An interview with Ousmane Bah, founder of Solodou; a new tool to fight against illiteracy

For its new article, FAIRE’s team is proud to feature Ousmane Bah, a talented entrepreneur that we recently have started supporting.

Solodou’s story is inspired by Ousmane’s personal journey to help people learn French.

Hello Ousmane, thanks for answering our questions! Can you tell us more about your journey? Which country are you from and what was your professional experience before arriving in France?

My name is Ousmane Bah, a refugee from Guinee, I arrived in France in 2014. For political reasons, I had to leave my country and found myself on the road to exile. During this slog, where I had to go through several countries, I had the chance to teach French for two years in a private elementary school in Rabat, Morocco. This is where my taste for teaching and the pedagogy surrounding it developed. Today I am using the knowledge that I acquired from this beautiful experience to help people faced with illiteracy, here in France and elsewhere in the world.

You created an application called Solodou; can you explain to us what it is about?

Solodo is an application that helps illiterate adults to learn how to read and write in autonomy. I want to insist on that last word because it is the very essence of this project. Incidentally, we can see this in the name: “Solo” Italian for alone, and “Dou ” translated from English: to do (to do alone). With the first program B-A-BA 1, Solodou had won the hearts of thousands of people touched by illiteracy, but also those of the tutors and assistants in different structures, who look after newcomer refugees, mostly in France, Belgium and Switzerland.

Solodou is an application and a kit including paper manuals, allowing the learner to be entirely self-sufficient in his learning process.

How does it work concretely? The learner uses the application to learn the lessons (reading & writing) and then he uses the paper manuals to test his new knowledge on his own.

Today, Solodou counts more than 15,000 users in France and everywhere in the world; forty countries on five continents.

Entrepreneurship involves risks. Did you think about going on the salaried worker road or did you feel that you had the soul of an entrepreneur?

When I obtained my refugee status, first I did 3 months accelerated course in International business Monitoring of purchases at the ENS of Cachan in Val de Marne (suburban region of Paris). But I realized very fast that it was not something that truly motivated me. I had a fixed project in mind and I wanted to make it happen to help people in need.

It is important to mention that during my first months in Paris, wandering the streets, I had the chance to be housed by a family touched by illiteracy living in a housing complex in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. To thank them I started giving them French literacy lessons.

And very quickly, I realized that it was the entire building that was touched by this invisible ailment.

After my training course, at that point living in the Val de Marne, I decided to launch an app to continue helping those people without being physically present as the distance did not allow me to accompany them in their learning process anymore. A couple of months after, once the first version of the application was finished, I was able to get some support from the CNAF (National Family Allowances Fund) and from the CAF (Family Allowances Fund) of Nantes, to who I say an eternal thank you, because thanks to them, I was able to test my concept on a sample of 200 people, newcomer refugees in the majority, spread out over 10 departments in France.

You joined the startup accelerator of The Family in order to make Solodou grow. Can you tell us more about the support and how you benefit from it?

Yes indeed. I had the chance to be accepted at The Family and today I can be proud of it. I cannot tell you how many projects are rejected every day, either because they are not ambitious enough or simply because they don’t fit the spirit of The Family.

For any beginner, I truly think that it is the ideal place to learn what entrepreneurship is. They regularly organize big events and invite the best entrepreneurs of the moment (Europe/US). They also have several videos on YouTube for those who wish to truly learn how to launch an entrepreneurial project.

Thanks to The Family, my first crowdfunding campaign was a success, raising 20,000 Euros to truly start the first program. With the money I was able to make 1,000 kits which were distributed in about thirty charities in France, Belgium and Switzerland. It gave me the opportunity to test my concept on a bigger scale and to gather relevant information for the development of the next level of programs.

Today I’m moving to the second phase which is fundraising. I am aware that this step is very difficult when we come from other countries and are different, but it is crucial if we want to build something big and strong. So I stay serene and confident under the wings of The Family. Don’t we say: “Perseverance always pays off”?

You are also one of the first 3 entrepreneurs supported by FAIRE. What are you expecting from this support, and what does that represent for you?

It is an immense opportunity to be supported by FAIRE’s endowment fund and I can add that it is an honor.

For that matter, I would like to take the opportunity to truly thank the whole board and his president Mr. Nick Nopporn Suppipat, without forgetting to mention Kristina and Amandine who gave me this beautiful opportunity. At the same time, I would like to thank Mr. Arnaud Barré who provided the introduction.

I keep my fingers crossed that it will be the first step towards a bigger, solid, and lasting support. Seeing the scope of the project and my vision for it, an equity investment in Solodou by FAIRE or its president Nick Nopporn Suppipat would be welcomed.

Indeed, advice and support of the whole board, then an opening of their networks to reach new markets would be extremely appreciated.

How do you envision Solodou’s evolution? What are your main challenges in its development?

I do agree to speak about illiteracy, but people do not always realize the potential of everything we could do to help people in illiteracy situations.

While reiterating Solodou’s mission to halve illiteracy in the world, my dream is to make Solodo a French EdTech unicorn.

Some will tell me: “Keep dreaming”, but as it does not hurt anyone to dream, I humbly allow myself to do so.

To pull this off, I am counting on the actors that are already supporting and helping me already to break through the first steps which are the most difficult for beginners: Seed fundraising, the constitution of an ambitious good technical team and the conquest of the French and the  European markets.

If you had any advice to give to a refugee who wishes to become an entrepreneur, what would it be?

My first advice would be to dream big and to always be in action! Yes! Allow yourself to dream big and to achieve it. At worst, instead of touching the moon you might reach a star.

There is an excellent video on Youtube from David Laroche that resumes this very well, he is speaking about “distortion of reality”. By the way, I highly encourage anyone who is doubting their own capacity to go see it: “when the impossible becomes possible”.

The second piece of advice that I would add is: perseverance. Never give up when you have found your Leitmotif or anything that pushes you forward.

And I will conclude with this third piece of advice which is to make sure you’re well-surrounded. Surround yourself with the best people to hope to become like them. Do not lose your time being around people that always drag you down.