Cameroon’s Rebecca Enonchong: 10 things about the free spirit of African tech

By Julien Clémençot
Posted on Thursday, 16 June 2022 10:58

Rebecca Enonchong in the RFI radio studios, during the programme "Éco d'ici éco d'ailleurs" produced in partnership with Jeune Afrique, in Paris, on 10 March 2022. ©Bruno Levy for JA

A leading figure in African digital entrepreneurship, Rebecca Enonchong is also a committed global citizen who never minces her words on issues like Cameroon's Anglophone crisis or the relationship between Africa and France.

Rebecca Enonchong, 54, owes her fame to her involvement in the development of African start-ups. She has over 158,000 followers on Twitter. Co-founder of the AfriLabs network, which today federates 347 hubs in 52 countries on the continent, as well as the Cameroonian incubator ActiveSpaces, she participates in numerous international events.

She will take part in VivaTech, the annual meeting of the global tech industry, organised mid-June in Paris, where she will debate alongside Makhtar Diop, International Finance Corporation’s managing director, and Anglo-Sudanese philanthropist Mo Ibrahim.

1. AppsTech

Less well known are the activities of her company AppsTech. Starting in 1999, AppsTech became one of the distributors of Oracle solutions and operates both in North America and Europe.

The company has benefited from the confidence of the France Télécom group (now Orange). At the height of its development, AppsTech had employed 200 people.

For three years, Rebecca Enonchong has been developing, from Douala, a management system based on artificial intelligence. Within a few weeks, the entrepreneur will market, initially to North American SMEs, an application capable of providing financial statements using simple voice commands.

2. A pioneering father

Rebecca Enonchong is the daughter of the late Henry Ndifor Abi Enonchong, a traditional leader in the village of Besong Abang in the south-west region, not far from the border with Nigeria. In the late 1960s, her father was the first Cameroonian lawyer to settle in Douala, after challenging a provision that required him to be registered with the Paris Bar. A few years later, Henry N. Enonchong was one of the co-founders of the Cameroon Bar Association.

3. Anglophone crisis

From her childhood, Enonchong was immersed in the demands for autonomy by the people of the south-west. Her father was one of the founders of the Cameroon Anglophone Movement, which meant he was placed under long-time police surveillance by the authorities.

Unlike her brothers and sisters, she attended French school. This double culture has allowed her to better understand the origin of the crisis. Since 2016, on social networks, the entrepreneur has continued to denounce the human damage resulting from the conflict between the separatists and Douala. “I know what was said at home and what we were taught in class, and it was not the same [education] of history, the same experience of colonisation and decolonisation,” she says.

4. Maryland

While studying in the United States, Enonchong’s father met her white mother, from Florida, in Maryland. When they married in June 1967, they were the first mixed-race couple to be allowed to do so in the state, after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Loving v. Virginia, which overturned laws banning interracial unions.

A week earlier, Henry Enonchong had received his doctorate in law from Georgetown University. In the early 1980s, Rebecca Enonchong also moved to Maryland with her mother. Although separated from her father, her mother remained close to the Cameroonian community and for a year hosted the lawyer FongumGorji Dinka, creator of the concept of Ambazonia.

5. Coworking

Based partly in the US, Enonchong opened a co-working space in a four-storey building in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring five years ago. The space caters to entrepreneurs and artists from the African and African-American community, among others. Since the 1980s, the District of Columbia and neighbouring Maryland have been among the main points of contact for Cameroonians across the Atlantic: It was at Howard University in Washington, DC, that Edith Kahbang Walla, a businesswoman and politician, obtained a degree in zoology and then an MBA; not to mention those who, like Vera Songwe, have worked at the World Bank or the IMF. 10,000 Cameroonians live in and around Washington, DC.

6. Nationality

Born in Yaoundé to a Cameroonian father, Enonchong does not, however, formally hold Cameroonian nationality, by virtue of a law that prevents citizens of that country from holding several nationalities. “As a child, I first had an American passport so I could visit my mother’s family in the United States. Since then, people have offered a thousand times to help me get Cameroonian papers, but I don’t want to apply until the law changes. Even though I find this situation ridiculous, in the end it protects me from the attacks of those who say that I am thinking of entering politics,” says the entrepreneur.

7. Politics

The government tried to lure her into the ranks of the head of state’s supporters by offering her the head of a government agency in the mid-2000s, but Enonchong declined. Since then, her outspokenness has distanced her from the presidential party. Her stance has not prevented her from long working closely, at AppsTech, with Eric Niat – the son of the president of the Senate – also committed to the CPDM (in power) and mayor since 2021 of the town of Bangangté, capital of the department of Ndé in the western region.

8. France

Paris has also paid the price for Enonchong’s outspokenness. The Cameroonian-American was involved in the Digital Africa adventure, but she slammed the door when she realised that Africans would have little say in this association devoted to African start-ups created according to the Élysée’s instructions. “I am not hostile to France, but I judge it on its actions. I consider it to be a partner like any other,” she says. She also welcomes the support of the French Development Agency (AFD) to Afrilabs in the creation of its academy, and acknowledges that she was touched by the mobilisation of French officials last year, when she was held in custody for three days in Douala for contempt of court.

9. In conflict with MTN

The case is not well known, but Enonchong has been in conflict with the telecoms giant MTN since 2004. Between November 2002 and November 2003, her company AppsTech worked on setting up the information system of the Cameroonian subsidiary of the pan-African group, but never managed to get paid in full.

In 2005, the boss won her case in court but has not yet managed to see the enforcement of the court decision ordering the operator to pay her another 1.2 billion CFA francs ($2.8million). Two years ago, discussions suggested that the two parties were ready to settle this old dispute, but MTN, which believes it is a victim of fraud, in the end decided to file a criminal complaint against Enonchong.

10. Djibouti Telecom

The adventure only lasted a little more than a year. In search of an African media personality to accompany its transformation, at the end of 2020, the Djibouti operator recruited Enonchong through Lionel Zinsou, former prime minister of Benin and founder of the Southbridge investment bank, to its board of directors.

Curious to follow a project to open up Djibouti Telecom’s capital from the inside, the entrepreneur accepted the proposal, but she was soon disillusioned. No one listened to what she had to say about the functioning of the company, whose governance did not necessarily follow the rules of the art. At the end of 2021, she decided to end the mission, for which the operator has yet to pay her.

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