Creating a start-up can be a real obstacle course for young people in Cameroon. Administrative and banking procedures, fundraising, etc. three Cameroon entrepreneurs go back to the creation of their innovative business.
Arthur Zang, 29, is the most well-known of the three. His CardioPad touchpad allows remote electrocardiograms to be conducted and has earned him a number of awards and the interest of the media. But he is not the only one to innovate in his home country: Alain Nteff, 25, co-founder of Gifted Mom, is also seeking to resolve a public health problem, by providing medical follow-up to pregnant women and young mothers. Duplex Éric Kamgang, 33, for his part, helps students from Cameroon, Togo and Mali obtain a visa for France providing them with the certificate of resources requested by consulates more quickly and at a lower cost than banks. Despite the fact that the business environment remains difficult in Cameroon, these young people embody a highly enthusiastic succession, ready to share their experience.
Arthur Zang: “Turning start-ups into industries”
He invented the CardioPad, a touchpad with applications for medical uses and manages the start-up Himore Medical Equipment.
When I set up my company in 2014, I had been working on research and development for the CardioPad for five years. The idea came about through a meeting with the cardiologist Samuel Kingué in 2009. He told me about the problems he had diagnosing patients living in remote areas. We worked for a year on the development of the CardioPad, which allows remote cardiograms to be conducted.
I was not predestined to be an entrepreneur. As a son of civil servants, I was encouraged by my family to work towards a career in the civil service. However, my mother, who is a nurse, agreed to lend me the funds which allowed me to start. I sent my project to Microsoft for the Imagine Cup competition which organized every year. This prize allowed me to receive the equipment I needed to develop my operating system, then to obtain a bank loan. In 2011, I recorded a video about how the prototype of the CardioPad works and I posted it on YouTube. There were reports in the press which were noticed by President Paul Biya. He allocated me a EUR 35,000 grant to make the first appliances.
Local banks now grant me loans of about EUR 50,000 because I have guarantees. They do not take any risks: they prefinance the manufacturing of the tablets, on the basis of the purchase orders which we are able to submit to them. The company now has 14 employees. Its investment exceeds EUR 500m, which mainly comes from calling on shareholders from Cameroon’s private sector, who believe in the project. Some 300 tablets have been sold since January 2016, in Central Africa, the Comoros and even in Nepal. We bill them to hospitals for USD 3,000 each and they subsequently rent them to patients for a yearly subscription of USD 29.
Apart from access to financing, the obstacles my start-up came up against relate to mastering the manufacturing processes from a technical point of view. As there is no local industry for medical equipment, we had to find foreign partners, in China and Korea, to manufacture the components which we subsequently assemble in Yaoundé.
If we want to talk about innovation in Africa, a continent which does not yet have the laboratories it deserves, research needs to be taken much more seriously. Given the budgets allocated to universities, Africa is still a long way off being the leader in innovation. Research continues to be severely hampered by the lack of financing. Raising funds to develop ideas is still not very common in our countries. Yet there is no innovation without research! So, describing Africa as the new Eldorado of innovation leaves me skeptical. My feeling is that we do not know where we are going, as there is no clear vision to launch business sectors and turn start-ups in Cameroon into real industries. We also fail to link universities with business creation. Investing in research is part of a culture which we do not have: the idea is to develop very quickly, sell very quickly and focus on figures, without any really solid foundations.
Alain Nteff: “Providing Cameroon mothers with health follow-up”
Alain Nteff, an IT engineer, is Executive Director of Gifted Mom, a social enterprise he set up in 2014 with two doctors in Yaoundé. His 12 employees provide medical follow-up and consultations by telephone to pregnant women and young mothers nationwide.
The project matured between 2012 and 2014, following my visit to a high school friend, Dr. Conrad Tankou, who was working in rural areas. Faced with a high number of deaths of mothers in childbirth and infants, we wondered how to use new technologies to provide Cameroon mothers with health follow-up. Cameroon is one of the countries with a high maternal mortality rate, with 596 deaths per 100,000 live births – more than in Mali, Niger, or Kenya. According to UNICEF, the infant mortality rate stands at 61 children under one year per 100,000 births.
Yet the majority of deaths could be prevented if mothers properly completed the program of four prenatal appointments with the doctor prior to delivery. Lives are lost due to the lack of information. Pregnant women do not do all the necessary tests during pregnancy, because they do not understand why they are useful. We also lose babies because they have not been vaccinated, despite the fact that the immunization program is free between birth and the age of nine months. Mothers are ill-informed and think that they have to pay for vaccinations and/or that they are pointless.
This is where our idea came about of raising their awareness by mobile phone, a tool owned by 80% of the population of Cameroon. The application we have developed was tested in 2014 with 800 women in eight villages in the South-west. Our platform now has over 52,000 subscribers.
Women who wish to do so can register in the 28 hospitals we work with in Yaoundé, Douala, Ebolowa, Bamenda and Maroua. We offer free services (text message reminder of the appointments that need to be made, vaccinations to be done, etc.), as well as fee-based services. For FCFA 50 (EUR 0.30) a week, subscribers can ask questions by telephone to the seven doctors on our team via a toll-free number. Those living in areas which are not covered by the 28 hospitals we work with can subscribe by dialing a code on their telephone (#202*241#) if they use Orange, one of our partners. It also costs FCFA 50 a week.
In 2015, we found investors by taking part in a business acceleration program in South Africa. The South African ALN Ventures platform seeks to identify the most promising African entrepreneurs. It took USD 20,000 worth of shares in Gifted Mom, because it believes in our idea. We have raised a total of over USD 220,000 dollars through prizes and competitions (Anshiza Grand Prize in 2014, winner of the Digital Africa competition in 2017), with the aim of extending our services nationwide in Cameroon. Our objective is to raise USD 1.5m over the next ten months to reach a million people – mothers, children and fathers – over the next two years.
In addition to the authorization to start an activity, which is issued by the Ministry of Health after two years, financing continues to be a major obstacle in Cameroon. The keys to success lie in the company’s purpose, its cash flow, its ability to continuously learn and the quality of the team put together. At the beginning, some people around me advised me to keep the idea of Gifted Mom in mind, while looking for a more stable job at the same time. Everyone now recognizes that our vision has allowed us to create jobs.”
Duplex Éric Kamgang: “Starting small, but dreaming big”
Studely was set up in 2016 by three French people, two of Cameroonian origin. Studely aims to facilitate administrative procedures for internationally mobile students (especially African students) seeking to continue their studies in France. It does so by issuing them the certificate of resources required by consulates for the entry visa for France. Studely is based in Clichy (France) and has three offices in Africa (Cameroon, Togo and Mali). A testimony by Duplex Éric Kamgang, one of the three founders.
In 2009, I was admitted into a business school in Paris, but my visa application turned into an obstacle course. As my parents were not in paid employment, they did not have a bank account. Yet the consulate asked me to provide a bank guarantee and, much to my surprise, block an amount on an account corresponding to a year of studies in France. At the time, the minimum amount was EUR 430 a month, a threshold which has now risen to EUR 615, i.e. EUR 7,380 a year. These procedures took me between two and three weeks and cost over EUR 1,000 in service fees with banks in Cameroon. This had consequences on my university studies. This stage left a mark on me. So, when I started a business, which I had been dreaming about for several years, I immediately thought about resolving this problem.
Today, we operate in Cameroon, Togo and Mali. The services offered by Studely are simple: students can register on our website, by submitting their passport and letter of admission to a French institution. They are subsequently called within 24 hours by an advisor who schedules an appointment with them to sign a contract. They must then pay their EUR 7,380 guarantee into a bank account held by Studely, an amount which they get back when they arrive in France. Once this transfer has been made, they obtain their Studely certificate within 48 hours, which they can submit to the consulate. Another major advantage is that this document can also be used as a rental guarantee in France, unlike those provided by traditional banks.
Since we started our activities in June 2017, we have received 800 applications and provided the service to over 550 people, 92% of whom obtained their visa. This is four times higher than our initial target. In the event of a visa refusal by the French consulate, we refund the guarantee to the student on better terms than local banks, without charging fees on the conversion into euros of the amounts paid in CFA francs. If the visa is accepted, we assist the student in the process to open their bank account as soon as they arrive in France, so that they can do their banking and receive money more easily. Our EUR 535 service charge is for the quick delivery of a bank guarantee certificate in due form. This is half the fee charged by traditional banks in African capitals.
Our subsidiary in Cameroon comes up against local administrative and fiscal constraints. The environment does not encourage young people to set up a business, whereas the country has a large number of entrepreneurs. They are not trusted and no structure trains them or really supports them. Financial resources are also limited. Banks are the main enemy as they cannot be counted on! Local banks do not have specialized services to finance entrepreneurs. It is extremely difficult to be an entrepreneur without capital. The Government of Cameroon should take measures to encourage business angels or venture capital funds to invest in start-ups in Cameroon.
When you launch a start-up in Cameroon or wherever it may be, you need to start by dreaming big. You then need to take the time to build the project well and start small: you should not expect huge amounts of financing to start with. Studely is incubated by Bond’Innov (IRD’s incubator), which is located on IRD’s campus in the Paris region, and we are financed by our own funds, grants obtained from the Public Investment Bank (BPI) in France, the European Union, and a EUR 30,000 loan on trust from Scientipôle Initiative in France. Going through incubators, which are unfortunately still too few in Cameroon, means you have to stand up for your project before your peers, as if you were a lawyer in court. The company’s purpose thus gains in credibility. The project is ultimately more likely to inspire confidence among both investors and clients. The key lies in finally finding people who have complementary skills to yours and who are willing to fully invest in your project. At Studely, we are fortunate to have a dedicated and motivated team, driven by the spirit of moving the project forward.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.