A lot has changed since I started my entrepreneurship journey in 2014. At the time, we were a few years into the massive success of Facebook. Building the next Apple had been replaced with building the next Facebook; after all, all you needed was a computer and an idea. In April of that year, the American comedy television series, Silicon Valley, began to air and we all saw ourselves in it. I was a fairly recent technology management graduate, a budding artist and music producer that felt very much like the world was for the taking. We were the crazies who have the rare ability to change the world.
I worked sleepless nights building a real estate search engine with my friend who was also working on a social network app that had its own token money. That was way before mobile money was widely adopted. I remember how he tried without success to get Express Union to back his digital money idea. There was hardly any money but we took pride in the fact that we were doing meaningful work, and building revolutionary companies.
I was in Yaounde at the time, the urban entertainment scene was broiling new talents; each trying to add a layer on what Jovi and Stanley Enow had accomplished for Cameroonian urban music. There was a genuine sense of camaraderie, everyone was working on their craft, trying to be the next big thing out of the country; but understanding that we could only thrive in an ecosystem and not as individuals. We had to build our own Silicon Valley. My friend Chavez bought the first drone I had ever seen. The drones did not come with a Camera built in. You had to use a GoPro and I happened to have one. I’ll meet up with Chavez and we’ll fly the drone over Etoug-Ebe for many months before drone images became a commodity. I’ll stick the GoPro to my sisters BMW and drive around town looking for apartments to add on my site. Some of the footage, I would then use to show potential clients the road to the property which turned out to be a bad idea as they would usually just bypass me and go see the property owner who cared very less about my commission.
By August of 2014, Guinness Africa launched the ’Made of Black” campaign. In Cameroon, Stanley Enow and Gasha were selected to be brand ambassadors. Stanley Enow had won the MTV Africa Music Awards earlier in June. It seemed at the moment that Cameroonian urban artists had reached the height of achievement in the entertainment industry. In September of the same year, 22 year old Alain Nteff, founder of Gifted Mom was announced as the grand prize winner of the 2014 Anzisha Prize, receiving a $25,000 cash prize to support his business.
By 2015, there was a rising tide of West African youth entrepreneurs. William Elong launched Drone Africa, and the media coverage around him was massive. Alain Nteff got featured on CNN and won a number of other awards that came with cash prizes. Entrepreneurship become the new celebrity; many tech entrepreneurs started to spend more time writing press releases than they did writing code.
All the genuine passions to build great products started fading. There was a rise in local entrepreneurship competitions and awards shows. The quest for recognition became the driving force and we continue to suffer the effects today. William Elong’s case became proof that PR will get you where your product could not and that became the new norm.
By 2017, many tech projects had been abandoned for high yield investment schemes. There was a shift from tech to agriculture. For the many that found computer code too complex, they were easily sold on soil. It is around this time that Roland Fomundam’s Greenhouse Ventures became popular. Teks Global also saw the light of day around this same time. While some were genuinely looking for investors to help them develop their business idea, pyramid investment schemes also become a staple in the ecosystem.
By 2018, digital marketing services became highly sought after and everyone wanted to sell something on the internet. Many tried to put together some sort of creative agency but it was soon clear that there is no market. But for a few multinationals that retain creative agencies, there were and still are no real scalable opportunities in the context of our economy. The space has evolved to be occupied primarily by amateur influencers and bloggers who have employed various kinds of content to gather a following on one of the many social media platforms. A few PR firms have emerged but not many can boast of a structure that allows them to participate in the professional milieu.
Between 2018 and 2020, the skincare and beauty industry stole the spotlight and everyone who got into selling ring lights must have made a fortune. It was a period for female entrepreneurs to shine. Knuckles were removed, breast enlarged, and bone straight hair was driving the economy.
2020 came along with a new life for tech startups with Alain Nteff still leading the way. His company Gifted Mom which had been rebranded to Healthlane raised a $2.4 million seed investment in 2020. In 2022, Nelly Chatue-Diop’s Ejara, a Cameroonian fintech startup, raised $8 million in Series A investment. Alain Nteff’s Healthlane is a Y combinator alumnus while Ejara has a Silicon Valley co-founder in Baptiste Andrieux. The trend in tech based startups seems to be; partner with or associate with a foreign based entity to increase chances of securing funding.
10 years later, one can say the hype has not lived up to the promise. Innovation has given way to survival. Restaurants, snack bars, guest houses, and the buying and selling of commodities have come to replace many of the soft ideas. In May this year, Churchill Mambe’s Buyam managed to secure a meagre $10,000 in pre-seed funding as it tries to succeed where MTN and Orange Cameroon backed Jumia failed. You sense a general loss of enthusiasm from entrepreneurs and from investors. We could spend a lot of time diagnosing the reasons for the loss of enthusiasm but I believe the real question is – how do we get it back?
- Norbert K. Foy