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Celebrating a growing technology community in Cameroon

So exciting to see Djoss.tv win the Cameroon Startup Challenge 2012. It was an electric evening with so much positive energy.

My first trip to Cameroon was in the spring of 2011. Amazing to see what kind of progress is being made only a year and a half later. It is exciting to see the ranks of technology entrepreneurs grow in the country. Also the quality of startups has greatly improved and I noticed a serious focus on business models. Several teams have gone through multiple iterations of their product before refining concepts that have real potential to gain traction.

In fact, a recent visitor from Nairobi remarked that the Kenyan entrepreneurs have something to learn from their Cameroonian counterparts. Indeed, it might seem that the constraints placed on entrepreneurs in the country forces them to focus – working faster with less resources. It was also noted technology entrepreneurs in Nairobi are sometimes hesitant to close their computers and speak with actual customers, when most of the teams in Cameroon spend a great deal of time and effort on market research.

Almost not a week goes by that we don’t read about the launch of another fund in Nairobi, an accelerator in Ghana or a competition targeting startup entrepreneurs in Nigeria. Its herd mentality with everyone piling into the same plane. Maybe Cameroon doesn’t get the same attention because people are less familiar with the operating environment or the government has done less to bolster its image. Certainly there is less sector support. That said, the quality of innovators we know in Cameroon are on par with any we have met.

There should be a podium for technology entrepreneurs in every country, and the Cameroon Startup Challenge 2012 is another step for the community in Cameroon. These individuals, in every community, are critical if we are to solve difficult social, economic and environmental problems. They are an important part of our future. Their path is not an easy one and it is important to take a step back and to recognize the progress being made.

It is hard work and these guys are blazing a new path for hopefully many generations to come. Already we see new teams of entrepreneurs staking their ground. These are still the early days of many exciting times ahead. Congrats to the team at Djoss.tvKingMaker and Agro-Hub!

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VC4Africa and the emergence of an African startup culture

Want to know more about VC4Africa and our work to support starting entrepreneurs? Here is a presentation we recently recorded. I outline some of the recent trends and developments we are witnessing in the space and some of our thinking on how we can do more to support the emergence of an African startup culture.

Fast Moving Targets: Africa as promising investment frontier

Here is an interview I did last week with Fast Moving Targets, a new series dedicated to showcasing innovation in media, technology and communications. They are very much tapping into Amsterdam as a creative media lab and the beginnings of a promising startup culture here in the city. Importantly, they ask the question, ‘what’s going on, what does that mean for whom and how do you actually get new trends and technologies to succeed?’

It’s great to see initiatives like this come online. It adds to The Next Web (many people do not know they are based in Amsterdam) and Hackers and Founders Meetups as important platforms for engaging the community, identifying key developments and highlighting protagonists in the space. Fast Moving Targets is an initiative of ‘The Crowds‘ and hosted by Erwin Blom and Roeland Stekelenburg. They have a great production team and it was nice of Johan Schaap, the founder of Probaton, to make the connection.

The show is filmed live which gives it an interesting character and streamed via the site. They film the chit chat before and after the actual show (so be aware:) and take questions from people watching via Twitter. The show has an interactive and relaxed feel to it. Mostly because of the Palm beer. It was also great practice for my Dutch!:) Here is the description as posted on the site: ‘Ben White van VC4Africa probeert werelden bij elkaar te brengen. Investeerders en ondernemers. Europa en Afrika. Omdat hij ziet hoe groot het talent in laatstgenoemd werelddeel is, omdat hij overtuigd is van het zakenlijk potentieel, maar ook omdat hij een idealist is die van Afrika houdt. VC4Africa gaat over geld, maar nog veel meer over netwerken. Met al duizenden aan boord. Een aflevering van Top Names van Fast Moving Targets.’

A video pitch on Njorku.com, making job search in Africa possible

Today Churchill Nanje Mambe, the founder of Njorku.com, uploaded one of the first video pitches from Cameroon. Njorku is a job search engine for Africans world wide, otherwise a platform that aggregates and provides search and browse functionality for jobs from across the continent. In the short term there is a focus on Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa.

Loy Okezie recently writes on TechLoy, ‘One of the key highlights of the 9ideas Conference held over the weekend in Douala, Cameroon was the demoing of the ‘Elephant project.’ He goes on to explain, ‘Njorku is a jobs search engine that crawls the web (especially job sites) to find jobs based on keyword searches in any African country and makes them available to users.’

This video pitch is great because it gives a personal introduction into Churchill as an entrepreneur and a nice background on his project. While we are in Cameroon we will be working to film more pitches like this and integrate them into the venture profiles on VC4Africa.biz. We hope that entrepreneurs in Buea and Douala will inspire entrepreneurs from across the VC4A network to do the same. When the distance between people is sometimes countries or even oceans video pitches like this can go a long way in breaking the ice.

Unlocking social capital in Europe

Unlocking social capital in Europe

From my experience at Africa Interactive I know how hard it is to build a business with a social mission. In Dutch law you are either a business or a non-profit organization. There have been discussions but still we wait for an alternative legal form that starts to bridge the gap between the two i.e. a social venture that seeks to better the world but still meet its bottom line. Given increasing cuts in govt. spending across European countries and a shift in mindset that demands sustainability across financial and social metrics, laying new foundations seems imperative.

In the end Africa Interactive found the right investors and has built its foundation as a business. What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger:) That said, it probably took us twice as long and required twice the effort to make it happen. In the interest to promote the emergence of new efforts, a culture around social venturing, its critical we start to look at ways to foster a community and support its development. On one side its about improving access to social capital and on the other hand its about learning from a combined experience, improving access to the supporting service, knowledge and network needed to make it happen.

This spring we will witness the first SOCAP/Europe here in Amsterdam. This is a perfect location for this event as the Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular, is really a hotbed for this stuff. Just a top of the head list includes remarkable organizations like the 1%Club, Akvo, Text to Change, Butterfly Works, GhettoRadio and our own beloved Africa Interactive. At Sanaga Ventures we also promote ActivSpaces, VC4Africa and Afrilabs.

I believe this is a milestone for our efforts here in Europe and an important platform for outlining plans of action for the coming years. As SOCAP champions, ‘the event will be a place to discover and discuss the latest in European social enterprise and beyond, meet like-minded attendees from around the globe, pitch your ideas, find and provide funding and more.’

Here are some of their latest announcements and I look forward to coming together around this event.

Social entrepreneur scholarship deadline

If you’re a social entrepreneur putting your passion, money and time to scale solutions for a better world, then we invite you to apply by the end of this weekend! If you don’t fit the social entreprenuer description, but still have value to contribute and gain at SOCAP/Europe, then we invite you to apply as a volunteer by our April 15th deadline.

More SOCAP/Europe speakers announced

In addition to the pioneering names announced in our first two waves, we are happy to now confirm the participation of these speakers. See a full list of SOCAP/Europe speakers here.

Pieter Oostlander – Noaber (Netherlands)
Natarajan Ishwaran – Unesco (France)
Tris Lumley – New Philanthropy Capital (United Kingdom)
Lisa Hehenberger – EVPA (Belgium)
Nigel Kershaw – Big Issue Invest (United Kingdom)
Maria Cavalcanti – AVINA (Panamá)
Brian Walsh – Liquidnet (United States)
Dirk Elsen – SNV (Netherlands)
Felix Oldenburg – Ashoka (Germany)
Ajaita Shah – Frontier Markets (United States)
Gerhard Pries – Sarona Asset Management (Canada)
David Bonbright – Keystone (United Kingdom)
Tamzin Ratcliffe – Nexii (South Africa)
Antony Ross – Bridges Ventures (United Kingdom)
Tim Radjy – Alphamundi (Switzerland)
Tim Draimin – Social Innovation Generation (Canada)
Martin Rich – Social Finance (United Kingdom)
Stephen Dawson– Jacana (Ghana)

African ventures to watch in 2011

VC4Africa.biz now has 91 ventures registered from more than 20 African countries and a surprising number of sectors. It is a nice representation of the sheer diversity in opportunities currently found across the continent.

Many of these projects are positioned for serious progress this coming year. For example I am interested to see what happens next with Uganda Medicinal Plants Growers, a venture posted by Teddy Ruge. UMPG is a commercial farming initiative based in Masindi and is designed to assist farmers commercialize their medicinal crops internationally. This is important work considering Uganda’s economy is agriculture based, with agriculture employing over 80% of the population and generating 90% of its export earnings. In Kenya its nice to see social ventures like the Recycling plastics and Empowering Youth. Kenya has a great need for low-cost housing and productive waste management. This recycling company will operate in the interest of the local community employing collectors using bicycle with trailers to bring various grades of plastics to processing units for ecologically-sensitive, efficient sorting, granulating and moulding (under low heat) into panels to be used for cheap housing. Not only is this an innovative approach that addresses a growing need, they are clearly taking the steps to embed the program and design it in a way that makes it socially sustainable and thereby economically viable.

A Nigerian based venture to watch is eHealth. This project supports the management of health facilities in Nigeria to influence health-related funding and policy decisions, and provides doctors with the patient information needed to improve decision-making before, during, and after care. This is not only a support service needed in Nigeria but I can imagine there are needs for their products in other African countries too. But given there are at least 85 listed hospitals in Nigeria there is plenty of work needed to get the company up and running. A venture that caught my attention in Cameroon is Hot Ice. Hot Ice is a fashion company that specializes in supplying affordable African-styled fashion accessories for trendy suburban women. Hot Ice really looks to differentiate its brand and seeks to build a fashion culture that local consumers can identify with.

Finally Agro-Hub, Geofeed, Naijaborn and Hizonotes offer a nice sample of the web and mobile related projects we have in our network. More projects are signing up by the day and clearly 2011 is set to be the year of Entrepreneurship in Africa!

VC4Africa welcomes Helen Ngoh as community manager

This interview was conducted by Bertil van Vugt

Recently the VC4Africa team has welcomed a new member. As community manager Helen Ngoh from Cameroon will be the one to contact when you have any questions or remarks. Let’s meet Helen!

Please introduce yourself?

“I’m Helen Ngoh, I’m 24 years old and I live in Buea, Cameroon. I am a trained and practicing journalist with state media in Cameroon. I also write for a local newspaper and I believe very strongly in Africa’s potential to excel in every field out there. I have a passion for social media. For leisure, I love to watch movies and read novels.”

How did you find out about the VC4Africa community?

“A friend, Bill Zimmerman, told me about it. Bill is already involved in the VC4Africa community and he seemed to think that I would find the concept interesting. He was right. He sent me the link by email, I clicked on it, began reading and I was so impressed. I think this is an ingenious, resourceful and original idea.”

Why do you believe in the VC4Africa concept?

“There are a lot of people in Africa, mostly young people with smart ideas but no one to finance their projects for them. I think sometimes it is because the older generation and the controllers of finance have an unjustified lack of faith in these new ventures, but also it is also because the creators do not have enough avenues to present their projects and ventures.

A platform that allows entrepreneurs and investors from all over the world to connect solves that problem immediately. Entrepreneurs who had previously exhausted all possible investors suddenly find themselves in this large space where a financier anywhere in the world can have access to their ventures with just one click, literally. How could I not believe in something like this?”

What is the best idea you have seen on the VC4Africa website and why?

“This is a hard one to answer. I have been going through the around 75 ventures on the VC4Africa website and I think all of them have very interesting ideas at the centre. That said, I find the Renewable Waste, AGRO-HUB and Frozen Ethnic Ready Made Meals ideas very attractive.

The Renewable Waste because recycling waste in some parts of Africa is a difficult thing to do and not so many people are doing yet even though it proven concept so I think it has a lot of potential. I find AGRO-HUB particularly interesting because it touches on agriculture that is something a great majority of Africans can relate to. It also provides a solution using mobile phones, which have a wide reach and a growing market in Africa these days. The Frozen Ethnic Ready Made Meals may be my favourite because I think I am ready to buy one frozen ethnic readymade meal. I work a lot, I’m not particularly in love with cooking and I don’t really like eating out. I’d buy a frozen ethnic meal in a beat, so will thousands of bachelors who work and live alone.”

What would you recommend to entrepreneurs who are putting their business idea online on the VC4Africa website?

“I’ll recommend that they put ideas that have been tested or at least taken off – ideas with a demo or prototype. In my opinion backers are more likely to invest in a project that is already underway rather than start from scratch with just an idea. Financiers will often look at the amount of risk involved before injecting money, and in my opinion, a business, which is already operational, reduces a certain amount of risk.

It is also quite important that entrepreneurs visit the community often to check on what’s happening with their ventures, read comments left for them and try to prod reactions from the community on their projects. A venture with traffic will always look very attractive because a lot of people will be asking, “what’s going on over there?” Who knows, maybe one of those coming to check will be a guy with big bucks.”

What are your plans as community manager for the near future?

“I plan to encourage, facilitate and develop relationships in the community. I’ll be going through ventures to try and connect people who may share similar interests so they can find themselves, help them start a conversation and move on from there. I guess I’ll be some kind of matchmaker.

The success of this community depends largely on entrepreneurs meeting and convincing possible financiers. For this to happen I need to push entrepreneurs to complete their ventures and then try to make them visible to rest of the community.

I hope my fingers will flip the switch that lights up the way for these two groups of people to connect and develop strong relationships.”

How can members contact you?

“Members can always send me a private message on VC4Africa. They can also email through ngoh.ada [at] gmail.com, or tweet me @Nellybone. Please, no hesitations!”