Name an idea, and Rebecca Enonchong can capture it with a catchy phrase; name a battle, she will fight it – and heaven help the enemy. She is a strident and eloquent voice in the midst of the cutthroat world of fintech in Africa – the growing business of moving money in the continent. That business has produced a string of young millionaires, including Enonchong, in scores of companies from Senegal’s Wave to Paystack in Nigeria. It thrives on the millions of Africans around the world who need to send money home.
It is hard not to warm to Enonchong. She is a lively storyteller, with a good sense of humour, who always sounds like she is confiding in you. A couple of these tales define her.
The first tells how she tackled her first job, when she was 14, in the Washington DC suburbs where her barrister father had moved his family from Cameroon. She pounded the streets selling subscriptions for the Washington Post in what they called the “Archie Bunker” suburbs, largely peopled by right-wingers resembling the lead character of the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, who wouldn’t buy a copy of the liberal newspaper if their lives depended upon it.
Being a teenager of colour made it even harder for Enonchong. The first trick she learned was to hold the newspaper right in front of the customer’s face, as she stood on the doorstep, to give her more time to make her pitch before prejudice took hold. She knocked, she sold, she conquered and ended up running the sales team.
“I learned so many lessons from that one job that carried me through my entire life as an entrepreneur. I think the symbolic door that slams in your face – it means so much. It means being peppy and positive before you reach the next door,” she told me. You could argue that peppy should be her middle name.
The second defining tale is how Enonchong, born into privilege, started out in business with almost nothing – when she didn’t need to.
“I went and slept on couches; that was my situation: couch surfing. But I don’t want to minimise my privileged background. I went to excellent schools, and my parents loved me. It was hard. I think, as with anything… they say that as you exercise, take physical exercise, you are building muscle over time. It’s just a process.”
The free spirit of fintech
Her voice has that breezy, blue-sky quality; more California than Cameroon. The accent of opportunity that exudes: “You’re ok? I’m ok!”
Some call her the free spirit of fintech with the Midas touch – yet it has not always been so. She has seen millions evaporate at the digital company she launched in 1999, by the name of AppsTech. To this day, this company is the focus of her working life, spent between Douala and the United States.
This morning, speaking from her second home in Washington, she is full of AppsTech and its new era. She believes the future of the fintech business in Africa hinges on companies like hers, parcelling up the technology tricks learned in hurdling the infrastructure gaps of the continent and selling to lucrative markets like the States. It consumes her time night and day.
“Oh my goodness, incredibly, incredibly busy,” she says.
Intelligent financial reports
In June, her Douala-based team will test a new African-built product with entrepreneurs. It has cost her $700,000 to build it in Africa. It is based on ChatGPT “artificial intelligence” technology and is designed to glean information that most companies pay a financial analyst to unearth.
“So, you’re just chatting to it, talking to it, asking it, using your voice. You will be asking your financial system for information on your business – information that today it would take tons of reports to get… Through the power of AI this financial analyst is giving you a reply immediately.
It wasn’t easy to find investment. Save for $20,000 from an angel investor, all the money came from Enonchong. She says it is one of her uphill battles (think Mount Everest) and it doesn’t matter that she has a master’s degree in economics.
“I think there is still this stigma attached to women tech founders; it is not just in Africa, it’s also in America. Look at the number of women, that are black women, of all nationalities, who have received over a million dollars in venture funding. It is crazy, with all the trillions of dollars that have been invested in startups,” she says. “The tiny, tiny, number of black women who have received venture funding is shameful!”
“I was reading the other day about some startup shutting down after getting 50 million dollars in venture capital funding because they didn’t achieve product market fit. I don’t think any black woman would get that kind of money without first having to prove a product market fit. It’s just the level at which we have to prove ourselves, it is so much higher for us than for your typical white male founder in Silicon Valley.”
Women are not allowed to get millions
Enonchong warms to her theme: “there is so much talk about supporting women on the continent. So many times that support comes in microcredit. You have never heard the word microcredit used for anything else but supporting women. For some reason, we are not allowed to get millions of dollars, but hey, here’s 50 dollars to support you to go sell tomatoes, or something.”
She is currently trying to set up a fund to match investment in majority-female-owned startups. The irony of ironies?
“We’re still trying to find a funder,” she says with a chuckle and a thought of the fundraising struggle she knows lies ahead. “They call it resilience, but I hate that word because it is not fair. It is not fair to some of us, especially African women. Oh, they are so resilient; that’s because we have had to put up with a bunch of crap for so long, that we know how to deal with crap, but we shouldn’t have to deal with that… In business, it really helps to be resilient and to have encountered difficulty and discomfort. I always say: comfort is an entrepreneur’s enemy.”
Even when you can scrape up the money, fintech can prove a risky, uncomfortable, game. Enonchong found this out, to her cost, nearly 20 years ago with her then-fledgling company AppsTech. It all looked so good. She wrote a $1.8 million business plan for the company and its first-year revenue was $2.2 million. It appeared the sky was the limit, as people queued up for the company’s digital management systems and were prepared to pay up to $50,000 a month.
As AppsTech raked in the money, the best was yet to come – or so they thought. The company poured millions into signing a huge deal with one of the largest operators on the continent. The only problem? The new customer didn’t pay – and $40 million in revenue crumbled before Enonchong’s eyes. To make matters worse, because business was going so well, she hadn’t bothered to secure an overdraft that could have tided her over.
“The business lost focu/s and that was a huge mistake on my part,” she told me last year. Enonchong switched the focus of the business to voice-activated digital systems. That move helped turn the business around.
‘The internet is the oxygen of the digital economy’
These days, Enonchong sees a bigger threat from some of the people in power on the continent. A number of African governments have toyed with shutting down the internet in recent elections and times of unrest.
“I think we really need our governments to start to look at innovation as a development tool and not ‘Oh my God! These social media people are going to say bad things about us!’ Internet equals social media, equals revolution, in many of their experiences,” she says.
“They need to understand that the internet is the oxygen of the digital economy and if they need to subsidise anything, they need to subsidise the internet.”
Yet people in power on the other side of the world may be of more help to the entrepreneurs of Africa, she says. Enonchong points to US Vice-President Kamala Harris talking about investing a billion dollars in entrepreneurs in Africa to help close the wealth gap.
“But we need success stories. The pool of capital is small. Often Silicon Valley founders say they had to speak to 300 investors – Africa doesn’t have 300 investors . She [Harris] is trying to increase the number of investors on the continent, starting with angel investors, to help de-risk investment.”
Locked up to teach her a lesson
Yet politicians and officials closer to home have not always looked kindly upon the fearless Enonchong. In August 2021, in Douala, the capital of the land of her birth, she found herself under lock and key at the grim Gendarmerie headquarters. This followed a dispute with officials over a piece of real estate in Cameroon. The letter from the Attorney General that sealed her three days and nights behind bars mentioned section 154 of the criminal code, which refers to contempt of public authority.
Word behind the scenes was that the incarceration was to laver la tête – to “clean her brain” or teach her a lesson. Whatever it was for, it was highly distressing for Enonchong.
Outside the police headquarters, her supporters held a vigil wearing “Free Rebecca” t-shirts. They had to wear the t-shirts inside out because street protest in Cameroon is illegal and otherwise they could have risked joining Enonchong behind bars – one of the many absurdities that often go hand-in-hand with protest in Africa.
Inside the police cells it was no joke. Enonchong refused to show emotion for fear of being seen as weak. There were no cells for women, so she was locked up in an office on the other side of the bars from a cell full of hardened criminals.
“I was in the company of rats. It was very, very difficult – very bad conditions. There was no bathroom facility, no toilet facility, no shower. I remember, I had a bottle of water that I had to use one night because I couldn’t wait: that was the first time in my life I had to pee in a bottle,” she told me.
More outspoken and influential than ever
On her release, it must have been a sobering thought that her forthright attitude may have made her a political figure, as much as a business one. Since those dark days of confinement, she has been more outspoken and influential than ever – so the question about politics has to be asked. Could political power tempt her?
“You would be surprised, some government officials from other countries reach out and ask what they should do and ask for suggestions. My country has not done so, but I speak with officials from other countries on a regular basis,” she says.
“I could go into politics; I just don’t want to. I’m not afraid of going into politics, but I just don’t think that is the best way I can be used. I think I can contribute so much more outside of politics in building the ecosystem, as I have been doing over the last 20 years, without having a political position to do so… I use my voice to talk about political issues. I don’t feel I need political office.”
If she changed her mind, it could certainly spice up political debate in Cameroon. Yet the length and breadth of the continent, politics has sounded the death knell of many a shining entrepreneurial career. It would be a shame.
There is an old saying that every political career ends in failure. You can’t believe that Enonchong would settle for that. Could she? Please no.
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