VC4Africa and Cameroon’s startup Entrepreneurs [video]

We are pleased to share this video from our recent trip to Cameroon and our time spent with the team at the African Center for Technology, Innovations and Ventures (ActivSpaces).

It’s exciting times when you see projects emerging from Cameroon that carry the mission to ‘disrupt the SMS industry’ as Fritz plans to do with iYam.mobi. Other entrepreneurs like Al Banda and CamVista, Ebot Tabi and GeoFeed, Valery Colong and Fua Tse and Agro-Hub, Churchill Nanje Mambe and Njorku, Al Banda/Princewill Nforchu and Gosabi, Benyella Njeko and Clone Multimedia and Mohamed Felata and AfroPioneer are making big progress building some of the country’s most promising startups.

ActivSpaces is the country’s leading technology incubator based in Buea and soon to expand to Douala. ActivSpaces is actually a project that has been in development since January 2009 and the founders Valery Colong, Bill Zimmerman and Fua Tse built the first bootstrapped / privately funded technology incubator in Central West Africa, Appfrica Labs based in Kampala Uganda, founded by Jon Gosier in March of the same year, being the other.

Like Appfrica Labs, ActivSpaces is building a model organization that serves to facilitate socially-responsible investment and the incubation of African small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). This is a response to the generally accepted idea that SMEs in African countries have greater difficulty in obtaining the necessary financial support and mentorship services they need to effectively scale up and grow their businesses. Access to traditional growth capital, including debt and equity, is not only limited in developing countries but often prohibitively costly due to various factors such as insufficient legal and regulatory policies, and inadequate financial markets. Labs like this serve as a platform for the local tech community, helping to pool resources and generally serve as a launchpad.

Recently business incubation in Africa has emerged as a means of accelerating the growth of technologies, industries and business skills in otherwise challenging conditions. Combined with an incubator, ActivSpaces is also a coworking space with professional office services and income generating opportunities. The running costs are covered with a 10% on the invoiced commercial projects, giving members a chance to upgrade their skills and generate an income they can use to further develop their own concepts. All activities serve to foster collaboration between members. By using a flexible model, a qualitative approach and on-the- ground experience, ActivSpaces seeks to fulfill a broad spectrum of financing, business development and socio-economic needs.

The ActivSpaces vision builds upon the following core objectives:

– Support for SMEs with high growth potential
– Assessing a company’s risk profile
– Promoting innovation
– Developing products & services for the local market
– Employment & wealth creation
– Technology & skills transfer
– Enhancing links between universities, research institutions & the business community
– Adherence to and advocacy of the highest standards of business ethics
– Reputation as a socially-responsible and innovative firm

I asked Bill (my business partner in Sanaga Ventures – a combined effort that supports initiatives such as ActivSpaces, Afrilabs and VC4Africa) why he believes so strongly in ActivSpaces and he responded, ‘Based on my current analysis, observations and personal relationships, I increasingly believe the preconditions exist for rapid growth in the Sub-Saharan African technology sector. ICTs have many of the same features (i.e., they may be produced, bought and exchanged) as traditional commodity-based industries, but have a far lower barrier to entry and carry lesser capital requirements for young companies.’

Asked how some of the challenges in Cameroon could be translated into strengths he says, ‘Africa is a continent renowned for technical innovations conceived and built from limited resources. Countless examples exist of indigenous technologies borne from constraints (lack of infrastructure, poor governance, poverty, etc.) that have created sustainable SMEs. Among them, mobile money (M-PESA, Safaricom) is a profitable service created in Kenya whose model has only recently been prototyped in the West. Likewise, research and development in fields such as physics, chemistry, GIS & mapping, electronics, security, embedded systems, alternative energy and so on have good potential to be productized and spawn sustainable SMEs.’

He goes on to say, ‘for these reasons, ActivSpaces seeks to foster the growth of physical spaces for innovation, creation, research, development and collaboration. Popularly known as ‘Hacker Spaces’ there are 96 known active hacker spaces worldwide, with 29 in the United States, according to Hackerspaces.org, with another 27 U.S. spaces in the planning or building stage. Local demand exists for a Cameroon- based hacker space. This is integral with our vision and will be financed with a combination of member dues and profits spun off from ActivSpaces.’

As in many African countries, the population in Cameroon is young: an estimated 40.9% are under 15, and 96.7% are under 65. Outlets such as ActivSpaces are critical in leveraging the emergence of technology and the opportunities it presents local entrepreneurs. It was a unique opportunity to take part in celebrating their 2 year milestone, host two VC4Africa meetups, and to spend time interviewing and getting to know the team.

We look forward to continuing our collaboration with ActivSpaces and the entrepreneurs part of its network.

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