In honor of International Women’s Day, the World Bank Finance Competitiveness and Innovation team is highlighting the innovations of four women entrepreneurs in West Africa. Meet Rebecca Enonchong, CEO of several startups and incubators.
Named in 2017 as one of the 100 Most Influential Africans in SCIENCE, TECH & INNOVATION by the New African Magazine and Jeune Afrique’s 50 Most Influential Africans, Rebecca Enonchong has dedicated her career to promoting tech in Africa.
Enonchong, is the Chair of ActivSpaces (African Center for Technology Innovation and Ventures) in Cameroon. She is also founder and CEO of AppsTech and I/O Spaces an incubator for African diaspora in the U.S. If that wasn’t enough, she is also the Board Chair of AfriLabs and a founding member of the African Business Angel Network (ABAN).
Enonchong proudly describes herself as a tech fanatic and has been since the day she first touched a computer. “It’s an amazing tool and opened the whole world to me, pre-Internet.” Born and raised in Cameroon, Enonchong studied economics. She moved to the U.S. to finish her degree and start her career in digital technology and eventually founded her own company, AppsTech.
She also has a long history with incubation. The concept of Enonchong’s ActivSpaces, the Cameroonian-based incubator, was founded in 2001 at the Africa Technology Forum hosted by the World Bank and it finally launched in 2010.
Explaining how she and her ActivSpaces co-founders were long convinced of the transformative potential of tech, Enonchong emphasizes, “It’s one of the easiest and simplest ways to build our economy — through digital innovation. I really believe that it’s one of the areas that can have the most impact that requires the least investment.”
She warns, however, that tech entrepreneurship cannot flourish in a vacuum. “I get asked a lot about what governments and donors can do to help start-ups and I always respond: ‘they’re businesspeople.’ If you have a bad business environment, it’s going to hurt their prospects. We have a huge opportunity not just to catch up, but to link different sectors.”
The focus on East and Southern Africa, however, continues to overshadow progress made in francophone Africa. “There’s a lot happening people aren’t aware of – there are tech hubs in Chad! But no one is talking about it – it’s a problem of narrative,” assesses Enonchong. Pointing to the need to move beyond Lagos, Nairobi and Cape Town to support the countries lagging behind and also connect all of Africa, she concludes: “fulfilling the mission of AfriLabs is to support and build out the African tech and entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
AfriLabs is a network organization of over 80 innovation centers across 27 African countries, supporting hubs as they raise successful entrepreneurs. Networking provides all stakeholders in an ecosystem (start-ups, incubators, investors, researchers, etc.) with a platform to share and transfer ideas. “Hubs have had such an impact on African tech and entrepreneurs,” lauds Enonchong. “This organization takes this one step further, in that hubs and labs can all work and communicate together and learn from each other.”
“We’re here to support those in the most difficult of situations and connect them to other hubs that can maybe provide them with free support. We want to reach out and bring more country members on board and be part of the family of innovation centers across the continent.”
She sees the mission of ActivSpaces in much a similar way, which is why the incubator has not yet established a branch in the capital, Yaoundé. “We don’t want to be just for the elite and those that will succeed. Rather than the best of the best coming to us, we wanted to reach out to the people that don’t even know they’re entrepreneurs.” ActivSpaces is currently based in Douala and Buea and looking to expand to a third location where agriculture plays a prominent role. “Our choice was rural areas where entrepreneurs don’t enjoy the support to turn their cool ideas into a business.”
Enonchong also knows that incubation and entrepreneurship cannot be seen as the holy grail of African development. “It’s definitely part of the solution,” she states, “but not the only one. You can’t just promote tech entrepreneurship for youth without providing things like the Internet and other key infrastructure.”
She explains how challenges are often compounded for start-ups in francophone Africa because the business environment isn’t as conducive. “There’s a lot of innovation but if you take, for example, Disrupt Africa’s list of Start-Ups to Watch 2018, not one francophone start-up made the list.”
Having served as an advisor and mentor for the World Bank’s XL Africa/L’Afrique Excelle acceleration programs Rebecca knows this is an area where development institutions can provide value and support. She emphasized that this is especially true for those countries falling behind, saying that “the World Bank should encourage and help countries to do better, otherwise it’s a missed opportunity. If they don’t act quickly to create a more enabling environment, they’ll have missed another revolution.”