BUEA, CAMEROON — Olouge Eya-Ekolle sits in an empty office staring at his laptop screen.
The quiet makes for a peaceful setting, but Eya-Ekolle is worried about the future of the startup he co-founded, New Generation Technologies.
The company is headquartered in Buea, the capital of Cameroon’s southwest region and a budding technology hub commonly referred to as the Silicon Mountain, a reference to the famous technology startup region in Northern California, Silicon Valley.
But for the first quarter of the year, Eya-Ekolle traveled the 300 kilometers (190 miles) between Buea and Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon’s French-speaking region, many times to communicate with his clients during the politically motivated government shutdown of the internet in Buea.
Eya-Ekolle says his business, a resource-management software company that offers business-to-business services, like translation, suffered during the first shutdown. Launched in 2014, his business was just starting to grow, he says. He was planning for long-term goals and seeking out investment opportunities and government partnerships as his client roster grew.
“The internet shutdown was a blow to us. This is our office but, as you can see, we haven’t been here for some time,” he says, gesturing to the empty space.
Irene Zih Fon, GPJ Cameroon
Technology businesses based in Buea were still struggling, months after the internet shutdown stymied businesses. Connectivity resumed in April. And on October 1 the government began interfering with popular social media sites in hopes of quelling fresh protests in the region.
In the months since the first shut down, local entrepreneurs have been able to get online, but many say they have incurred financial losses, lost clients and witnessed a drop in morale among their staff. Amid the new internet challenges, businesses are scrambling for creative ways to get online and communicate with customers since popular communication sites like Facebook and Whatsapp are down or suffering from slow connections.
English and French are both official languages in Cameroon, but English-speaking nationals remain a minority, making up just 20 percent of the population. In January, protests against the government policies that assign French-speaking teachers and judges in English-speaking regions created widespread tension, which led to an internet shutoff in English-speaking regions that lasted several months. (See our previous coverage of the issue here.)
Shortly before the shutdown, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications warned that anyone publishing “fake news” about the protests on social media risked six months to two years in prison and a fine of 5 million to 10 million Central African francs ($9,000 to $18,000).
There is no formal census on the number of tech companies operating in Buea, but Otto Akama, the community manager of the technology incubator ActivSpaces in Buea, and founder of his own technology startup Makonjo Media, estimates approximately 20 companies have been deeply impacted by the shutdowns.
According to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, digital businesses account for just 5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, with targets placed at 10 percent by 2020. But entrepreneurs say the figure is likely more.
“Most of the startups still haven’t recovered,” Akama says, adding that many entrepreneurs opted to relocate to other parts of the country in order to keep their businesses afloat.
“I don’t think anybody has a choice about what to do next, apart from rebuilding their business — get customers, find ways to make money, take a loan if you have to,” he says.
Entrepreneur Fritz Ekwoge says he temporarily relocated his multibrand technology business, FeePerfect, during the first half of this year. The company is now based in Yaoundé, a move he says was planned to prevent disruption if another internet disturbance, like this one, took place.
Others were forced to move, too, Akama says.
“Some relocated to Douala, but with time moved back because even with more business they found in Douala, their developers and engineers prefer being in Buea,” Akama says.
Moving back to Buea is one way that founders are trying to regain staff morale and recoup costs. The cost of living is lower here than in Douala, and many employees and engineers say they prefer Buea’s quality of life.
“The most difficult part was rebuilding the motivation in staff, since during the shutdown not just the founders were broken but their staff was demoralized. The work culture of startups was affected,” says Akama. His new business, a web design, mobile application and branding business is also working to get back on its feet.
Some employees left during the first shutdown, but Akama says rehiring has begun at many companies based in the incubator.
“Maybe the new people who were not there during the period of bad morale will come in with some new energy to boost the team, to bring back the energy in the company,” he says. “Not everyone is fully healed yet, but it’s a work in progress.”
It’s still unclear how the recent internet shutdown will impact hiring plans.
Eya-Ekolle, of New Generation Technologies, says he is focusing his energy on building a new client base. With the start of the new school year, he says he plans to approach schools about using his startup’s software.
But because schools were also affected by the last internet shutdown, he says New Generation Technologies is planning to put its software solutions in the cloud, so that others can use it in the event of another shutoff.
“Even if there’s a shutdown in schools in the southwest, we would be able to reach out to other schools in other areas with internet,” Eya-Ekolle says.