector development.

The context: Benin’s rentier economy and flourishing entrepreneurial sector

6Benin, with its population of about 12 million concentrated in the south of the country, ranked 158th out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index in 2020.4 Its economy is dominated by trade, which is largely centred around the port of Cotonou, development funds, which function as a form of rent and finance a large part of public investment, public and private construction, and agriculture, with cotton being the largest agricultural export. Industry remains in an embryonic state. Trade with neighbouring Nigeria, the leading economic power in the region, accounts for 20% of GDP, and is highly informalized: 80% of Benin’s imports are destined for Nigeria. This compares with about 12% for the GDP share of cotton which is the main export crop (World Bank, 2019).5 This has earned Benin the epithets of an “entrepot economy” (Igué and Soulé, 1992) or a (development aid- and regional trade-dependent) “rentier economy” (Bierschenk, 2009). The rent dependency of the economy also explains the apparent contradiction between a high growth rate of 6% a year for the last several years and a business environment which is labelled as “weak” by the World Bank (2016).

7In 2008, about 150,000 production units were counted across the country, almost all of them small- and medium-sized enterprises, with a huge majority being in the informal sector. By cross-checking different sources, we arrive at an estimate of around 15,000 formalized companies, 90% of which are in the south of the country (INSAE, 2010). Roughly 2,500 formal enterprises are created each year, 80% of which are sole proprietorships, with 80% of the total disappearing very quickly after a few years (CCIB, 2015a). It is on this small formal private sector that the main fiscal pressure of the central government rests (while informal companies are often taxed, officially or unofficially, by the local state). However, a schematic sorting of enterprises into the categories of formal and informal would be misleading, as registered businesses in Benin are characterized by both formal and informal modes of operating (as they are in Togo, see Vampo, this issue). They are formal in the sense that they are officially registered, but most often informal in their financial management (e.g. strategies for circumventing taxation), access to government contracts (often via privileged contacts with actors in public administration), access to labour (via short-term informal contracts, or clientelist or family relationships), as well as their access to international markets (due to the ineffectiveness of government-concluded trade agreements, see Badou and Bierschenk, 2019b).

8Many companies have been directly or indirectly created by the state, for example in response to a specific opportunity offered by a specific government, and leave the market when the opportunity is no longer there. Some have emerged under a particular regime because of close interpersonal relations. Others see their fortunes sink as a result of the advent of a new regime. Since new businesses are tax-exempt for their first two years of existence, many entrepreneurs also close down after this period to avoid taxation, only to sometimes resurface under a new name.

9According to CCIB (2014) statistics, and as confirmed by our research, 85% of entrepreneurs are former (or current) salaried employees, mostly public servants. This large number of (former) public employees among entrepreneurs leads to competition between state agents and private entrepreneurs for public contracts, which are largely controlled by politicians, in particular in the construction sector. These are the companies that are often created opportunistically in response to the availability of a government contract, and disappear at the end of the opportunities that prompted their formation, which is one reason why the sector is dominated by first-generation company owners.

10These are some of the factors that explain businesses’ low survival rate. They also ensure that many registered Beninese companies only have a legal existence and accumulate remarkable periods of inactivity. We will see later that logics similar to those indicated here at company level also apply to associations. Some companies are closely linked to the state due to the nature of their activities. This is particularly the case with construction companies and travel agencies (which make up to 95% of their turnover with the state).

11Beside these state-dependent enterprises, there are also those we call development aid-dependent; these companies have flourished under the impact of the private sector development programmes carried out by international agencies. Many business owners we spoke to have benefited from projects and programmes run by development agencies at various stages of the business cycle, for example in the form of support with equipment and access to credit and markets. In both cases – state dependency and development aid dependency – Beninese companies are more often than not rent-seekers rather than market actors (similar to the petits patrons in Côte d’Ivoire described by Y.-A. Fauré and P. Labazée, 2000).

Business associations and how they function

12By cross-checking data from the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie du Bénin (CCIB), with which associations must register, with information from our contacts in the field, we counted at least 150 professional associations in the country. For example, the pineapple sector alone has more than a dozen associations, each specializing in a subsector such as production, processing, export and marketing. Around the entrepreneurs and their associations gravitate state institutions that provide support, brokerage and control, which were established in the context of successive governments’ entrepreneurship promotion policies, often on the initiative of development agencies.

13Business associations were often established in a context that is heavily influenced by the state and development agencies. Organized by sector, these associations were frequently created in response to the desire of the state or development agencies to have interlocutors to dialogue and collaborate with the large mass of entrepreneurs; they may disappear when this support is withdrawn. For example, the National Federation of Small and Medium Enterprises (FENA-PME) was established in 2010 under the government of president Boni Yayi but has lost much of its weight with later governments:

  • 6 All interviews were conducted in French and translated into English by the authors.

While we had the direct support of the state in the past, several meetings, working sessions, several pleas have been made in the field of taxation. […] The structures of the state guaranteed our participation in meetings, meetings that deal with the private sector, SMEs, and entrepreneurship. The federation had support from the state for its functioning. (interview with businessman, head of a business association, Cotonou, 24 January 2017)6

14In other words, as much as there are opportunistic entrepreneurs who profit from one-time opportunities, business associations benefit from direct state support and falter when it is withdrawn.

15The panoply of associations is matched by a strategy of multi-membership of entrepreneurs. All those we spoke to have been, and continue to be, active in one or several professional associations.

She [anonymised] has been a member and leader of several professional organizations, of which the main ones are: first president (2016-2019) of the Pineapple Interprofessional Association established with the support of the IDA-financed Agricultural Diversification Support Framework Programme (ProCAD); vice-president of the National Association of Pineapple Exporters of Benin (ANEAB) established by the Project to Support the Strengthening of Private Sector Actors (PARASEP), co-financed by the European Union (EU) and the Agence Française de Développement (AFD); founder of the non-governmental organization GERME (providing training and support advice to farmers, particularly in the pineapple sector); member of the board of directors of Afrique Agro-Export (AAFEX) based in Dakar; member of the Europe-Africa-Caribbean-Pacific Liaison Committee (COLEACP) for the promotion of fruit and vegetables in the ACP regions, again supported by the EU and the AFD; member of the Association of Pineapple Processors of Benin (ANATRAB), which is associated with the Ministry of Agriculture; and member of the National Association of Women Farmers (ANaF). However, she affirms that she is not a member of any of the larger employers’ associations or a political party. (interview with pineapple producer, Cotonou, 27 February 2018)

16Our interlocutors explained the abundance of small, single-issue associations in each field of activity by the many specific problems to be solved in the different areas of the entrepreneurial landscape:

Each association takes charge of a specific problem and allows itself to solve it. If you are [a member of the] West African Trade Union (WATU), you intend to address the border issues between Ghana and Nigeria. There’s a problem that is close to your heart and you want to solve it quickly. That’s in the tourism sector. Also in the tourism sector, ATOV [another association] says: I want to solve my problems with IATA, with the government, etc. […] They have specific problems to defend. (interview with businessman, head of a business association, Cotonou, 18 October 2016)

17Associations formed at an industry level can be effective in addressing particular issues facing their sector. For example, ANOPRITOB (the National Association of Private Tourist Operators of Benin) successfully fought for hotels to obtain the industrial electricity tariff. It is their engagement in small associations that also allows entrepreneurs to be represented at the CCIB as elected consular representatives of a sector of activity.

18Overall, however, business associations are marked by the difficulty of federating their efforts in order to constitute a force vis-à-vis the state. In the words of a Beninese businessman:

There are quarrels between entrepreneurs. […] Moreover, there is no culture of association in the sense that there is excessive individualism in the actions of private actors. I am disappointed by this situation, which has made me take a step back from ASNIB, CCIB, etc. (interview with businessman, Cotonou, 19 February 2018)

19One of his colleagues put it even more succinctly: “There will be as many business associations as leaderships to carry them” (interview with businessman, head of a business association, Cotonou, 18 October 2016).

20The question of the representativeness of associations was raised at the first round-table dedicated to the private sector in 1994. During the 2012 round-table and then the General Assembly of 2014, the question was still a topical one (CCIB, 2015b). One of the recommendations was the establishment of a single representative body of the private sector to deal with the state. However, as we will see, no such single structure to represent all economic operators exists to date.

21The pattern of operation of these associations is very similar to that of political parties (Badou, 2003): frequent splits in a logic of cascading segmentation; an existence that is more nominal than real, carried forward solely by the president, the board, or a small core group; long periods of inactivity; the frequent absence of headquarters; non-payment of membership fees; limited public visibility, poorly functioning statutory bodies; and a lack of intra-associative democracy. For example, the National Association of Construction, Public Works, and Allied Businesses (ANECA) mainly exists in the form of its two leaders, even though it regularly holds elections and forges partnerships with similar associations in Africa. But essentially, “it’s two people carrying the association […]. When we call a meeting, nobody comes because they are afraid. In our field, we depend a lot on the state and that’s what kills us” (interview with businessman, head of a business association, Cotonou, 8 March 2017).

22Many associations only offer minimal services to their members. However, the members do not pay their membership fees either and only refer to the associations in case of major difficulties. Often, businesspeople prefer to invest their money in solving individual problems for example, by bribing a civil servant to obtain payment for a public contract  rather than support activities that increase the political clout, or even the public visibility, of private sector associations. In the words of this head of a business association who reported on how he had successfully lobbied a Minister for a member of his association:

When I came out [of the minister’s office], I saw the entrepreneur and he asked me how he could thank me for my work. In the meantime, we had to host a programme on ORTB [the national public television station] for the benefit of the association and we needed 600,000 FCFA [915 euros], to pay ORTB the costs of the service. Everyone had to pay 100,000 FCFA [150 euros] […]. So I asked the contractor to pay this amount. He pretended to accept but afterwards, we didn’t see him any more. I could have told him that I needed 10 million FCFA [15,200 euros] to settle [his particular] case [with the minister] and I would have got it. That’s dramatic. That’s to tell you that it’s something other than a lack of will. We had even tried to show the interest they could have by paying the dues. It’s only 60,000 FCFA [91 euros] a year so 5,000 FCFA [8 euros] a month and they are unable to pay. At the same time, they are ready to give 10 million in a bar to obtain a contract that they may not have in the end. We are having a lot of difficulties collecting the contributions and people expect a lot from the president. (interview with businessman, head of a business association, Cotonou, 8 March 2017)

23In many cases, professional associations are thus set up more to foster the social visibility of their founder-leaders, than to solve major problems that arise in the sector. In the words of one businessman: “People are fighting for important positions in associations, just to satisfy their personal goals. It’s a leadership war and a question of being represented to improve one’s business” (interview with businessman, head of a business association, Cotonou, 8 March 2017).

24This logic makes these associations the site of leadership struggles within and between them. They are created so their leaders can sit on the boards of the CCIB, to organize a sector, to address an immediate problem, or to receive government or donor support, however ad hoc it may be. For example, the National Federation of Small and Medium Enterprises (FENA-PME) was set up by the government in 2010 to solve the problem of representation of small and medium-sized enterprises.

In 2008, a symposium organized by the CCIB concluded with the creation of an association to defend the interests of small- and medium-sized businesses because it was noticed that most of the members of the employers’ association [CNPB] came from large companies and did not deal with issues related to these categories of company. It was therefore necessary for the CCIB to have an interlocutor for small and medium enterprises and industries to speak on their behalf. Then, in 2010, a whole ministry was created by president Boni Yayi’s government, with sole responsibility for SMEs and SMIs [small and medium industries], and still no formalized credible interlocutors. Then, in December 2010, the FENA-PME was established with the support of the Ministry of SMEs. This is a federation created by the state so that the state has a contact person after the creation of the Ministry. So when this ministry was in place, everything was going well. We had material support for the organization of forums, the provision of premises, an office for our meetings and computers for our operations. Also, several training sessions and a feasibility study on the creation of a guarantee fund [for SMEs/SMIs] were organized. But with the change of regime and the disappearance of the Ministry, it is much more difficult to get support from the state. (interview with businessman, head of a business association, Cotonou, 17 January 2017)

25There are professional organizations for each sector of activity, as well as country-wide federations, the members of which may be either individual businesspersons or smaller associations (which in the latter case, also turns them into umbrella organizations). This might create a structural conflict where the members of a smaller association do not agree on which umbrella organization to join.

There may be people, companies [in my association] that will prefer the CONEB (National Confederation of Employers of Benin). I prefer the CNPB (National Employers’ Council of Benin), but we’ll see. It is the business leaders who must join and not the associations, which are already groups of business leaders. [In this respect] it is, by the way, a great mess in our country. (interview with businessman, head of a business association, Cotonou, 26 January 2017)

26As we will see, the country-wide organizations are an extension of the field of regime politics, while the smaller associations partly overlap with the social arena of development policy.

Heavy political dependency, government-fuelled competition and cascading segmentation: the country-wide associations

27Until recently, apart from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Benin (CCIB), there was only one country-wide employers’ association, the National Employers’ Council of Benin (Conseil National du Patronat du Bénin, CNPB). A second, the National Confederation of Employers of Benin (Confédération Nationale des Employeurs du Bénin, CONEB) was created in December 2015 following the defection of some CNPB members in the wake of leadership struggles.

28The CCIB is a public institution under the supervision of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, where it was also housed for many years. While it is managed by businesspeople, it is controlled by the government, and as such it is more of a consultative chamber than an employers’ association. The paradox of the CCIB is that it is a public institution run by private individuals: that is, it is a structure of private operators under the supervision of the state.

29The CCIB dates from the colonial period. It was created in 1908 and was associated with the Chamber of Agriculture until 1962. It was dominated by French interests well after independence in 1960. It was restructured in 1992 following the National Conference and is now made up of 99 “consuls”, who are representatives of associations divided by sector: industry, trade and services. The marginal importance of industry in Benin’s economy is expressed by the fact that out of 99 seats in the CCIB, only 12 are reserved for manufacturing industrialists. According to the head of business support at the CCIB, some 3,000 companies are members, either directly or through their professional associations. The Chamber aims to be an institution of representation, promotion of businesses and defence of their interests while at the same time acting as an advisor to the government on economic issues (the CCIB’s president, speech of 17 January 2017, at the Conference on Japan’s Economic Policy).

30According to its own presentation, the Chamber offers a number of services to its members, including training, the exchange of information, participation in national, regional and international fairs and assistance with mediation in commercial disputes. It also appeals to the government to respond to the difficulties encountered by companies. During an interview, our interlocutor showed us a letter that had just been sent to the Minister of Industry and Trade, which read:

I am honoured to request a meeting to discuss with you about solutions to bring to Beninese companies affected and/or in difficulty due to the economic situation. Indeed, companies trying to survive on the Beninese market [...] are faced with enormous difficulties, including the reduction of their cash flow, accumulation of unpaid bills at the banks, unpaid SBEE (Beninese Society for Electric Energy) invoices, widespread loss of customers and late payment of services provided to the state. To curb this crisis and sustainably revive the economy in line with the objectives of the Action Programme of the Government (PAG), it would be appropriate for in-depth discussions to be conducted in concert with the private sector [...]. [He then commented:] It is in this sense that I suggested the meeting. The minister responded last week. He agreed and that is why we are in the process of selecting the organizations that will participate in starting the discussions. (interview with CCIB official, Cotonou, 6 June 2017)

31But despite these efforts, many entrepreneurs criticize the CCIB for not taking a stand on the burning issues of the business world:

The CCIB only provides us with information. Certainly, it has enabled us in the pineapple processors’ association to take part in a mission to France to meet fruit importers and visit their fruit markets. This gave us many opportunities. This was at the time when Atao Sofiano was the CCIB president in 2006. Apart from that, we participated in a regional fair. (interview with businessman, head of a business association, Allada, 25 January 2017)

32It is safe to assume that there is a link between this perceived timidity of the CCIB and the fact that the state has always had a powerful influence on the election of CCIB representatives, in particular its president. For example, in 2014 leading companies supported the candidacy of Mouftaou Wassi for president against that of the subsequent winner, Jean-Baptiste Satchivi, who was supported by the government, while other candidates were even prevented from campaigning.

33In 1984, during the socialist period, some actors broke away from the CCIB to create the National Organization of Employers of Benin (ONEB), which in 1998 became the National Council of Employers of Benin (Conseil National du Patronat du Bénin, CNPB). While membership in the CNPB is voluntary, membership in the CCIB is compulsory, as the CCIB is the body that formalizes the formation of a company, which must register with the Chamber.

34The CNPB was the first private association with the ambition of bringing together all businesspeople from all sectors, and it quickly positioned itself as an employers’ union independent from the state. It claims more than 500 members, with more than 10,000 employees and more than 350 billion FCFA (534 million euros) in annual contributions to the state’s revenues.

35In 2006, according to a member of the CNPB, Sébastien Ajavon was asked to thwart the candidature of Jean-Baptiste Satchivi (who later became president of the CCIB, see above). Apparently, Ajavon was elected president on the very same day he joined the CNPB, with Albin Fèliho (current president of the CONEB, see below) as his campaign director and later secretary-general.

36Ajavon’s election was favoured by the peculiar electoral rules under which votes are weighted according to the capital a company represents. At the same time, this makes it almost impossible to vote a president out once elected:

We fought this in vain, even though it goes against the law. This is one of the weaknesses of our association. For an association of 400 members, given the weight of the members, 10 members can impose themselves to the detriment of everything else. (interview with CNPB official, Cotonou, 19 October 2016)

37The CNPB claims to have once launched an appeal to businesspeople through its president Sébastien Ajavon for a collective refusal to pay taxes and a blockade of imports to force the government of president Boni Yayi to respect its commitments to the private sector. This was a reaction to a government proposal to settle its unpaid debts by deducting a 30% levy on each amount due. The CNPB action remained a simple threat that was not followed up; perhaps this was one of the reasons why the previously conflictual relationship between Ajavon and the government of Boni Yayi improved afterwards.

38The power relations between the two institutions, the CCIB and the CNPB, and their contested representative legitimacy vis-à-vis the state have frequently been a subject of discussion and struggle between their leaders. This struggle intensified following the advent of Ajavon to the presidency of the CNPB in 2006.

  • 7 Another example for this government strategy of divide and rule was when the magistrates’ union UNA (...)

39The competition between the two institutions (CCIB and CNPB) is fuelled by individuals on a quest for political leadership. One key factor is the CNPB’s leaders’ strategic objective to monopolise private-sector representation, which leads the CNPB to boycott cooperation with other structures unless they are under its leadership. This, in turn, is countered by government manoeuvres to control the private sector, especially by influencing the choice of the CCIB’s and CNPB’s presidents based on its own interests (see also footnote 7), and alternatively by associating or not associating the CNPB with important events. The 2012 Private Sector Round Table was co-organized by the government and the CNPB, while on the other hand, the Private Sector Round Table in 2014 was co-organized by the government and the CCIB without the CNPB (CCIB, 2015b), as was the Paris Round Table, which was also held in 2014. The CNPB boycotted the États-Généraux of the Private Sector in 2015 (because the government had given the lead organizing role to the CCIB), as a consequence of which the development agencies refused to fund the event. In addition, the CNPB did not participate in the appointment of the assessors of the Commercial Court or the intra-private sector dialogue format to be conducted by a transitional committee following up on the États-Généraux. The high degree of competition between and within associations resulting from the strategies of individual actors but actively encouraged by the government makes it difficult for organizations to collaborate and develop common positions vis-à-vis the state.7 Thus, the “public-private dialogue”, which is the official slogan, in fact barely conceals (and is neutralized by) serious intra-private sector controversies that the government itself stimulates.

Of all the governments that have succeeded one another, none of them wants to have problems with the private sector, and the war between the employers’ associations suits them well. They do everything they can to maintain that. For example, at the level of the Economic and Social Council of Benin (Conseil Économique et Social du Bénin), there is always a representative of the private sector. When it pleases the state, it puts either a representative of the CCIB or one of the CNPB because it knows that these two organizations do not get along. In short, what hinders the initiatives of the private sector is the war between the Chamber of Commerce, which plays an advisory role to the government, and the employers’ association [the CNPB], which is like a trade union defending the rights of businesspeople. (interview with head of a business association, Cotonou, 8 March, 2017)

40The competition between the CCIB and the CNPB was the context in which dissidents from the CNPB – among them its secretary-general, Albin Fèliho created a second employers’ association in 2015, the National Confederation of Employers of Benin (CONEB), with Fèliho as its founding president. CONEB is understood to be a grouping of small and medium business owners who would have little influence in the CNPB, which they view as only representing large companies (CONEB, 2019).

41Its ambition is to be the second employers’ federation in the country, and it claims to represent 89 members, including 15 individual associations. It wants to set itself apart from the deep politicization of the CNPB and engage in policy discussion and private sector development agenda-setting. For example, it has initiated an “Employers’ Thursday”, a regular meeting which CONEB’s president presented to us as a melting pot of exchanges among business leaders and reflections on specific topics, occasionally with high-ranking government officials as guests.

42Thus, the personalities who have led or are leading the three top employers’ organizations – Jean-Baptiste Satchivi, president of the CCIB until January 2019, Sébastien Ajavon, president of the CNPB (2006-2020), and Albin Fèliho, the former secretary-general of the CNPB and founding president of the CONEB (since 2015) – are all members of CCIB and have all been candidates in CNPB elections.

43Jean-Baptiste Satchivi is a Beninese agri-food entrepreneur specializing in the production and marketing of poultry and seafood products in Benin and the sub-region. His company Agrisatch is best known for its local production of chicken eggs.

44Sébastien Ajavon is active in the same sector. He is chief executive officer (CEO) of the companies Comon-Cajaf and SOCOTRAC specializing in the import and marketing of poultry and seafood products and logistics. He is often presented as Benin’s top taxpayer.

45Albin Clet Fèliho, a graduate in management studies from the University of Strasbourg in France, took over his father’s hotel in Cotonou and is associate director of the travel and tourism agency Evènemenciel. Benin not being much of a tourist destination, his company is mainly active in the official travel market of government and development agency personnel. His business was much hurt recently by the creation of an official travel unit within the presidency of the Republic.

  • 8 Supported by the government, the first vice-president, Eustache Kotingan, became interim president. (...)

46All three men have strong political links: they are politiciens-entrepreneurs (Médard, 1992). Sébastien Ajavon was a candidate in the national presidential elections of 2016, where he came in third place and narrowly missed the run-off election against the subsequent winner, Patrice Talon, himself one of Benin’s biggest businessmen, who made his fortune during the privatization of the cotton sector in the 1990s. Following disputes with the Beninese justice system, which many linked with the rapid deterioration of his relationship with Talon, Ajavon went into exile in France in 2018 and consequently lost his position as CNPB’s president.8 In contrast, Jean-Baptiste Satchivi, the losing state-supported candidate in the CNPB elections, who is considered to be reliably supportive of the government, was placed at the head of the CCIB in 2014 so that the two largest entrepreneurial structures would not be controlled by actors hostile to the government. In turn, the one who lost out in these manoeuvres, Albin Fèliho, created his own organization in a process of cascading segmentation that reminds the observer of the dynamics identified, already some while ago, for African craft production (Goody, 1982) and more recently for political parties (Badou, 2003; Olivier de Sardan, 2015) and religious associations (Fancello, 2006). In line with the government logic of cooptation, Fèliho was appointed a member of the Economic and Social Council, a consultative state institution where he represents employers’ organizations, in July 2019.

47We might add that the smaller, sector-wide federations are marked by the same dynamics of personalization, close ties to government and segmentation that criss-cross the milieu of larger business associations. For example, the National Association of Industrialists of Benin (ASNIB) was created in 1977 with Rafet Loko as its first chairman. When another candidate was elected in subsequent elections, he simply refused to transfer power. Finally, in 2018, the candidate who had had his victory taken away, the former treasurer, and other dissidents seceded and formed a new association, the Grouping of Industrialists in Benin (GIB) (interview with businessman, Cotonou, 19 February 2018).

48The picture is further complicated by the fact that non-Beninese businessmen have their own representation, the Council of Private Investors in Benin (CIPB). While most of its members are also in the CNPB, the idea of setting up the organization was a reaction to the conflicts between the CCIB and the CNPB, which, according to the CIPB’s president, did not help the business climate, and contributed to the perceived inefficiency of these organizations at defending entrepreneurs against the state. He explains:

We’re more in the perspective of a structure of reflection towards the state […] before anything else. Originally, in 2008, we worked for the reduction of corporate tax. Then, the tax commission was set up. This means that today, when a taxpayer does not agree on a tax adjustment, he can refer the matter to the commission. We are doing studies and we present their conclusions directly to the government. We are a kind of mouche du coche [busybody, a reference to a fable by La Fontaine]. We do not have a great impact, either […]. Nine out of ten of our requests are rejected in the field of taxation. Frankly, private sector organizations have no power over the state. We have relations with the CCIB but a very limited relationship with the patronat [the CNPB]. (interview with head of a business association, Cotonou, 6 March 2017)

49He might be understating the CPIB’s influence, however, as the association has conducted a public-private dialogue in the justice and tax sectors since 2007 with some success. While the initiative for these thematic groups has come from the association’s ranks, the taxation activities in particular have enjoyed strong support from the European Union’s Private Sector Support Project (PASP), of which it has been a beneficiary since 2006.

50The technical work commissioned by the CIPB is placed at the disposal of the CNPB, which is less well equipped, so that they can present it to the government together. The association also makes applications at the National Assembly level on taxation, even though tax policy is a domain of government. The CIPB was also involved in the appointment of the assessors of the Commercial court.

The spoon-feeding of business associations by development agencies

51While the state tries to control the larger, country-wide organizations, not least through policies of divide and rule as well as cooptation, state support for business associations altogether is very limited compared to that provided by development agencies (Badou and Bierschenk, 2019a: 19, table; PARASEP, 2017). The state has only supported the CCIB, occasionally the CNPB, and, for a while, FENA-PME. Many other associations are heavily sponsored by development aid projects. Apart from programmatic support to associations, many individual development projects and programmes also directly support sectoral organizations or even, as we have briefly mentioned, give direct support to enterprises. It should also be noted that each agency is the bearer of several projects over time and can participate in the establishment and/or strengthening of several professional associations. In other words, the high number of business associations in Benin is also a product of development aid (for a similar phenomenon in the field of non-governmental institutions, see Brüntrup-Seidemann, 2010).

  • 9 In 2016, the European Union temporarily banned the import of pineapples from Benin due to the misus (...)

52Different development agencies can support different associations in the same sector and with largely the same objectives. For example, in the pineapple sector, the World Bank’s Framework Programme to Support the Development of Agriculture (ProCAD), helped set up ANEAB, the Association of Pineapple Exporters of Benin in 2016 during the ethephon crisis that temporarily stopped pineapple exports to Europe.9 ANEAB successfully campaigned for the implementation of control and conservation measures by the Beninese state to enable the resumption of exports. Thanks to the support of the Pineapple Processing Project of the American NGO Partners for Development (PFD), a delegation of ANEAB members travelled to Germany in March 2017 to promote Beninese green pineapple. A year later, the European Union’s Support Programme for the Strengthening of Private Sector Actors (PARASEP) prompted and facilitated the creation of the Pineapple Interprofessional Association (AIAB), in order to have an interlocutor with the panoply of associations in the sector. This was not the first attempt of its kind: years before that, in 2003, the Network of Pineapple Producers in Benin (REPAB) had been created on the initiative of the Programme to Improve and Diversify Farming Systems (PADSE) financed by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD). Thus, the recent efforts at private sector development are not exempt from the same kind of amnesia which has been identified as a structural feature of development policy tout court (Elwert and Bierschenk, 1988).

53Among the other associations which came into being on the initiative of donors was the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs and Businesswomen of Benin (FEFA), which grew out of an ECOWAS initiative and was promoted by the Women Business Promotion Center, an initiative of UNDP and the government, and supported by the EU’s PARASEP. PARASEP also supports the Federation of Young Entrepreneurs of Benin (FEJEC), which was set up in 2011 in the Framework for Intra-Private Sector Dialogue. The FAO and the African Development Bank have supported the Centre for the Promotion and Supervision of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (CePEPE) to conduct projects for the benefit of the private sector, while SOS Faim Luxembourg10 supports the Network of Pineapple Producers of Benin (REPAB).

54These observations invite two conclusions. First, private sector development programmes do not necessarily develop the private sector as such (apart from some individual enterprises), but they do promote business associations, and partly directly finance them. These associations are very much dominated by a certain type of businessperson who benefits from institutional positions in these associations, which provide them with access to the state, donors and investors (cf. Cissokho, Manhiça, Vampo, this issue). Second, in the long run, development agencies on the ground cannot remain apolitical, as they need to counter the political strategies of local actors. As an expatriate expert explained to us:

The public-private dialogue driven by our Programme [PARASEP] continues but in a more inclusive way. It will not only be with the CNPB but with voluntary membership. The CNPB refuses to join the collective. We will finally strengthen the CONEB; the CNPB has left the debates since the arrival of Sébastien Ajavon. Even for the commercial courts, they wanted to take everything; we’re going to get around them with the collective. They were in the steering committee, the CNPB 1st vice-president and the CCIB 2nd vice-president. In the convention, the CNPB told us to remove the CCIB because it is not from the private sector. (interview with expert in a business support project, Cotonou, 28 July 2017)

55In other words, official development discourse may have the function of an “anti-politics machine” (Ferguson, 1990) that depoliticizes issues and renders them technical, but this is only part of the story. If we do not narrow our focus to the official discourse, but look at actors and practices, then the “revenge of the context” (Olivier de Sardan, 2021) comes into view: in the long run, international development agencies cannot escape the political and historical logics of the local context in which they operate (which, by the way, and pace Ferguson, commissioning agencies like cooperation ministries or the European Union are in fact well aware of; see also Van de Walle, 2001). Thus, sooner or later, development programmes also get caught up in the maelstrom of quarrels between associations; quarrels that they have consciously or unconsciously helped to cause or fuel.

Conclusions: Business associations and regime politics

56In Benin’s particular brand of rentier capitalism (Bierschenk and Muñoz, introduction to this issue) dominated by trade and development aid, we find a multiplicity of (largely small) enterprises. The businesspeople who run the larger companies are mostly actors with multiple identities, such as (former) public employees who sometimes operate a business in addition to their state role. Even the larger companies often have a precarious existence, straddling the formal and informal sectors. While Benin’s private sector has always been heavily dependent on state contracts, and while businesspeople have long straddled the economic, political and associative worlds, recent global policies of private sector development have led to the emergence of a new type of businessperson, one capable of accumulating not only the rents of the state but also those of donors. In this sense, many businesspeople are more rent-seekers than market actors.

57Against this background, the world of business associations in Benin is hyper-dynamic, with a plethora of small, single-issue associations, and a few larger, country-wide ones, some of which also function as apex organizations. These associations are often highly personalized, their existence being reduced to the few people (or sometimes even only one person) who run them. They are often created in response to the desire of the state or development agencies to have interlocutors to dialogue and collaborate with the great mass of businesspeople. The larger business associations in particular respond more to the political strategizing of their leaders than to a logic of services for the benefit of their members. At the same time, the multiplicity of associations is also an effect of segmentary logics by which, in case of conflict over leadership, actors prefer to choose the exit option (Hirschman, 1970).

58The large organizations function in close articulation with politics and the state, with the government trying to control them through policies of divide and rule as well as political co-optation, thereby generating partisan support and minimizing opposition. These organizations are in fact players in the field of regime politics, of la politique politicienne – not unlike the situation in Tunisia described by B. Hibou (2008), even though the type of regime and the nature of the economy are not the same. Thus, the official policy objective of private sector development is undercut by government manoeuvres to control the private sector, in particular by choosing its interlocutor according to its current political interests, thereby weakening these associations. On the whole, however, state support for business associations is limited and fickle, which contributes to the precariousness of business associations.

59The creation of smaller associations is often supported by development agencies. This does not prevent them from being politicized: in fact, it creates the paradoxical effect that private sector development policies may lead to a weakening rather than a strengthening of private sector representation. The weakness of public-private dialogue initiatives in Benin lies in their fragmentation and compartmentalization at the thematic and institutional levels. There exists a dismantled associative sector in terms of organization and representativeness vis-à-vis the state in the framework of public-private dialogue. Furthermore, the limited duration of development programmes also has repercussions on certain associations, which lose their dynamism as the projects come to an end, like others that lose the support of the state with an incoming government.

60It may not be too bold to discern a tradition of successive governments, from colonial times through the socialist era to the present, to appropriate the private sector rather than treat it as an equal partner (see Amougou, this issue, for Cameroon). This corresponds to an equally historically-rooted defensive worldview of Beninese entrepreneurs, who perceive themselves as being persecuted from all sides, far from the self-conscious class ideology propagated by Nigerian and South African billionaire entrepreneurs under the label of “Africapitalism” (Ouma, 2019; see also Bud, this issue). Against the backdrop of such traditions, the commitment to slogans such as private sector development is often only the occasion for new forms of rent-seeking – comparable to the democracy rent that Benin draws from its perceived status as an African “model democracy” (see Gazibo, 2005). Benin’s variant of rentier capitalism remains heavily indebted to the political regime.

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1 See: (accessed 24 March 2021).

2 For example, the otherwise useful literature overview by S.D. Taylor (2012) only references two – empirically partly contestable – texts on French-speaking Africa, both of which are marginal to his topic, which is the link between business environments and economic growth. For other references to Francophone Africa, in this case Senegal, see Thioub et al. (1998) and Amougou, Cissokho and Vampo, this issue.

3 Our fieldwork was carried out intermittently between October 2016 and March 2018: 38 formal interviews with key informants, among them 21 entrepreneurs, and observations of several topical public events (Badou and Bierschenk, 2019a: 3-4). We are grateful to the Sulzmann Foundation Mainz for research funding. We would also like to thank José-María Muñoz, Helmut Asche, Celine Molter, Marcel Müller, Lara Petersen, Hans-Joachim Preuß and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on previous versions of the article.

4 See: (accessed 24 March 2021). For a recent overview of Benin’s political economy, see Bourguignon et al. (2019).

5 See: (accessed 18 February 2021).

6 All interviews were conducted in French and translated into English by the authors.

7 Another example for this government strategy of divide and rule was when the magistrates’ union UNAMAB called for strikes and demonstrations in 2012, and the government encouraged an attempt by some career-minded judges to create a competing syndicate of magistrates (Kolloch, 2022).

8 Supported by the government, the first vice-president, Eustache Kotingan, became interim president. New elections are planned for 2021.

9 In 2016, the European Union temporarily banned the import of pineapples from Benin due to the misuse of ethephon, which is used to give the naturally green pineapple plant an orange colour.

10 See: (accessed 5 April 2021).

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Agnès Badou et Thomas Bierschenk, « Business associations in Benin “at work”. The paradoxes of private sector development »Anthropologie & développement, 52 | 2021, 87-105.

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Agnès Badou et Thomas Bierschenk, « Business associations in Benin “at work”. The paradoxes of private sector development »Anthropologie & développement [En ligne], 52 | 2021, mis en ligne le 11 juillet 2022, consulté le 07 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Agnès Badou

Université d’Abomey-Calavi, LASDEL, Bénin; abognes[at]

Thomas Bierschenk

Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, Germany; biersche[at]

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