Benin is giving more children a chance at education
February 20, 2019 by Ludovic Signarbieux, GPE Secretariat, and Chantal Rigaud, GPE Secretariat |
5 minutes read

With support from the Global Partnership for Education since 2007, Benin has expanded access to education in remote areas through various interventions, ensuring that more children go to school and stay in school.

Benin’s economy relies heavily on agriculture, and one of its major crops, representing between 25% to 40% of total exports, is cotton. The country ranks as 12th cotton producer in the world, second in Africa after Mali.

In the Alibori region in the north of Benin, which we visited last December, the cotton-picking season was in full swing, and the road between Kandi and Cotonou was full of trucks packed up to twice their height in white cotton balls.

Why mention this in a blog about education?

Because, as is the case in many developing countries, families in Benin who live in areas that struggle with poverty often keep their children home to help them in the fields. Sometimes, parents bring to school a very young child (younger than preschool age) to take the place of an older brother or sister who is asked to help with watching cattle or picking cotton or other crops.

The Alibori province is one of the poorest in Benin, and thus it’s one of the priority areas where the government focused the GPE resources it received since 2008, along with 24 other deprived districts (the country has 77 districts).

Targeting support to children most in need

Improving access and retention in schools were key goals that the government of Benin included in its 2006-2015 sector strategy.

The new 2018-2030 Education Sector Plan notes that gross enrollment in primary school rose from 107% in 2011 to 116% in 2015 (the rate is higher than 100% because it includes underage and overage children), but the completion rate was only 67% in 2015. In Alibori, the primary enrollment rate was one of the lowest in the country, at 35%.

Girls also are not faring as well as boys. The enrollment rates in lower grades improved over the years, but for primary school completion, girls still lag behind boys.

To address this inequality, the latest GPE grant supported a program that distributed school kits to girls to ensure they had what they needed to attend school. The kit was made up of a tote bag, a school uniform, notebooks, pens, pencils and erasers, a ruler, chalk and a slate.

In total, more than 320,000 girls attending grades 1 and 2 in the areas targeted by the program received a similar school kit. This helps ensure that girls from the poorest families are not turned away from school for lack of supplies.

Reading together during a French lesson in a 5th grade classroom at Saka Primary School in Kandi
Reading together during a French lesson in a 5th grade classroom at Saka Primary School in Kandi
GPE/Chantal Rigaud

Providing a hot lunch

Another important intervention that impacts children’s attendance in school is whether they receive a free lunch.

For poor families that may have difficulty putting food on the table every day, ensuring that at least the midday meal is covered by the school makes a big difference.

During the first GPE program between 2008 and 2012, supported by a US$75.1 million grant, 501 school canteens run by community mothers ran for 2 years, benefiting more than 127,000 children. During the time of the program, enrollment rates increased, surpassing targets, in particular for girls, which helped reduce the gender gap.

During the second GPE program that ran from 2014 to 2018, financed by a US$42 million GPE grant and additional funding from France through AFD, the school feeding program reached a total of 318,000 primary students who received at least one meal per day in the deprived districts.

Adissatou Bio Idrissou, who is in charge of overseeing school feeding at the Alibori District Education Office, told us: “After the program started, we saw an increase in the number of students. When the school canteens work, we noticed that children come to school more regularly. When food isn’t provided at school, sometimes children don’t go to school as they need to help their parents at the farm.”

It’s a little past noon on this Monday at Akoitchaou Primary School, and students file out of their classrooms to go wash their hands outside. They’re hungry and ready to eat!
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
Akoitchaou Primary School has about 50 students from kindergarten to 5th grade. It’s located near Kandi in the northern province of Alibori in Benin, where some of the most disadvantaged populations of the country live.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
School director and only teacher Léandre Benon, right, looks at what the village women in charge of the school lunch have prepared.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
After washing their hands, children cross the school yard in an orderly fashion and wait patiently in the shaded area where the food has been prepared.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
One by one, each child receives a big plate of couscous and lentils, with a spoonful of pepper and onion sauce on top. This is typical fare for the community in this area, and all children like the food.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
Once they have their plate, children walk back to an empty classroom to sit down away from the sun and eat. Most students are quiet and eat quickly.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
Even the littlest ones eat on their own!
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
At Saka Primary School in Kandi, lentils are also on the menu. The school is much bigger than Akoitchaou and welcomes students from kindergarten to 5th grade.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
Six teams of 4 women prepare today’s lunch. They started at 7:00 am to have enough time to prepare meals for more than 2,000 students.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
Chabi Azarath is one of the women preparing school lunches. Communities here really appreciated the way the GPE-supported school feeding program was structured: mothers from the school community were recruited. They bought food on the local markets, thus ensuring that children knew and liked what was prepared, and then were reimbursed every two weeks upon presentation of receipts. This was a good way to support the local economy too.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
One of the women from the school canteen team delivers the large tubs of couscous, lentils and sauce to a 3rd grade classroom across the yard. The containers are heavy and it’s amazing to see her balancing that weight easily on her head.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
The school feeding program supported by GPE was accompanied by a rigorous monitoring system to ensure the food quantity and quality were adequate, and that proper hygiene was followed (clean kitchens, food always covered, and potable water). Bachirou Tairou of Bach Consulting for Development heads one of the NGOs that was contracted through the GPE grant to monitor the school feeding program and ensure its success.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
Every day, children leave their covered containers in front of their classroom.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
Once the food is delivered, serving each of them is quicker. Children eat in the shade right outside their classroom or inside.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
Adissatou Bio Idrissou is in charge of overseeing school feeding at the Alibori district education office. She said: “After the program started, we saw an increase in the number of students. When the school canteens work, we noticed that children come to school more regularly. When food isn’t provided at school, sometimes children don’t go to school as they need to help their parents at the farm.”
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud
Syetongeanne (right), 8 years old, and one of her friends enjoy lunch right outside their classroom at Saka Primary school. The school feeding program that GPE started (true?) in 2012 was completed this past year. The government of Benin is now working with other partners, including the World Food Programme and local NGOs, to continue providing school lunches and ensure children stay in school.
Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud

Better school buildings and equipment

Another intervention to improve access for Benin’s children had to do with infrastructure. Too many schools in the deprived districts were small, built with local materials that didn’t resist the elements well.

We saw a few such schools near Kandi in Alibori, where only parts of the earthen walls remained standing, the straw roof long gone. By contrast, the new schools built by the GPE-supported program are sturdy, well lighted and aerated, and have large classrooms.

In total, 318 primary classrooms and 212 lower secondary classrooms were built in the deprived districts thanks to the program, equipped with desks and blackboards. Additionally, 101 latrine blocks were also built.
The new building at So-Ava Middle and High School near Cotonou, Benin
The new building at So-Ava Middle and High School near Cotonou, Benin, has 8 classrooms. It's built on stilts to allow classes to continue even during the flood season.
GPE/Chantal Rigaud

On the island in the middle of the Sô river near Cotonou, we also saw classrooms and latrines built on stilts, allowing classes to continue even during the flood season between September and November each year.

Florent Kouhouenou and Pierre Houessou, parent representatives respectively for So-Ava Primary School and So-Ava Middle School, both expressed appreciation at the new classrooms that their children attended. Mr. Houessou even said that the new classrooms were a “jewel, making the community proud.”

Further efforts needed to build on past achievements

The efforts made to bring more children to school through kits, meals and better classrooms were complemented with other interventions such as teacher training (between 2008 and 2012, more than 57,000 teachers received training,a nd more than 10,600 did also during the 2014-2018 period) and distribution of teaching materials (teachers received a suitcase full of supplies for their classrooms).

GPE grants to Benin

  • 2018: US$200,000 (Program development grant)
  • 2016: US$428,794 (Sector plan development)
  • 2014-2018: US$42.3 million (Program implementation grant)
  • 2012: US$56,200 (Sector plan development)
  • 2008-2012: US$75.1 million (Program implementation grant)
  • Total: US$118.1 million

But we know that improving access isn’t sufficient, and, following the SDG 4 vision (learning for all), the government of Benin is now targeting its interventions to improve education quality.

The ministry of pre-primary and primary education has prepared a new program that will be presented for GPE funding in the next few weeks and which includes activities such as improving the curriculum, training teacher in better pedagogical practices and improving teacher colleges.

The 2018-2030 education sector plan has clearly identified quality as the priority in the coming years. GPE stands ready to continue its support, alongside other development partners, to give more and more children in Benin the chance at a good education.

Related blogs