It was a warm day in Sandton, Johannesburg. As we meet, Vital Sounouvou crouches, leaning heavily on his cane, as he greets us. It is a bad day for him, he is in pain. Pain has played a big part in his journey to entrepreneurship.
“When I was six years old, I had malaria and the doctors gave me an injection that cures it but it also attacked the bones and killed the nerves. I was almost paralyzed on my left leg and had to use a walking stick since then,” he says.
Treatment didn’t help. Life was never the same; his peers mocked him and his elders pitied him.
“I had to go to school with metals attached to my body. This had a positive side though because instead of playing outside I was forced to be indoors, read books and daydream. This had an impact on the man I have become.”
Time opened his eyes and he saw opportunities for entrepreneurship. He graduated from high school at 16. A year later, he opened his first business.
“I feel I was blessed to be born in Benin. Poor country? Yes, but it is the most stable in the region. All our neighbors were in war but not us. We are blessed by nature. Trade is part of our culture. There is a shop in front of many houses and most people from my city (Porto-Novo) become entrepreneurs of some sort,” says Sounouvou.
The 25-year-old says 85% of the youth in Benin are unemployed.
“When I started college, the first thing the professor told me was that I won’t find a job after completing my studies.”
The gloomy professor’s sobering words spurred him on. Sounouvou founded Exportunity, a site that promotes export opportunities for Africans by connecting producers with traders. It allows a farmer in Benin to sell his produce to a buyer everywhere from South Africa to the United States through a cell phone.
“There was a huge information gap between the offer, demand and the market. We wanted to promote products made locally. It was very hard to find producers but it was even harder to compete with international brands locally,” he says.
Sounouvou built a mobile application that works on all types of devices, including non-smartphones. Farmers are the target.
“Almost 70 percent of whatever crop is produced in Africa is wasted because the producers have no way to get the product to market. There are many problems ranging from the costs of locating a buyer, to dealing with middle men in cash, to suffering losses due to scams,” he says.
The computer science graduate was inspired by eBay.
“We are like eBay for wholesale. Imagine if Alibaba conducted a proper due diligence on every stakeholder before accepting them on the platform. People don’t just come on Exportunity and just register and start trading, they apply and we do due diligence before allowing them on. We had to adapt to the producer in Africa because some don’t use a lot of technology. We had to create Exportunity trader tablets for people without access to high technology so they can have access to international trade,” he says.
Buyers and sellers pay a membership fee to trade.
“People traditionally have to travel with large sums of money to trade but this site cancels the travelling costs and the risks associated with carrying large sums of money.”
Exportunity has externalized most of its management to Temple Corporate Services in Mauritius and has 17 permanent staff.
“In May 2014, global rice prices plunged to a historic $403.59/metric ton, the lowest since January 2008’s 393.48/metric ton. Jumping on an unprecedented opportunity, Exportunity-Benin, acting as a middle man, helped Neodis Trading-Benin buy from an Indian-based supplier 1,672 metric tons of rice at a price of $413.59/metric ton, filling 727 20-foot containers. We made a net profit of $69,150 out of the deal,” says Sounouvou.
Through the trade events, Sounouvou claims Exportunity has engaged with over 750 clients, and built a database of 85,000 companies globally trading with Africa.
“There are currently 13 transactions in the pipeline, over 450 suppliers trading on the platform, over 120 buyers and over 2 million others are immediately reachable through our deal with UBA Bank.”
Running a successful business is not Sounouvou’s only pride. He was one of 500 young African leaders chosen to be part of President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative in 2014, he was selected for the inaugural group of the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme with a $10,000 grant, and has been recognized as the Ambassador of the Global Youth Innovation Network by the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
“Every time my leg hurts, I remind myself that I shouldn’t let it be my story. My story is to be great. My disability does not define me,” he says.
If nothing else, Sounouvou’s story proves that what hurts you can make you.
Get the best of Forbes Africa sent straight to your inbox with the latest insights and inspiration from experts across the continent. Sign up here.