As early as 2009 the seeds had been planted for a Buea-based technology hub. Buea at that time was already fertile ground, with a thriving university community, increasingly affordable internet connectivity and gifted with “natural” air-conditioning by virtue of its location on the cool green slopes of Mount Cameroon, better known as Fako.
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.
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.
The preconditions for a proto-hub existed, but how best to push the idea forward?
When looking to the future, one must first take council from the pioneers who came before us. In this case, we were fortunate to have a meeting with Rebecca Enonchong at her AppsTech headquarters in Douala. A decade prior, in 2000, Enonchong had co-founded and chaired the Africa Technology Forum, a Maryland-based non-profit initiative to encourage and educate Africans, women in particular, on the use of technology. Her vision included a physical gathering space for the community, called the “African Center for Technology, Innovation and Ventures” or ACTIV for short. These initiatives, along with her leadership in business, won her the accolade of Global Leader for Tomorrow (GLT) at The World Economic Forum of Davos, Switzerland, in 2002. Rebecca and her team later folded the Africa Technology forum, in 2005, because the costs could no longer be sustained.
Nevertheless, Rebecca shared our passion to create a gathering place for Cameroon’s technology community. With her blessing, we pledged to breathe new life into her vision and launch a grassroots initiative called “South West Technical Innovation Centre” (SO.WE.TIC), later renamed ActivSpaces short for “African Center for Technology, Innovation and Ventures Spaces”
Returning to Buea in April of 2010, Fua Tse, Valery Colong and Bill Zimmerman pooled their resources and secured a lease on a modest office space in Fakoship Plaza. Internet, furniture and a whiteboard soon followed.. Local techies were invited to use the space, free of charge, with one condition: that they be actively working on a technology-based startup. Being new to the scene, the initial response was understandably guarded—this was, after all, a radical approach for collaboration among startup founders in Cameroon. In time, however, our reputation grew as a community of like-minded individuals where ideas were fostered and encouraged rather than co-opted.
As the Buea chapter of ActivSpaces gathered steam, AppsTech Douala graciously devoted their office space and staff to a growing number of tech events. May of 2011 marked a pivotal moment when the first Google Android Developer Challenge event in Cameroon was hosted at AppsTech. More than 50 developers from around the region participated, vastly exceeding expectations. This watershed event underscored the need for yet another physical gathering space to serve the local technology community in Douala. Thereafter, Rebecca allocated a permanent space within AppsTech’s offices dedicated to technology entrepreneurs. ActivSpaces Douala was officially launched shortly thereafter around June 2012.
Since this time, ActivSpaces, with the support of our funding partners, has continuously operated two hubs, in Buea and Douala, that provide resources to technology startups and organize numerous capacity building programs/activities to foster the growth of the Cameroon startup community.
Currently our 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. The rest were created in response to the growing needs of the startup communities we serve.