Cameroon’s Growing Social Tech Community

Cameroon’s tech scene is still in its infancy.  It’s a tough environment to work in as the mobile network often goes down, the internet is slow and prohibitively expensive and the vast amounts of corruption and bureaucracy make it a challenging environment for entrepreneurs.  Nonetheless, there is a small, but thriving tech community and they have the potential to make a big impact in a country where civil society is relatively small and literacy is relatively high (above 70%).  I was fortunate enough to gain insight into the social tech scene, just as it’s starting up.

Nestled in Buea, a small, picturesque town, just few hours’ drive from Douala, the enthusiastic and intelligent ActivSpaces team are incubating a wide variety of socially focused tech projects.  One of Indigo’s grantees, they too aim to incubate profitable projects which address societal challenges.  There’s a real community spirit among the members, who share ideas willingly and support each other’s projects, as they have seen how collectively, they can achieve all their goals more efficiently.  To this effect, they run #SubCMR, which is effectively a hackathon aimed at demonstrating the power of positive action.  Different community members pitch ideas and then the community develop prototypes over a long weekend, saving them time and money and allowing them to fail fast, learn fast.  They also run a whole host of events including business planning workshops, digital storytelling, 1% club, assisting with Barcamp Cameroon, Co-creation events, DVD nights etc.

Some of the projects they’re incubating include:

  • Agrohub, which will provide farmers with tools to share and access information and works with them to create market reforms.  Through their platform you can access information on employment, farmer techniques and scholarships, sell and buy harvest, access market information, report a problem or ask questions to agro experts, share relevant information and campaign for better rights.
  • No Bak Chich, a mobile web, web and android platform, which enables citizens to access administrative procedures and legitimate tariffs in order to educate people on their rights and prevent corruption.  Citizens can also report corruption and reports will be channelled to NGOs and government.  They aim to have a call centre component in the long term too.
  • Data Zone, a multimedia download utility where University students will be able to access lectures, course material, books/virtual library, video tutorials and free lectures offline and communicate with lecturers, receive notifications about their course and communicate with other students to share information and pose questions.
  • Academia Secundaria, a web based system aimed at improving communication between teachers, parents and teachers in Secondary schools.  The site will include a forum where students can pose questions and share information.  Students can also access grades and transcripts and information can be shared between students, parents and teachers in part through Twitter to SMS, which is free to use.
  • A platform which enables start-ups to advertise through computers at cyber cafes, where the majority of Cameroonians access the web at a low cost.
  • Bisou, a suburban lighting solution involving lights activated by motion to save energy.

I look forward to seeing how these projects evolve over time and it was great to see the entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm present in their team.

On the back of their success, it looks like ActivSpaces Douala will be opening soon.  It will be focusing more on incubation, with a competitive selection process.  Successful projects will be provided with business support, mentorship and state of the art facilities.  The space will be hosted by Apps Tech, which focuses on Oracle solutions.  Its C.E.O. Rebecca Enonchong has been instrumental in supporting the tech community in Cameroon.  For example, she hosted ActivSpaces first hackathon, and Cameroon’s BarCamp and set up BIT Africa, which mentors female tech entrepreneurs demonstrating social impact with World Economic Forum mentors.  She also acts as a role model and mentor to women in tech and is a strong anti-corruption advocate.

A small innovation hub and incubator space in Bamenda, has sprung up unexpectedly in the North West region of Cameroon.  They provide a free co-working space for web developers, software developers/programmers, journalists, lawyers and students.  They provide a range of trainings for small businesses and mentorship from abroad, provided by the diaspora community.

They aim to incubate projects which help society and generate an income.  Projects include a database to manage exam results, training young people in registering votes (some have since been employed by the ELECAM-the election board of Cameroon).

The space has bold visions for the future and it’s fantastic to see a hub cropping up in one of Cameroon’s most remote regions.  There are many challenges for them to overcome, including prohibitively low bandwidth, frequent power cuts which have destroyed 2 computers despite surge protectors and low technical literacy.  Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see what’s possible in this environment and I wish them every success as they take the grassroots approach of training local youth to tackle local problems using technology.

Whilst in Cameroon, I was also able to meet with the Cameroon Gatsby Foundation and their Director Cecile Ayuk.  Cameroon Gatsby was set up by The Gatsby Charitable Foundation, one of our sister Sainsbury Family Trusts.  It provides rural finance to the poor through microfinance loans, thereby contributing to stimulating entrepreneurship in Cameroon.

I look forward to keeping an eye on Cameroon’s techies and entrepreneurs and I hope that Indigo can support them in stimulating social change and creating an ecosystem which encourages local innovation and civil participation.