A free spirit, a rebel, entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong is a distinctive voice in Cameroon. The daughter of lawyer Henry Ndifor Abi Enonchong cultivates her independence in a country where the elites are usually at the helm. Last year, her detention for contempt of court triggered a wave of protest.
Since 1999, she has been the head of Appstech – a partner of the Oracle group – which provides IT solutions to companies worldwide. But she is best known as an evangelist on the African tech scene. She is a hyperactive founder of the pan-African incubator network Afrilabs, the Cameroonian incubator ActivSpaces and the African Business Angels Network. She also sits on the board of directors of various start-ups and companies, including Djibouti Telecom.
Nearly 150,000 people follow her on Twitter and watch her regular rants – against the war in the Anglophone zone or the fate of teachers, to take just two current examples.
During the UN vote to denounce the war in Ukraine, Cameroon, Morocco and Togo did not participate and several other African countries abstained. Do you understand this cautious attitude?
I understand it because Africa has always been caught between the Western powers and Russia, and before that the Soviet Union. It is a bit uncomfortable insofar as it has links, relations with both sides.
Since 2017, there has been a conflict in the Anglophone region of Cameroon and nobody talks about it”
Africa cannot afford to lose partners?
Cameroon, for example, exports liquefied natural gas to Russia, so it is an important partner. The stakes are not the same for Africans as for Europeans. It is not up to Africa to lead this fight for Europe. Ukraine is a sovereign country and I am absolutely against the Russian invasion. But you can’t expect my Twitter feed to turn into a permanent support for Ukraine. We have our own battles, which are currently more important than this one.
Can the economic consequences on commodity prices be mitigated?
It’s going to be complicated. We have become accustomed to wheat and there is a shortage. We are in a very complicated situation. Our countries are not prepared for the economic consequences of this war, starting with the increase in the price of oil products. This will have repercussions on telecom operators, for example. We will see a deterioration in the quality of internet services, of communications, simply because their networks are also powered by generators that run on diesel.
Like many Africans, you feel that there is a double standard in the coverage of conflicts by the Western media and that in Africa, people can still kill each other without it moving many people…
Yes, since 2017, there has been a conflict in the Anglophone region of Cameroon and nobody talks about it. Yet, there are deaths every day. Of course, it is a civil war, not an invasion. But we have the impression – we can even see it in Ukraine with the fate of African students [some of whom are blocked at the border with Poland] – that the lives of Africans are not worth the same as those of Europeans.
Your country is split in two, who is responsible for this internal conflict?
The government is absolutely responsible for this situation. And it’s not a conflict between French and English speakers, but between people who live in an area that is called English-speaking because we don’t know what else to call it. It is an area that was administered with Nigeria for 50 years and which decided to join the Republic of Cameroon just after it got its independence. It is not a language dispute. Its origin dates back to 1972, when the country changed from federalism to a united republic. The population of the English-speaking region lost its autonomy and its political culture, which was more democratic. They no longer recognise themselves in the current system.
Do you see a positive development in the situation?
No. At the beginning of the conflict, in late 2016, early 2017, the authorities arrested the most peaceful people and accused them of terrorism. This left the way open for extremists, secessionists, whose agenda is completely different from what the population was demanding at the beginning. If the head of state does not decide to solve the problem, it will never be solved.
Can the private sector play a role in resolving the conflict?
I would like to, but you can’t solve a conflict that has become an armed conflict. My father was the chief of his village, I can’t go there because of the war. I have lost relatives. I wish something could be done, but it’s up to the authorities to show a little humility, to recognise that mistakes have been made. The population only wants peace, but they don’t want this peace without real changes on the ground.
You are critical of the government. A few months ago, you were taken into custody for contempt of court. Is there freedom of speech in Cameroon?
Let’s just say that I find myself censoring myself quite often. Speech is free, but that doesn’t mean that there are no consequences. My situation is a bit unique because most economic operators don’t express themselves as freely.
Are there any consequences for your business?
Of course. I am persona non grata in certain circles. There are people who would find it dangerous and unwise to work with me. But it doesn’t matter, I prefer my freedom of speech. It is more important.
Was your detention a warning?
I think it was a reminder that there are bosses and that I have no power.
You are also mobilising for the teachers, who are protesting against the blocking of their promotion…
The situation has been difficult for teachers for a very long time. Today they have found a voice to make themselves heard. The Head of State has just prescribed urgent measures to try to resolve this problem, it’s a huge step forward and I think it’s a lesson learned from the Anglophone conflict. Now it remains to be seen whether these measures will be applied on the ground.
When we talk about microcredit, we only talk about women, not men. It’s really frustrating.”
8 March was International Women’s Rights Day. What do you think as an entrepreneur and influencer?
I don’t really like this day. In Cameroon, the bosses go and buy their employees textiles, give them the day off and make themselves feel good. We send crumbs to women and we have to suffer and put up with it for the rest of the year.
The tech sector is no exception to this trend. Women are scarce. Do you see this in Cameroon?
They are rare, but not as rare as people think, even if many are discouraged. The problem is that every time we talk about women in technology or more generally about women entrepreneurs, we want to support them instead of financing them. The image that is given is that they always need something that they don’t have. We just need to be financed at the same level as men. When we talk about microcredit, we only talk about women, not men. It’s really frustrating.
The tax on mobile money in Cameroon is controversial. Is it really harmful?
Mobile money gives access to financial services to people who have no choice. There is no bank where they live or they cannot open an account because it is too expensive. We are creating a tax that affects the poorest and most disadvantaged.
It is completely unfair: we are not taxing a purchase or a transaction, but just the fact of taking money and giving it to a second person. So that money is taxed, and taxed again. Imagine you have money in your wallet, and every time you take out a note, you pay. It is completely crazy.
Do you feel, as a business owner, that your taxes are being misspent?
Absolutely. There are lines in Cameroon’s budget that don’t belong. For example, every year, billions and billions of CFA francs are spent to buy new cars for the authorities, which is not essential.
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