Cameroonian entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong – known to some 30,000 Twitter followers as @africatechie – is the founder and CEO of AppsTech, a company active in over 50 countries. A recipient of many business and entrepreneurship awards, Ms Enonchong is a passionate advocate for African interests on the global stage; her Twitter outlet, meanwhile, has become an essential channel for African technology news and comment. A keynote speaker at eLearning Africa 2014, the News Service caught up with her to talk about what’s going on right now on the fast-evolving African tech scene.
interview by Alasdair MacKinnon
What first inspired you to work in technology?
I had a background in finance and progressed to being a financial systems analyst. I loved the more technical aspects of it and started training myself on some of the languages.
When you started out as an entrepreneur, where did you see the African tech scene going? How do your initial dreams and ambitions match up to what we see today?
This is so exciting because I feel like a dream is coming true. I started working on tech in Africa in 2000 and some of the projects I had planned on back then have only recently come to fruition, like the tech hubs. The idea of Activ (African Center for Technology Innovation and Ventures) was one of my very earliest endeavours (2001) but it took years, and support from others, to materialise into what is now ActivSpaces. The fact that tech hubs are emerging throughout the continent and are such an important contributing factor to the growth of technology entrepreneurship is more than a dream come true. And this only the beginning! We can dream bigger now!
What are the major challenges facing entrepreneurs and innovators in Africa?
Mostly lack of working capital, cost and unreliability of energy, lack of infrastructure. In Cameroon, we have a serious problem with the cost and availability of the internet which is still controlled by the state-owned monopoly. Of course, corruption is also a factor since it perverts everything. That all being said, Africa is blessed. We have the innovation, the skills, the talent. The harsh conditions under which we must build our companies are actually an asset. We build the type of resiliency that all entrepreneurs need to overcome the obstacles we are certain to encounter.
How can African tech enterprises succeed in the global marketplace? What sort of support do they need, and what are the advantages they have?
African tech companies must be held to the same standards as companies anywhere else in the world. But we must also be given the same respect. As long as we are treated as valuable partners, we can succeed. Like startups elsewhere, the stronger the ecosystem, the more successful we can be. So supporting the ecosystem is a great benefit.
Innovation requires that you think outside of the box. In Africa, we have no box. You can’t beat the creativity and inventiveness that comes from starting from scratch.
What technologies do you see as most important for education?
Education is first and foremost about content. So [the most important technologies are] those that facilitate the delivery of content to the greatest number of students in a way that they can really learn and transform that content into knowledge. I think of tablets, local mesh networks that store the content without having to rely on the internet, social platforms for teachers, students, parents and administrators to exchange.
What advice would you give to educators looking to use technology in their work?
I think the educator is often the one that is forgotten. There are so many programmes for students but very few for their teachers. So you end up with schools with fancy computer labs where the teachers share one PC that no one has been taught to use. It’s really important that any project that involves enabling student technology first support the educators. When that doesn’t happen, the educator should take time out and learn in the lab, sometimes even from the students. There is no shame in that.