Fighting rising unemployment: The technology start-up bailout

A Cameroon government initiative to encourage self-employment and entrepreneurship through supporting graduates in technology start-ups is reducing unemployment and providing opportunities to create jobs and fight poverty in the university towns of Buea, Bamenda, Douala, and Yaoundé in Cameroon.

Since 2012, Cameroon’s Ministry of Higher Education included entrepreneurship in all higher education curricula to fight persistent unemployment and underemployment among graduates.

The government says the initiative has significantly enhanced skills acquisition, increased the spirit of creativity and promoted self-reliance among graduates, especially in technology start-ups. This, according to the Minister of Higher Education, Jacques Fame Ndongo, is one of the prominent entrepreneurship areas the government encourages.

The government, with the help of the private sector, has created the ActivSpaces Blue Seed pre-incubation programme to encourage many more Cameroonian university graduates into technology entrepreneurship.

“Technology is the order of the day, so we have to move with the new world of innovation and creativity in higher education,” Ndongo said.

He added that technology entrepreneurship support programmes in universities are in line with President Paul Biya’s promise to the youth in 2012 to create 600 jobs in the informal sector each year.

More students getting involved

For Professor Joël Narcisse Meyolo of the technology centre at the University of Yaoundé I, the orientation of higher education globally is geared towards entrepreneurship, especially in technology, and graduates from Cameroon cannot be left behind. School authorities report that more students are embracing the programme, with success.

“Many graduates have come to discover technology is in their back yard, up for grabs. They are not only embracing it, but are also creating job opportunities for others,” Meyolo said. “Our training programmes today show a clear departure from the public service recruitment mentality. Graduates in our universities should be able to fly with their own wings by being creative and innovative.”

According to Professor Kingsley Ngange, deputy vice-chancellor in charge of research and cooperation with the business world at the University of Buea, entrepreneurial strategies are the best unemployment bailouts.

These strategies are influenced by government policies enacted by local, regional, national and supranational actors, the culture of individual universities and their sub-units, individual campus leadership, the quality of the university, the resources and dynamism of the local economy, and capabilities to transfer knowledge and technology.

“The success of entrepreneurship training depends on students’ zeal to learn, the motivation of staff in identifying new ways of doing business, and the belief that they can bring about innovative changes,” Ngange said.

Partnership with private sector

It is against this backdrop that the ministry of higher education introduced the position of vice-rector for research, cooperation, and relations with the business world in Cameroonian state universities, to help them link up with, not only the private sector, but also the international world for professional and financial assistance in entrepreneurship.

In addition to creating different entrepreneurship centres, multiple non-traditional and interface units composed of university actors and economic operators exist in Cameroonian universities to orientate programme development with economic operators, Ngange said.

The entrepreneurship programmes at the different universities are designed in partnership with the private sector. According to Célestin Tawamba, president of the Cameroonian Employers’ Association (GICAM), the different state universities have training agreement programmes with private companies.

“Many GICAM members offer relatively strong applied and internship-based training, involving student and teacher mobility between industry and the universities. The training is oriented to develop new applications and technology products for the markets,” Tawamba said. These occur in the form of workshops, minor courses, internships and field visits to enterprises, he explained.

Experts say Cameroon’s drive towards an emerging economy can only be obtained with a vibrant private sector and growth in the digital sector.

“Even with an emerging economy expected in 2035, according to the country's vision, the formal sector can only absorb a fraction of graduate job seekers. The onus is on the informal sector to continue to provide jobs through innovative technology and business,” Tawamba said.

Statistics from GICAM show that formal-sector employment of graduates stands at less than 10%.

Seed funding provided

According to Ndongo, this method of organising the universities’ applied training activities has yielded significant results with self-employment increasing, especially in university towns.

The government, through the ministry of small- and medium-sized enterprises, social economy and handicraft, also provides financial support of between CFA2-2.5 million (between US$3 million and US$4 million) as seed funding for selected graduates with the best business or project plans, Ndongo said.

Cameroon university graduates who have successfully embraced tech start-ups as unemployment bailouts said that, thanks to the initiation into entrepreneurship while in school and the seed funding by the government, they were able to set up their own enterprises.

Danielle Akini is a graduate of the University of Yaoundé I who runs Genius Centre, an e-education enterprise that offers platforms for college students and other young people to develop their ICT project ideas. This project is among the successful cases identified since the programme started.

“Thanks to the initiation into technology skills received at the University of Yaoundé I, I was able to set up my own enterprise,” Akini said during a visit to some start-up projects by Minette Libom Li Likeng, minister of posts and telecommunications, in Yaoundé on 12 July 2022.

Akini said her efforts and that of other young women are spurring many graduates on to embrace technology start-ups as pathways to self-employment.

Afrocentric business vision needed

Carole Mbessa Elongo’s Visit my Business is a multimedia solution tool for Africa’s economic integration. The programme helps women entrepreneurs find their way into the business and scientific worlds.

“Ours is a lever for the development of Africa. This lever is the African culture, providing the needed resilience for local entrepreneurs,” she said.

Talking fast and dreaming big, William Elong in 2018 unveiled the first-ever drone made in Cameroon through his engineering and consulting company Will&Brothers, Africa Renewal reported shortly after the event.

Will&Brothers is situated in the country’s economic capital, Douala. Elong is a household name today, having been recognised as one of Forbes’ most promising young Africans under 30 in 2017 when he was 24 years old.

“We must get out of the Afrocentric vision of the business to understand a global vision that includes Africa,” Elong said. “The know-how is here in Cameroon; we just need to nurture it.”

Like Akini and Elong, many graduates in the different university towns in Cameroon are getting into technology start-ups, a fact that has also attracted the attention of local development stakeholders.

“With exponential growth in the university town of Buea, we had problems handling human waste. But a project by ‘Green Girls’ to turn human waste into biogas is reducing pollution and providing cheap, renewable energy to our growing population,” Mayor of Buea David Mafany Namange said.

Namange said they are working with the university to support training that is really driving local development. “With easier access to energy, the council can better tackle other development problems such as providing clean water,” he said.

ICT brought many opportunities

Many university graduates in Buea, Bamenda and Yaoundé said that, before the entrepreneurship programme, graduates suffered under unemployment. They could not get jobs with the government or in the private sector and were left helpless. But information technology has brought many opportunities to their doorstep.

Dr Samuel Nguiffo, executive secretary of the Centre for Environment and Development (CED), an NGO in Cameroon, explained that, with ongoing decentralisation in the country, local communities will greatly benefit from the technical skills of these graduate entrepreneurs. The CED estimates this self-employment drive may reduce graduate unemployment by as much as 60% by 2035.

“Cameroon will derive enormous economic and development benefits if these training efforts are spread even to private universities throughout the country,” he said.