Rebecca Enonchong, Founder, AppsTech – Cameroon
Rebecca Enonchong is a technology entrepreneur and advocate who is one of the most recognisable names on the African technology scene. She is the founder and CEO of AppsTech, a global technology provider of enterprise application solutions. She has received widespread recognition for her work championing and promoting technology entrepreneurship in Africa including being named a Global Leader for Tomorrow (GLT) by the World Economic Forum and one of the top female tech founders to watch in Africa by Forbes.
Excerpts below are from her interview with Eunice Baguma Ball, author of the book, Founding Women.
When did you fall in love with technology?
I was working at a hotel in finance and accounting. I happened to have one of the powerful computers because I had to do a lot of financial analysis and modelling. That was when I discovered my love for computers. AS soon as I touched a computer, not to simply play with or write a paper, but to actually deliver something, I thought, “This is so powerful”. I literally fell in love – first with computers, and then with technology in general. I remember I took a part-time job at a computer store and I didn’t make any money because I would spend it all buying stuff from the store. I would take my computer apart and put it back together. I was one of those people who would be in line when a new version of software came out. That’s really how it started. And I’ve never stopped loving technology. I adore it.
Did being African and female ever present any particular barriers or challenges?
All the time. When I started my company, I knew the types of customers I needed were very large companies and I quickly realised that many of them were not going to give such a bog contract to this Black, African woman. So in the beginning I hid behind a corporate structure. For instance, my business cards didn’t have a title. I simply worked for AppsTech. I would walk into a meeting and be a salesperson, engineer or whatever I needed to be at that moment in front of that particular customer. I didn’t lie. I didn’t have to because no one ever thought that it could be my company anyway. Even years later when I started using the title of CEO, most people believed I was just a front for somebody or some other entity. I remember one particular incident where we had a customer service issue with a very important client and I had to get involved. I made a call to the client and my Vice President of Technology Services, who is a white male, was with me. As soon as I started the call the client asked to speak directly with the Vice President. So I let my Vice President lead the call and towards the end he told the client he would need to run what they had discussed by me for approval. It took a bit of back and forth before it sunk in that I was the boss. The client later called me and apologised profusely. I think that’s the only time I’ve ever gotten an apology in these situations. But at the end of the day what matters is your ability to deliver. One of the reasons I love technology is that it is a great equaliser. As long as your solution works and you are able to consistently deliver value to your customers, you will succeed. But it can be tough in the beginning when you are trying to get your foot in the door. So unfortunately, sometimes you may have to fake it till you make it.
A recipient of Enterprise Africa’s 2001 African Entrepreneurship Award, Rebecca Enonchong was also named a Global Leader for Tomorrow (GLT) in 2002 by the World Economic Forum of Davos, (Switzerland) as part of the annual award that recognizes outstanding leaders around the world. She served on the UN ICT Task Force and the UNIFEM (part of UN Women) Global Advisory Committee on the Digital Divide. Moreover, she founded and chaired the Africa Technology Forum, a non-profit organization promoting technology development in Africa.
In 2003, the US State of Pennsylvania honored Rebecca Enonchong and the rest of the AppsTech management team with the prestigious Benjamin Franklin award for SMEs. She is co-founder and board member of ActivSpaces (African Center for Technology Innovation and Ventures). She also sits on the board of Venture Capital for Africa (VC4Africa), the largest online community dedicated to entrepreneurs and investors building companies in Africa.Since 2002, she is a member of the board of directors for the Salesforce.com Foundation, one of the most award winning social enterprise of the USA and serves since 2013 on the UK Department for International Development’s Digital Advisory Panel. In order to support young entrepreneurs, she is currently a mentor and an advisor to several Africa based technology start-ups.
Evelyn Namara Founder, Vouch Digital | Uganda
Evelyn is the Founder and CEO of Vouch Digital Limited, a technology startup that is championing the development of digital solutions in the distribution sector. Their award-winning flagship product, M-Voucher, has been used by different development agencies to distribute seed crops, post-harvest and farming equipment. Evelyn has been widely recognized for her role as a champion for women in tech, including being named the Anita Borg ABIE Change Agent Award winner in 2012. In this interview she shares her journey of building a successful career in tech before going on to launch her business.
When did you develop an interest in science and technology?
I became interested in computer science around the age of eighteen when I was exposed to computers for the first time. But even long before that my father had always encouraged to me to study sciences. His dream was for me to become a doctor, but I hated chemistry and anything to do with blood so that just wasn’t going to happen! The two subjects I loved were physics and mathematics, so I focused on those. After secondary school, while waiting to decide what I would study at university, I worked at a university library which had a computer lab. This was where I got the opportunity to sit in front of a computer for the very first time.
I was fascinated from day one and I remember asking the lady in charge so many questions to try and understand how computers worked. Every single evening after that, I found an excuse to go to the lab, sometimes not leaving until very late. I researched what career opportunities existed within this new world of computers that I had discovered and went on to opt for computer science at university.
What led you to leave employment and pursue entrepreneurship?
During my career I realized I loved the process of setting up new systems. For a while I worked for a large corporation in the telecommunications sector. I joined them at a time when they were doing a lot of setup work which I really enjoyed. Later, when it became much more about maintenance, I grew bored. Having previously been with a small IT support company, I also found that I missed being on the front line, working directly with clients and making things happen. So, I moved on to join a startup called Solar Sister which distributes solar solutions and empowers rural women to better their livelihoods. This was a perfect fit because I loved the idea of using technology to make a difference in the lives of everyday people. I was also their first hire in Uganda and was entrusted with setting up their operations here. This experience made me fall in love with entrepreneurship and gave me the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of setting up a small organization from scratch. After that I knew I wanted to start my own organization.
How did the idea for your business come about?
I didn’t actually have a very clear idea of what I wanted to do exactly What I knew for sure was that I wanted to do something that involved using technology for development and I kept my mind open to opportunities as I worked with different organizations. One day I had a conversation with someone who told me about an organization they were involved with which was facing a particular challenge.They needed to make micro payments in order to provide agricultural inputs to smallholder farmers, and their current system of using paper vouchers was a nightmare. I immediately saw this as a problem that could be solved using technology and was excited by the prospect of developing the solution. I reached out to the organization and started working with them to develop the concept for a solution – a mobile-based voucher system. Things progressed very quickly and when I proposed building a prototype, they gave me only three weeks to deliver! At that point I knew there was no turning back and my business was born.
Are there any mistakes you made or something you wish you could have done differently?
I made some bad hiring decisions at the start which proved very costly. You need to be very careful to vet people before bringing them into your team. It can be difficult to identify the right people because they may have the technical skills but not the right work ethic. You have to invest time and energy into the process of finding the right people because it will save you a lot of trouble in the future. Now when recruiting, I try to create an environment where I can observe how the potential hire does things. For example,
instead of a typical interview, I will take them out for lunch and observe small things, like if they keep time or how they speak to the waiter. Eventually, I learnt what to look out for in someone who is a good fit for my organization. I’m now very happy with the team I have built. I’m proud to say it’s mostly women and they do an amazing job.
What would be your main piece of advice for young women just starting out on their entrepreneurship journey?
I would say preparation is key. Before you take that next step, be sure that this is something that you definitely want to do and if you are not sure, then invest time in finding out. Entrepreneurship is a challenge every single day, so prepare as much as you can to make it easier for yourself. Understanding the industry you want to get into is key. Develop relationships with people who are within that sector. Use LinkedIn; many people don’t realize what a great resource LinkedIn is. You can find people on there who understand how the industry works and you never know when those connections will come in handy. There are times I’ve been stuck and I’ve seen how those relationships you build over time can prove to be key when you encounter obstacles.