Next week, Rebecca Enonchong will speak as a representative of the VC4Africa community at infoDev’s 2013 Global Forum on Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship, held in South Africa. Last week she was interviewed by CNN about technology and innovation in Africa. Rebecca Enonchong is Founder and CEO of AppsTech, famous for her tweets as @africatechie, and sits on the board of advisors of VC4Africa.
How have you seen the conversation about entrepreneurship development in Africa shift over time?
“The most important change I have seen is that today, there is a community. When I started in 1999 I felt very much alone preaching about tech in Africa. Today, there are voices not just from the continent, but from mainstream media that are promoting Africa tech. Still though, many still see tech in Africa as a development aid and most projects that are supported have a social impact. That’s great and necessary but we need to start focusing on building profitable tech businesses. These same businesses will then take on the role that the foreign foundations have taken on now in helping build out the ecosystem.
There have also been changes we have seen as a business. When we started AppsTech, use of the internet was an exception, even in companies. Today, many companies in Africa understand the need to invest in technology to become more competitive. Because AppsTech focuses on enterprise applications, that is an important development for us. There is still a ways to go but what we see so far is positive.”
What are the key challenges moving forward, when looking at the startup ecosystem as it exists today in Cameroon and other parts of Africa?
“The ecosystem is still in its early stages, with a few notable exceptions. Right now, most of the funding is coming in the form of grants. This is very important because until the entrepreneurs get visibility, they have a support system. But the grants can’t sustain the ecosystem. In the medium to long term, venture funding, structured financing, and even procurement will build out the ecosystem.”
Which Cameroonian entrepreneurs should we be watching? What is their regional and global potential?
“Djoss.tv, Njorku, FeePerfect, Pulse, Wasamundi and several others. Njorku has already crossed borders and is used in several African countries. Djoss.tv is a solution that can easily be adopted in any country, I am truly excited about this startup. Social TV is the next big thing in social media and Djoss.tv’s innovative approach will make it the world’s next Facebook or Twitter. I really believe that.
Cameroon doesn’t have as large a tech community as countries like Kenya or Ghana. Entrepreneurs in Cameroon have many fewer resources than those in other countries. But it is through that hardship that the strongest entrepreneurs with the most viable business ideas emerge. You simply have to be good. There is no room for mediocrity and no resources for anyone but the best. I think that the quality of entrepreneurs in Cameroon is superior because of it.”
You sit on the boards of advisors of VC4Africa, ActivSpaces and other initiatives. What role do you see these and other actors play?
“VC4Africa is an incredibly important platform that allows entrepreneurs to promote their projects to investors outside of their geographical area. In many countries, like the US for instance, entrepreneurs will travel to pitch investors. In Africa, most cannot afford to do so. With VC4Africa, at least entrepreneurs can reach out to investors that want to invest in Africa. That is already a very important step. There aren’t many vehicles that provide that type of opportunity.
ActivSpaces, like many of the co-working spaces and incubators on the continent, is a critical component to building out the tech ecosystem. In the US, entrepreneurs can start in their parent’s basement or garage. They have many of the basics. In Africa, there is no such environment entrepreneurs can use until they launch their product. This means that many great ideas don’t see the light of day. For Africa, these incubators provide not just the “basement” but guidance, mentorship and other tools to help the entrepreneur succeed. Moreover, incubators like ActivSpaces help build the community. Entrepreneurs get to know each other and can support each other.
The challenge will be in making these incubators and co-working spaces sustainable without relying on grants. But as entrepreneurs succeed and graduate from these incubators, we hope that they will continue to support these organizations. We also need to ensure that other entrepreneurs that might not have benefited directly from these incubators understand the value for the entire ecosystem and find ways of supporting them.”
What are your hopes and expectations for The Global Forum in South Africa next week?
“The theme of the Global Forum is “harnessing innovative entrepreneurship for social and economic growth.” As someone that believes so strongly in entrepreneurship in Africa, the theme really resonates with me. When so many different stakeholders gather to focus on entrepreneurship, it elevates the discourse and the entire ecosystem benefits. The message that I hope will emerge loud and clear out of The Global Forum is that entrepreneurs matter and that entrepreneurs can and will make a difference.
I also think the Global Forum is a great opportunity to learn about some of the innovation in financing and technologies and I am hoping to come out of it with some ideas to help some of the entrepreneurs I am mentoring and maybe even me. I’m looking forward to see the pitches from high potential entrepreneurs from Africa at the event, of which many are from the VC4Africa community. And next week at the Global Forum I will also announce a special new VC4Africa program targeted at high potential entrepreneurs in Africa, offering them targeted coaching with personal introductions to investors.”
What is your message to both entrepreneurs and investors, in the VC4Africa community & in or focused on Africa?
“Entrepreneurs, don’t give up. The first thing is to never give up. If you do, then perhaps entrepreneurship is not for you. It takes a combination of ideas, ability to execute, resilience, optimism and a good dose of madness to be an entrepreneur in Africa. It isn’t for everyone. You will take a lot of beatings and face a lot of obstacles. Your ability to overcome these will determine your level of success. Also, don’t get caught up in the hype. Getting your picture on the cover of a magazine doesn’t pay the bills so remember to keep your feet on the ground.
For investors, don’t dilute your requirements because it is Africa. The more demanding you are of the entrepreneurs you invest in, the better the entrepreneur will be and the more likely you are to both succeed.
Being an entrepreneur in Africa has been a challenging journey. But I am a better person for it and I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. Africa is rising and I feel so blessed to be part of the ride up.”
Next week at infoDev’s 2013 Global Forum, Rebecca Enonchong will be on the panel Inclusive Mobile Innovation: Engaging the Disengaged (Bottom of the Pyramid), on Wednesday May 29th 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM GMT+2. Register here for the livestreams.
Also see high-potential entrepreneurs from Africa (of which some from the VC4Africa community) and other regions pitch in a Dragon’s Den setting to meet mentors, investors and angels, on Tuesday, May 28th and Wednesday May 29th, 4:30 PM GMT+2. Register here for the livestreams.