Mapping Brings order to Benin’s Streets

Mapping Brings order to Benin’s Streets


In Benin’s economic capital of Cotonou, as in many other African cities, finding a house, office or restaurant is often like a treasure hunt. Luck, if not a miracle, is required because street names and address numbers usually are not posted. Most people in Cotonou use complex combinations of landmarks and directions to navigate town.

Sam Agbadonou, a 34-year-old former medical technician, knows the frustration. “I was called when there were breakdowns and went to health centers to repair machines that save lives,” he said. “But some centers are really in the middle of outlying neighborhoods, and it is difficult to get there.”

To put an end to this hassle, locals are turning to crowdsourced mapping applications that are challenging Google Maps for dominance on the continent.

In 2013, when Agbadonou heard about OpenStreetMap, an international project founded in 2004 to create a free world map, he knew it was a good idea. Agbadonou founded the Benin branch of the project, which today boasts 30 members.

With his friend Saliou Abdou, a trained geographer, Agbadonou regularly organizes “map parties” — field trips to identify the city’s geographical data. They start with the basics — street names and address numbers — and move on to other details.

“We write down everything: the trees, the water points, the vulcanizer [tire repairer] on the street corner, the tailor’s shop,” Agbadonou said.

Thanks to his work over the past four years, Cotonou is slowly revealing itself. For example, the Ladji district, which never used to appear on most maps, is now included. Humanitarian organizations already are using OpenStreetMap during epidemics. Amateur cartographers participating in “mapathons” have been inputting geographical data from satellite images available on the internet into the online map.

In remote areas of a country, maps show only the outline of roads. The cartographers add houses and, crucially, water points — essential data to stop the spread of an epidemic.

For volunteers or the app’s creators, mapmaking isn’t just a passion, it has become a part of what it means to be a citizen. As Abdou puts it, working on the maps is his way of “contributing to the development of my country.”