Ticket to ride: reliable, safe transport in West Africa

Students refine the financial management of the Baobab Express bus company in Benin

“Social enterprise is incredibly fulfilling”, according to Luc Albert at African Drive. In 2013, a group of Belgian social entrepreneurs established a bus company called Baobab Express in Benin, West Africa. The company has now grown into a stable, profitable business. Three Masters in Financial Management students – Simon Synaeghel, Kate Verschueren and Nicolas Bulté – went to Benin for their in-company project, to help Baobab Express refine its financial planning and reporting.

Why did you set up Baobab Express?

Luc Albert: “People and animals travel a lot in West Africa, but the road conditions are poor and vehicles are often very old and poorly maintained. This causes a lot of accidents, many of which are fatal. The founders of Baobab Express wanted to set up a transport ecosystem that would be safe, comfortable and reliable. They also wanted to stimulate local entrepreneurship in a region with extremely limited means, while actively contributing to the local economy.”

So a local bus company provided a solution to very pressing needs?

Luc Albert: “Absolutely! We made a modest start with six small buses (there are now twelve), each with seating for fifteen people. This project was a first in that it provided reliable, accessible transport in the rural areas in the north of the country. We recruited drivers and offered them a written employment contract with guaranteed pay - not always the case in West Africa - and social benefits along European lines. We also have our own mechanics who service the buses, as well as a pool of ticket sellers and local management. In 2016, after a capital injection from crowdfunding among others, we were able to expand in partnership with KBC Bolero . In 2014, we started using large buses - we now have 15 in total - that can each transport 35 people. That means more passengers - we currently transport about 600 people per day - and better coverage of a much larger area.”

We wanted to set up Baobab Express as a transport ecosystem that would be safe, comfortable and reliable. Luc Albert, Baobab Express

Why and how did you get involved in this project?

Luc Albert: “I find it a very meaningful form of business, and I have learned a lot from it. You really make a difference and have a direct impact on many people’s lives. Along with Chris Van Assche, the CEO of African Drive, I am one of five members of the board of directors. Thanks to my background in finance, I can contribute to the financial planning and budgeting, but I also believe it is important to play an active role. I travel to Benin at least twice a year and find great fulfilment in coaching the local team. It is only on the ground that you really notice the impact we have had on our employees - there are more than 120 of them now - and thousands of customers.”

And where do the Vlerick students come in?

Luc Albert: “Working with Vlerick students is extremely enriching, both for them and for us. We received help in the past from Masters in General Management students Charlotte Gréant and Charlotte Driessen, who improved our operational management structure, and this year three motivated and highly qualified Masters in Financial Management students came over to reinforce our local team for seven weeks.”

Baobab Express - student project
Masters in Financial Management students Nicolas Bulté, Kate Verscheuren and Simon Synaeghel in Benin

Simon Synaeghel (Masters in Financial Management): Kate Verschueren, Nicolas Bulté and I stayed in Benin from 1 May to 21 June. We inspected the management information system and made it considerably more robust. One way we did that was by consolidating the financial reporting of each individual department on a dashboard, to make monitoring at both local level and from Belgium a lot more efficient. The other thing we did was to enable integrated financial planning in the longer term. Now they can plan ahead for three years - both for African Drive and Baobab Express - and that is a great step forward. Finally, we also came up with a tax strategy. That was needed because Baobab is an African subsidiary of the Belgian company African Drive. None of us were really looking forward to that part, but it turned out to be fascinating, and I am now finding it really useful in my job in the private equity sector.”

Was it a fulfilling experience?

Simon Synaeghel: “You bet it was! We would recommend a Global Social Project like this to anyone. Admittedly you must be prepared to commit, it takes a bit of adjustment and sometimes you must learn to put things in perspective a bit (he laughs), but the people were incredibly friendly and helpful. We interacted really well with the local management. It was also great to see how eagerly they got to work with the tools we had developed. We are still following the project and have agreed to go back to Benin again. In any case, Luc Albert has invited us to the next management meeting.

Baobab Express is clearly doing well. What are the next steps?

Luc Albert: “It is doing well, although reality on the ground is a bit different from the original business plan, in which we predicted faster growth. But it has been a pleasure to see how it already started winning prizes after a short time. For example, Baobab Express was awarded the local “Oscar de Mérite de Septentrional” in 2014, and African Drive was voted the ‘Most sustainable enterprise’ by Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs  in Belgium in 2016. We are really proud of that, and so is the local team of course! And, yes, we are also thinking about where we want to go next: of course we would like to copy the model in other West African countries, but we also see a huge amount of potential in Benin itself. We are toying with the idea of training employees to be micro-entrepreneurs: a few people would then lease a bus together and each bus would have a fixed team that would be completely self-sustaining. Another possibility is part of our vision of not restricting the transport ecosystem to buses, but for example replacing the highly polluting engines with electric bicycles with batteries that could be charged with solar energy. There is still so much potential, and extracting it step by step is an exciting challenge.”

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