Kenneth Ngah, a seasoned web programmer from Cameroon, has learned exactly how to build a tech community. Along with other entrepreneurial pioneers, Kenneth leveraged the student population in Africa to build hyper-focused tech hubs to increase the local skill set and sustain tech expertise in the area. The tech founder has been in Rochester for three months and is exploring ways he can fit into the city’s evolving tech scene.
Kenneth grew up in the northwest region of Cameroon, a central African country that borders on the Gulf of Guinea, Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo. He said his hometown was a mountainous region with a strong tourism draw. Cameroon has even earned the nickname “Africa in miniature” because of the country’s diverse climate and landscape. The area contains deserts, mountains, and even rainforests.
To leverage the strong tourism draw to his homeland, this tech entrepreneur founded a startup called LCMTours. Kenneth saw much “uncertainty about the tourism industry in Cameroon” with “the existence of clandestine tourism agencies and travel agencies.” He created LCMTours, soon to be re-branded as WandaGuides, to mitigate travelers’ fears and connect them with government recognized travel agencies. Registered agencies can sell their attractions on the LCM platform. Kenneth then works with these companies to create personalized itineraries and connect travelers to local guides before they even leave their home country.
Much of Kenneth’s early tech career was built on learning by doing. He developed a passion for computers early in life, even well before he knew what that fully meant. He felt a strong pull toward technology after creating his first Yahoo email address in the late 1990s and decided to pursue his passion through university studies. He left his home and traveled to the southwest region of Cameroon to study Computers and Communications Engineering at the University College of Technology in the town of Buea. While at the university, he obtained his very first web development contract from a hospital where his mother worked. Although he had no idea how to price the service at the time, this first step showed him that he could have a viable career in web development.
“It was so good for me, as a student, to do a job that would give me money without having to take money from parents,” he explained.
After his experience with the hospital, Kenneth founded a small web development agency with a friend. However, the pair could not land consistent web development contracts and ran out of money within six months. Around this time, he also became aware of a growing number of people working on tech startups around Buea. To get his feet wet, Kenneth worked several web programming jobs for free for some of these emerging local businesses.
Even after graduating from the University College of Technology, Kenneth says he never had any interest in a traditional job with a large company. He instead launched directly into the freelancing field as a web programmer and started building websites through contract work. Kenneth developed into quite the international businessman without ever having to leave Cameroon. He built websites for Danish and German companies. He even worked on a neuroscience website for a researcher at the University of Louisville.
His tech endeavors eventually led Kenneth to meet former Microsoft Software Design Engineer and American investor, Bill Zimmerman, who was building tech hubs around Cameroon. Zimmerman created ActivSpaces, a tech network in Cameroon that contained two coworking spaces, one of which was in Buea, plus a six-month intensive tech accelerator program. The goal was to transform viable tech ideas into sustainable businesses. Kenneth explained that many startups in Cameroon did not have available financials to pay for space in coworking facilities. Instead, ActivSpaces opened their doors to these emerging entrepreneurs for free and took 3% equity in the companies when they became successful.
In 2013, Kenneth moved into a Community Manager role with ActivSpaces. He helped to create entrepreneurial-focused events and raise awareness of the space for interested startups. As the tech community in Buea grew, he created even larger events and increased interactions with the local university system, especially through a developing local Google Ambassador system.
While Kenneth and other pioneers of the tech community in Buea saw many students going through the university system, they did not observe an increase in applicable tech skills in the community. He says the students just weren’t acquiring transferrable tools in the education system, even through there was strong interest in tech entrepreneurism.
“I began to think that in the university, there are students who want to do practice, they want to do internships into startups,” he explained. “We realized that students want to learn. Many people want to do better. But they just don’t know how to come about it.”
“Technology entrepreneurship is becoming very vibrant in my city because students are looking to people like us who…didn’t look for a job but kept on striving. And they saw that these guys are trying to do some amazing things,” he explained.
Although Kenneth and many others have done groundbreaking work for entrepreneurs in Cameroon, the path is still boulder-strewn. Cameroon is a bilingual country, split between English and French speaking sectors. Although the country has been historically riddled by political corruption, it’s usually economically stable. Increased tensions have built up between the small English-speaking population and the larger French-speaking sectors, who also control the government. Violent and more frequent protests broke out over the last couple months, leading the government to cut off Internet access for several weeks to major English-speaking regions of Cameroon, crippling startups and business owners. Kenneth said this economic uncertainnty and the prevalent language barriers in the country make it easier for entrepreneurs to just leave the area.
He explained that the tech community in Cameroon is generally very cut off from media exposure. No one outside of the region understands the developments taking place there, which limits investment opportunities and growth. But Kenneth has faith in the community that he has been so instrumental in building.
“Despite the fact that the economic situation in the country is not good, the zeal to become an entrepreneur is really, really good,” he said. “Entrepreneurs who really survive are really tough because the economic situation makes it difficult and the government rules really make it difficult.”
It’s a bit ironic that the founder of a tourism startup never had much of an impulse to see the world. “But I always thought to myself, if I want to travel abroad, I should come to the US,” Kenneth explained. He recently got the opportunity to obtain a one year visa to the US and is staying with a family member in Rochester while he continues to discover the right place to spend his time in the country. Right now, he’s been exploring the tech scene around Rochester and seeing where he can best plug into the community.