In this week’s edition with AfriLabs, featuring innovation hubs across the African continent, we visited African Center for Technology, Innovation and Ventures Spaces (ActivSpaces) in Cameroon, where we caught up with the Hub’s Executive Director, Steve Tchoumba.
Founded in 2010, ActivSpaces is the first Tech hub in Cameroon and a founding member of AfriLabs hubs community.
ActivSpaces was created to see more local tech innovations succeed. The hub has a mission to train, encourage, and support young Cameroonian innovators into becoming world-class entrepreneurs or technology adopters capable of building successful technology.
ActivSpaces is a Nonprofit Association in Cameroon operating as an Innovation Hub and Tech Business Incubator with two tech spaces in Buea and Douala.
With the support of its funding partners, ActivSpaces has continuously operated its two tech spaces two that provide resources to technology startups and organize numerous capacity-building programs/activities to foster the growth of the Cameroon startup community.
“A gap existed between formal education, vocational training and practical real-world technology entrepreneurship skills. The few technology-centered events that did occur were often far afield in Douala or Yaounde. Opportunities for women tech entrepreneurs were lacking. Elements of a local startup community were in place, although largely fragmented.”
Traditionally, Cameroon has often been regarded as a technology consumer, not a producer.
The few innovators challenging this status quo lack the required entrepreneurial skills and support because they work in silos that position them in an unfavorable position for technology entrepreneurship.
Due to this, a significant number of these innovators fail to bring their potential groundbreaking innovations to light.
“For the founding members of ActivSpaces it was the desire to give back to the community. The will to create a community of like-minded techies and entrepreneurs and the conviction that technology can be a lever for development, poverty reduction, job creation in Africa.
ActivSpaces wants to help build the tech community in Cameroon by providing services to entrepreneurs that will help them transform their ideas into sustainable businesses.”
Ambitious young technology entrepreneurs were in abundance, making use of cybercafés and hacking together code, but frequently in isolation. Startup ideas were often treated as closely guarded secrets.
ActivSpaces was founded to help increase the odds of success for these young innovators by creating favorable environments that will serve as catalysts permitting their technology innovations to thrive.
“We bring together tech communities and create spaces where techies and tech entrepreneurs come to learn, work and bring ideas alive.
We provide direct support to techies and help them develop skills they need to become world-class tech entrepreneurs.”
ActivSpaces’ mission and vision
Tchoumba explained that ActivSpace provides co-working space to entrepreneurs while stating that over the past couple of years, the hub has also supported entrepreneurs throughout its incubation and accelerator program.
“Our incubation program focuses more on early-stage startup whilst our acceleration program focuses on startups that are at the growth stage and looking to expand into the market.
We have realized that one thing that entrepreneurs need the most is access to the market, so recently we have been working to connect entrepreneurs to other partners and investment opportunities.
We want to continue to build these strategic partners in order to help our entrepreneurs reach the next milestones.”
Owing to this, ActiveSpaces is currently working with Ecole 41 based in Gabon with the project StarX to help startups in Cameroon scale to the region.
“We are also working with other partners including OIF (Organisation international de la Francophonie), CAN ( Cameroon Angels Network) and ABAN ( African Business Angels Network)”
How hubs foster innovation/entrepreneurship
According to Tchoumba, hubs have played a crucial role in innovation and entrepreneurs.
“They are most of the time the first interaction for the youth as the alternative to the public function career they are used to. For us, it has also been about helping to build a different mindset for the youth in our communities.”
The state of innovation/entrepreneurship in Cameroon
Cameroon has come a long way in terms of innovation with a massive leap from two innovation hubs back in 2010 to around 40 hubs in 2020.
“We have come a long way in Cameroon in terms of innovation. We have seen startups like Health Lane and Star News Mobile secure substantial investment to grow and scale to other parts of the continent.
The map of the ecosystem produced by Britter Bridges in 2019 shows the diversity of innovation and the multitude of actors. However, We still have a long way to go. We could do better.
The private sector is pushing and constantly innovating but we have a public sector that is slow to catch on.
Yes, that is within the DNA of any public sector institutions around the world but more is expected.”
Cameroon’s reception towards STEM and how can it be encouraged right from basic school
The Executive Director stated that there have been a few private STEM initiatives in Cameroon’s ActivSpaces.
According to him, Orange Digital Centre and other actors have reticently created maker spaces that have programs in STEM with a focus on the youth.
However, as a national strategy, not much is being done. Again STEM is something the government has to take on and introduce in schools.
“ActivSpaces we will be more than happy to open conversations with the public sector and other actors to see how this can be achieved.”
Tchoumba noted that hubs in Africa have all the same challenges including underfunding, unavailable workforce and legal constrain.
“In some African countries, like it is the case for Cameroon, there is not yet a legal framework that hubs operate under. We sometimes adopt the non-for-profit status in order to function and in most cases not adequate status for a hub in the African context”
According to the Executive Director, ActivSpaces’ support to entrepreneurs is extended to advocacy, investment funds and family canceling (for parents still convinced that public service is the right career choice for their kids), stating that all this is done with little or sometimes no support from the government.
Women’s inclusion in technology
The Executive Director mentioned that women’s participation in technology is low while stating the issue of discrimination attached to the profession when it comes to women.
“At ActivSpaces we make it a priority to include or have them. Rebecca Enonchong, our chair has always championed that. I think we need to develop more women focus programs but we need to start from an early age. Maybe STEM program with a specific focus on attracting women.”
AfriLabs’ role in ActivSpace journey
As mentioned earlier in this article, ActivSpaces is a founding member of AfriLabs.
The Executive Director expressed his delight at how the network has grown to over 40 countries with more than 200 members, while also stating that ActivSpaces was able to connect, learn and share with all the AfriLabs members.
“It is important for us to look at what best practices from other ecosystems and implement what can work in our country. We were able to do that through AfriLabs.
We have also benefited from some funding from AfriLabs, this funding allowed us to extend our hub to a third location.”
“In 2020 we helped 3 startups in our incubation program secure funding for product development and commercialization. In all, we worked with 15 startups.
We are currently working on designing our incubation and acceleration program for 2021 and, for our acceleration program we want to be able to attract 4 to 6 startups that we can help scale.”
Tchoumba noted that one of the hub’s desires is to open a fourth centre by the end of 2021.
Currently, ActivSpaces activities are organized under 9 main programs with the ActivSpaces Community Program and the Startup Incubator Program haven being maintained since inception as the lead and flagship programs respectively.
Featured Image: Steve Tchoumba, Executive Director, ActiveSpaces
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