Olivia Mukam on Founding Cameroon’s First Social Entrepreneurship Program

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As President and Founder of Harambe-Cameroon, Olivia Mukam established Cameroon’s first Social Entrepreneurship Program: an opportunity zone for Cameroonian university students to translate their ideas into actions, as they propose business enterprises to solve local problems.

The initiative Harambe-Cameroon is led by an alliance of young Cameroonians in the Diaspora, from the US, UK, France and Asia. Founded in 2009, Harambe Cameroon is an independent branch of the global alliance Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance, recognized and supported by the White House, the UK's Westminster, the Ghanaian Parliament, plus African and global leaders such as Mo Ibrahim and Aliko Dan Gote.

Harambe-Cameroon’s Social Entrepreneurship Program aims at promoting entrepreneurship amongst the youth of Cameroon, specifically through the organization of biennial business plan competitions, and bi-annual training seminars on "How to start up a business in Cameroon?" The objective is to provide participants with tools to translate their ideas into concrete projects, with an impact on their community. Hence, the mission of Harambe-Cameroon is to inspire a generation of young leaders and entrepreneurs who see in each problem an opportunity in need of solution.

In 2010, and as part of the first edition of the social entrepreneurship program, Harambe-Cameroon hosted the first Elevator Pitch Contest in Cameroon. The top four students who proposed the best solutions to problems they had identified in their communities were rewarded by the United States Embassy in Cameroon.

Due to the buoyant success of this competition, Harambe-Cameroon organized a national competition in 2011 that mobilized youths from 5 regions of the country to propose solutions to health issues, urbanization problems, waste-management, agriculture, and youth employment, amongst other things.

Prior to Harambe, Olivia initiated a couple of projects to solve critical problems in some communities in Cameroon. In 2007, the alarming health conditions of children in the village of Bamendjou-West Cameroon suffering from water-borne diseases prompted her to start a water addition and sanitation project in collaboration with the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) of the University of Delaware. After 5 years of implementation, the project has provided access to clean water to about 5,000 people in the village, reducing the risk of diseases in the village.

Following Harambe, Olivia co-founded a for-profit enterprise, Solutionneurs, in mid-2012 to contribute to the economy and development of Cameroon. Solutionnneurs is an outsourcing and consulting platform that recruits competent Cameroonian youths to deliver on projects and tasks outsourced from all over the world (e.g. accountancy, data entry, statistical analysis). Solutionneurs equally provide business development services (business plan creation, market analysis, and financial provisions) to people seeking to invest and/or start up a business in Cameroon. Within 6 months of existence, Solutionnneurs has recruited 23 part-time staff and has already executed 5 successful projects.

Moreover, as a business coach to young entrepreneurs in Cameroon, Olivia has extended her project-creation and project-management expertise to prisoners of the Yaounde Central Prison. With a local NGO, in 2010 and 2011 they organized an Entrepreneurship Competition at the prison, in order to engage prisoners (whose sentences would expire within a year) to propose micro-projects that would self-employ them once they finish their sentences in prison, and diminish the risk of falling back into criminal activities. 

Born in Yaoundé, Cameroon in 1987, Olivia obtained her High School Diploma from the American School of Yaoundé in 2005; and graduated from The Johns Hopkins University in January 2009 with a degree in International Relations and a concentration on African Development.

We spoke to Olivia about the start up scene in Cameroon; about the amazing social enterprises being supported by Harambe-Cameroon; her ambitions and role models; and the experience of participating in the White House Forum for Young African Leaders.

TNW: Harambe-Cameroon gives Cameroonian university students the opportunity to translate their ideas into actions, as they propose business enterprises to solve local problems. What are the most exciting projects that have been pitched to Harambe-Cameroon?

OM: 

For the past three years, we had the opportunity to engage many youths to transform local problems into business opportunities.  Out of all the exciting project pitched to us, we have had three remarkable ones.

The first is the winning project of our elevator pitch contest in Central Africa. The name of the project is “Fun Rubbish.” He proposed recycling waste using our national flag’s colours: Green, Red and Yellow. The idea was to transform all trash cans at the University of Yaounde and to recycle organic waste in the green cans, plastic waste in the red, and glasses in the yellow. His plan was to resell the organic waste to farmers, plastic waste to plastic-makers, and glass waste to brewery companies.

The second project is one proposed by the medical students of the Universite des Montagnes, to build a Foetograph adapted to the rural zone of Bagangte. The Foetograph  would measure the heartbeat of the foetus independently from the pregnant mother’s pulse. In many ways this medical tool would help monitor the foetus in the womb, as a result contribute to the decrease of prenatal mortality.

The third interesting pitch we received is one by a student in Douala, who proposed a ‘Farmertronic’ project.

As a student in robotics, he and his team planned on creating robots that would independently plant seeds, monitor farms, and harvest agricultural produce, using a mechanism and technology they have built.

Upon referral to the Anzisha prize, the FarmerTronic project was semi-finalist in the PanAfrican competition for entrepreneurs 21 years of age and under.

TNW: As innovators, do you believe that entrepreneurs have a heightened responsibility to the planet and its people? What environmental and social issues would you most like to see tackled by entrepreneurs, in Cameroon, Africa and globally?

OM: As an African, living in a context in which the socio-economic challenges of people are so palpable, and visible at every street corner, I believe entrepreneurs here have a duty to solve the problems undermining our societies.

Based on my experience on the ground, I have noticed that social issues can be the basis of most businesses.

For example, the lack of public toilets in our cities causes many people to ease themselves in nature, and this increases the prevalence of mosquitoes, and as a consequence increases the prevalence of malaria. An entrepreneur who proposes a business solution to such a problem will not only have a customer base, but also would resolve a social problem. I think most entrepreneurs in Africa are social entrepreneurs without being conscious of it, because the businesses we create often resolve a social problem.

Now, we need more entrepreneurs to address social issues in a more concerted, conscious, and strategic way.

TNW:  Your for-profit enterprise, Solutionneurs, has been running for six months now. What have been the biggest challenges and highlights so far?

OM: We launched Solutionneurs as a company in June 2012, based on a need we identified in the market: on one hand we have many competent but jobless youths who have practical skills, for example in web design, statistics, business plan creation, and translation. On the other we have individuals, entrepreneurs, and companies worldwide who seek competitive services and workers in the domains aforementioned. Solutionneurs connects the abundant supply of affordable labour and projects, to the demand for such services.

So when we received a project offer, to deliver 50,000 virtual wallets to a Nigerian bank in one week, we had to recruit, perform and deliver on time. We recruited 20 people from our database of competences, coached them on the job requirements, and on the first day of work we were ready to invest our time to meet our daily targets of 10,000 wallets per day. However, the cybercafé we had rented had problems with the internet; and when we tried working in two other internet cafes the next day, we realized the bank’s website did not permit us to create the wallets in the daytime. With 2 days practically wasted, we had to make sure in the next 3 days we attained our target to create 50,000 virtual wallets. We motivated the team to perform beyond the hours they had subscribed to (8a.m to 5p.m) and to do the work at night time (6p.m to 3a.m). The team stayed committed and determined to produce the 50,000 wallets in three days. Fortunately, we were able to create up to 53,000 within the 3 days we had left. I was very proud of the team.

TNW: Tell us a little about the start up scene in Cameroon. What kinds of new businesses are emerging?

OM: Based on the definition of start up by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf, co-authors of "The Startup Owner's Manual": “… a temporary organization that has been created to find a solution to a problem, and on that basis to search for and develop a repeatable, scalable, and profitable business model. In this context a new restaurant business does not qualify as a start up. The business model for restaurants already exists and there is no “search” necessary. Typically, … start ups …use a new technology or business model as an enabling factor in their bid to create and deliver value to their prospective customers.”

In this light, the start up scene in Cameroon slowly emerging. There are some buzz areas, like the town of Buea – home to a dozen internet-based start ups – nicknamed “Silicon Mountain.”

In this town, we find some renowned Cameroonian start ups such as Njorku – job search engine online, Wasamundi – geolocalization of consumer products, and AgroHub – using ICT to connect and empower farmers. In Africa, in general, the start up factories are predominantly in Nairobi, Jo’burg and Lagos.

TNW:  What are the challenges faced by women looking to start their own businesses in Cameroon? Are Cameroonian families and communities generally supportive of female entrepreneurs?

OM: In Cameroon, as in many African countries, the proportion of women to men entrepreneurs is very low; Cameroon, much more so because there is a predominant culture of civil servants. 

Cameroonians often choose the security of government jobs and/or employment in an enterprise, to the uncertain path of entrepreneurship and starting one’s own business.

This sentiment is further deepened because of the difficulty in doing business in Cameroon. In this context, less than 1% of Cameroon’s population start or own businesses.

For women entrepreneurs, who are often encouraged by their families and friends to find a more comfortable professional alternative, the entrepreneurial path can be more demanding. In addition to facing all the problems their male counterparts would endure (among other things: corruption, bribery, subjective taxation, scamming, slow payments, and embezzlement) women have to deal with verbal, psychological and physical harassment.

I remember my first year back in Cameroon; more than 75% of the men I met to discuss business partnerships would make personal-emotional advances to me.

One of them had actually proposed to me (twice), to be his second wife. That is just an example of how challenging it is to navigate the male-dominated world of business and entrepreneurship. I know of many fellow female entrepreneurs who have to deal with similar challenges.

TNW:  Which African start ups do you really admire and why?

OM: The African start up that impresses me the most is IrokoTv. After only two years of operations, they moved past the start up phase to a full-fledged company, with branches in London, New York, Lagos and recently in South Africa. The founder of Iroko did what all entrepreneurs must do: he tapped into a market demand for a product. In his case, he addressed the need for African movies online. His digital distribution company now has about 5 million people subscribed to his Netflix-like online platform.

I’m impressed by IrokoTV founder’s results within two years of operations. He provided quality content, scaled up his business in 4 world cities, and created jobs for many Africans.

TNW:  Tell us a little about the experience of participating in the White House Forum for Young African Leaders.

OM: When in mid-September 2010 the White House contacted the Harambe Entrepreneur Alliance (HEA) to take part in the Forum for Young African Leaders, the chairman of HEA emailed me to ask if I could represent the Alliance at this gathering of African leaders in Washington D.C. For me, it was a great opportunity to meet the 120 delegates the White House invited from 40 countries in Africa, and in parallel to network with them and build ties that would help us lead our actions on the ground. During the event, I met many young movers-and-shakers from various countries: a Somali woman teaching rural children ICT skills; the president of the National Youth Council of Djibouti; a journalist from Mali; and fellow Cameroonians working on youth empowerment initiatives.

It was a great place to meet Africans committed to developing their countries. It is crucial, for the socio-economic development of the continent, to build networks among countries.

TNW:  What is your greatest ambition?

OM:

One of my greatest ambitions is to substantially contribute to job creation in Africa – by creating business enterprises and by engaging many to leap into entrepreneurship. 

As such, I would like to scale up the freelancing/outsourcing platform I’m currently building to cover most francophone Africa countries, and eventually Sub-Sahara Africa.

In addition, I would like to establish part-time (1 to 3 months) Solutionneurs Academies, to train people (from 7 to 70 years old) on the art of problem-solving and transforming social problems into business ventures. My dream is for Solutionneurs Academies, through franchises, to be present in at least 50% of African countries. I think those 2 projects would consume most of my time for the next 10 to 15 years.

TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?

OM: I have so many role models, all of them are great men of history, who through their life-choices have helped me shape my values and principles. The ones I always look back to are: Thomas Sankara, Nkwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Barack Obama, and Jesus Christ of Nazareth. I became a fan of each one of these heroes by reading their speeches and (auto) biographies.

I also have spiritual and intellectual mentors (if I may call them so). Pastor Joel Osteen and Marianne Williamson are constant sources of spiritual upliftment. Their messages of hope and faith, remind me to stay positive in the face of adversity, and to be conscious of my blessings and spiritual power. Dr Cornel West, Maya Angelou, and Tariq Ramadan constantly challenge my mind to question my assumptions and prejudices; the life and social issues they address greatly enlighten me as I keep working on myself.

In general, my personal, entrepreneurial, and spiritual developments have been shaped by so many people – my parents, friends, strangers, collaborators, partners, tweets, bloggers.

As an avid learner, I gain a lot from my interactions with people:  knowledge, tips, advice, insights, that help me discover and construct my character and perspectives.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our readers?

OM: I think all the questions helped me express the important areas of my life.

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