'It starts one person at a time, supporting others' - developing Africa's entrepreneurial ecosystem

  1. Started businesses in the U.S., Canada, France, UK and Cameroon
  2. Africa has a very 'risk-averse' business environment
  3. 'An entrepreneur is not a self-employed person'

Businesswoman and tech entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong  regularly appears on lists of prominent African business leaders and influential women in tech. Born in Cameroon, she moved to the U.S. and became a business leader with AppsTech, a digital solutions company she founded in 1999. 

She splits her time between Washington, D.C., and Cameroon, and is best known for her work championing African entrepreneurship and innovation, working with various nonprofits and networks, to build relationships, encourage investment, and create environments conducive to innovation.

Enonchong admits that her childhood in the Central African country was “protected” from both the more extreme poverty some suffered, and the political dangers of its then-dictatorship.

“We had elections every five years so in my mind I’m like, ‘Hey, we have elections, so we have democracy,’ but there was a one-party system,” she said.

In this relatively blessed upbringing she went through a Francophone primary, and Jesuit secondary education system, before following her mother to the U.S. as a teenager. Her business flair appeared at an early age, when she sold newspaper subscriptions door-to-door.

“I finished high school in the U.S. and then went to university in the U.S. Stayed, worked, started a business,” she said, adding “but I would go back often to Cameroon.”

As suggested by a Community member, WikiTribune reached out to Enonchong for an interview. She accepted, and discussed the unique challenges and opportunities facing tech entrepreneurs, women in business, and investors in Cameroon and the African continent more broadly.

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Enonchong

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. The full transcript can be read here.

WikiTribune: It’s a question with an obvious answer, but in your words, why is it important to you to promote African entrepreneurship?

Rebecca Enonchong: It’s something I’m really passionate about. I think that because I’ve been through it, I think I have something to add, and I can better support entrepreneurs. It’s very hard to understand what entrepreneurs actually go through if you haven’t lived through it. I started in the U.S., but opened in different countries, Canada, France, the UK before opening in Cameroon, so I’ve experienced it in different settings. There are so many differences. It’s so much harder to do it in Cameroon, in Africa in general, but Cameroon in particular. If I can do anything to support the next generation, I’m doing it.

When people compare tech innovation in parts of Africa and say, Silicon Valley, they might assume the biggest difference is in terms of resources. In your experience, is that the main thing or are there other really significant differences?

RE: I think that the primary challenge is the environment. It’s not an environment that’s conducive to supporting entrepreneurs. It’s a very risk averse environment. It’s highly bureaucratic and hierarchical, all the things that are opposed to the success of an entrepreneur.

Do you think that’s held back mainly by domestic attitudes towards business?

RE: I think that there’s the idea of the businessman. The businessman can get support, but the entrepreneur is different. They’re generally younger and not connected to government. (Hopefully a woman). The idea of an entrepreneur running a business and hiring people and creating jobs is just not one that is accepted in many government settings. A lot of times they’ll push these “entrepreneurship” programmes that are really not real entrepreneurship programmes. They’re really self-employment programmes rather than entrepreneurship programmes. An entrepreneurship is building a business that will create jobs. An entrepreneur is not a self-employed person. I think that in many of these programmes that government puts together, they’re really more targeting self-employment and not entrepreneurship per se.

There’s not just a misunderstanding. I think there’s almost a disrespect for the entrepreneur, especially in our context, in Cameroon with the very Francophile business culture. Even in France entrepreneurship isn’t looked on in the same way as it would be in the U.S. for instance, where it’s so encouraged and it’s such a part of the fabric of society.

Technology entrepreneurship is even crazier because it’s an environment that moves very fast, that requires very different types of resources than building a factory. I think it’s totally misunderstood, and it’s really slowed down by a very bureaucratic hierarchical system that’s put in place.

“They mix in women and youth. I hate that. It just makes me crazy.”

Do you think governments in Africa should take a more active approach to creating an environment conducive to risk taking? And what’s the place for successful entrepreneurs like yourself to encourage or create structures where that’s more acceptable?

RE: Different countries are doing different things. There are some countries like Kenya, even Nigeria, Rwanda, that are much more supportive. That really do support entrepreneurs. We can’t say all countries are bad. You have some countries that are struggling and trying to understand entrepreneurship. That should be appreciated and recognised. Even though they don’t have programmes in place, they’re trying to understand.

“It’s very hard to understand what entrepreneurs actually go through if you haven’t lived through it.”

Then you have countries that look down for some reason. There’s things that they mix in women and youth. I hate that. It just makes me crazy, because we don’t have the same issues. We don’t have the same problems. They create a youth and women thing – “Yeah, we need to get jobs for women and youth, so let’s create entrepreneurship programmes which again are really self-employment programmes that aren’t getting the real support that they need.”

Those of us who have been through it are able to support and create organisations like  ActivSpaces in Cameroon. There are so many spread across Africa. When we started [AfriLabs] in 2010, we knew of fewer than ten of these innovation centres, tech hubs, across the continent. Today there are over 400 that are counted … that’s a network of these innovation centres across the African continent so we can learn from each other on share and see how best to support entrepreneurs. Over 50,000 entrepreneurs are supported through the various Afrilab members. That’s just one step just as a private initiative. It’s not a government initiative. It just goes to show that you don’t need to wait for government for these programmes.

These hubs and networks are making connections to places where it’s harder to be an entrepreneur, do you think that kind of increased communication and coordination can that improve other areas of society and maybe in poorer parts of the continent?

RE: Yeah, I think that we’ve already seen that. Because of AfriLabs there are new hubs that are coming up in areas like Chad. We recently had a hub from the DRC join AfriLabs. What’s exciting about it is they’re not alone. They recognise that they’re part of a larger ecosystem, and they can get so much support.

“Just knowing that other people are in your situation and are making it through is great support. How you build out the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Africa is one person at a time supporting others.”

There was a young man from Nigeria last year that came to the AfriLabs annual gathering in Cairo. He had opened a hub in a very remote part of Nigeria where there was nothing. Now, he’s found out that there are resources, and how to get hold of those resources, how to get corporate partnerships for instance and sponsorships, how do you run your hubs, what are some of the programmes you run to support the entrepreneurs, what works, what doesn’t, knowing that “hey, we know it’s hard.”
Just knowing that other people are in your situation and are making it through is great support. I think that this is how you build out the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Africa is one person at a time supporting others.
Within a hub you have a number of entrepreneurs that are learning from each other, that are sharing resources, the same thing can be done at a bigger level with the hubs sharing knowledge and resources with each other across the continent.

Then we also start to understand that as much as these are different countries all on the African continent, we all share some of the same difficulties and challenges. It’s been really an enlightening experience for me to travel around and see the different hubs and to see what everybody is doing and to understand that some of the challenges  we’ve experienced others have experienced as well.

I think a next step for us was seeing the growth in that part of the ecosystem was to try to do the same thing for funding.

We created something called ABAN, which is the African Business Angels Network. This is an organisation to promote angel investment across the African continent. Again, we’ve seen great growth and great interest in people that are individuals that are wanting to support entrepreneurs and don’t necessarily know what they’re supposed to do. Just as the lab and the tech hubs are doing this for entrepreneurs, this is almost like training for the investor side.

I’ve just got one more question which you may well have already answered depending on how you feel. For people who are new to the various areas of tech entrepreneurship across Africa, what kind of new ideas or developments do you think are most exciting and things that should be most looked out for in the near future?

RE: I think that one of those things is the angel investing and the local seed investing coming from local sources. I think that’s one big development: to encourage more investment in Africans by Africans because most investment will always be local. Angel investors want to be able to go over and meet the entrepreneur when they need to and talk to them regularly. I think it’s a huge development in the ecosystem, in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Africa.

The other I think is more specialised tech hubs. We’re seeing now that instead of these general health tech hubs to help all entrepreneurs, we’re seeing some that are focused on agriculture, on agri-tech for instance or for instance the new AI hubs that Google just opened in Ghana. There are some FinTech hubs that are very specific to FinTech. That shows growth. When you can start to not be so generalised, I think that shows tremendous growth. I suspect that we’ll continue to grow and to mature as an ecosystem.

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