You’ve heard the cliché of the coveted internship that turns out to actually be merely coffee-bringing and document-printing with a few hours of uninspired sitting at a desk. Charlotte’s internship, however, was nothing like that. In the last semester of her Masters studies in management, Charlotte Gréant joined Materialise as an intern to take charge of a social engagement project in Benin, West Africa: the Baobab Express. The Baobab Express provides safe, reliable and comfortable transportation services to Beninese people, filling in a gap left by sparse public transportation and prohibitively expensive private transport. Charlotte tells us how the Baobab Express project reached public approval and financial success after meeting an initially tentative reception.
What was your first inspiration for getting on board with the Baobab Express?
I was inspired by the vision about creating economy and entrepreneurship in Benin. I was just finishing up my postgraduate studies at a business school and felt very strongly about social entrepreneurship, enabling local people to impact the economy; the Materialise vision of a better and healthier world resonated with my values. In Africa, you often see that markets stay geographically restricted. You'll find mangoes here and avocadoes there, but you would profit from bringing your mangoes to a different part of the country. I wanted to help people be able to do that, through a transportation company like Baobab Express.
How was your experience of staying and working in Benin?
It was great, but very tough at the same time. I had to fight loneliness at times, and also some more practical struggles, like frequent electricity outages at my house. Sometimes we went a couple of days without electricity. That meant finishing up everything in the fridge, which was usually tomatoes, onions and couscous, or sometimes rice. There were the smaller cultural surprises: if you ask for Coke at bars, you’ll often get a locally-produced drink called Youki instead. There was also the time I fell sick from contaminated water. But it was such a huge learning experience overall: I got to make business decisions like experimenting with bus timings to see what worked better. I found that people in Benin are much more relaxed than I was used to and also very creative in finding solutions. Once a resourceful person managed to temporarily fix a mechanical problem in a bus by sandwiching a flip-flop in between the bus battery and a loose welded part.
How has the role of Materialise been throughout your journey?
A lot of Materialise people were actively involved: I had the support of the HR and legal teams at Materialise right through, as well as the Communications unit, (Materialise founders) Fried and Hilde, and developers helping to create a ticket registration system to avoid fraud; all of this was extremely helpful. When I joined, Baobab Express had already started as a company but was still struggling with growth. It was a good point to jump in, when the foundation had been set but there was still so much unexploited potential. After my three-month internship, I was offered a job to continue my work. I’d seen the growth potential in Baobab Express and found it a good place to work, so I took it up and worked as a full-time employee for a year more. When that year was up, I was offered a job at Materialise HQ in Belgium. By then, I felt very familiar with the company, its culture and its people—so here I am now!
Which are the biggest challenges for Baobab Express at the moment? What will we need to counter them?
Baobab Express is facing increasing competition now, as other companies see the potential that our business model has. In this growing market, we have to stay relevant. We would like to grow further and get more buses, which would allow us to cover more areas in Benin and reap more profits. We reinvest our profits back into Benin, and are proud of contributing to the economy. We are also aiming to hire more business specialists to support individual business functions.
Curious about Materialise’s social engagement in Benin?
Our colleague Julien spent three weeks coordinating our summer school and scholarship programme in Papané for talented teenagers: here’s what his experience was like.