Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|April 20, 2022|20 Minutes|In Billionaire Today

Billionaire Tomorrow

$40 million– then it came crashing down

Shes one of the oracles of fintech in Africa. with a  life thats rarely been dull; she started out selling newspaper subscriptions on the doorsteps of bigots;  now she helps entrepreneurs across Africa and invests millions in digital data. She saw failure, success and suffering, incarceration, and a Free Rebecca campaign. This is the colourful story of tech guru Rebecca Enonchong   entrepreneur, investor, and African optimist.

It is very easy to warm to Rebecca Enonchong. As well as being an accomplished entrepreneur she is a top-notch raconteur.

When she tells her tales, it is like she is confiding in a friend. There is a glint of humour in her eye – often – as he lays bare the absurdities in recounting the  slings and arrows of a life as  an entrepreneur. She paints pictures with her words and oozes nuance in every sentence.

“The power of technology is incredible, there is no other industry that yields that kind of power…You put technology and entrepreneurs together that’s where it’s at,” she says.

This love of language is probably down to the fact that her mother gave her books instead of toys when she was very young. Just before I sat down to write, out of curiosity, I sent a DM to the lady herself on Twitter to ask her what the first book she ever read was.

Now, in these media savvy, image conscious, times (heaven help us)  a lot of people of her stature would have consulted their PR person and come back with a book like Das Kapital or the Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela or the Life of Robespierre; to convince readers of erudition and genius at a tender age.

“Chitty Chitty Bang, Bang,” came back Enonchong, on Twitter, in ten seconds. An unpretentious  childhood fable – actually penned by Ian Fleming the writer who dreamed up secret agent James Bond – based on a flying car and a kingdom where children are banned.

It has been a tough year for the straightforward Enonchong, more of that later, but she is bullish about investment in the African continent. She quotes a survey into global venture capital funding, by an outfit called CB Insight,  slowing in the first quarter of 2022 to 7%, year-on-year; while venture capital funding rocketed in Africa by 147% in the same period.

“ That’s incredible,” she says.

“The pandemic has really affected investment around the world, but I think this has been a great equaliser for Africa because a lot of times our founders cannot travel to meet investors in Silicon Valley, or other places in the world because of the visa restrictions and the cost of travel. So, all of a sudden everybody has to do it on Zoom so one of the disadvantages for African founders disappeared through the pandemic. I think it contributed to some of the growth we have seen in venture capital coming into the continent.”

Its gets better, according to Enonchong, in this interview with Billionaire Tomorrow from Douala.

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“What I think is really great, especially last year and the beginning of this year, seeing the types of investors coming onto the continent are no longer the ones that end in ‘foundation’ only impact investors. You are looking at real hard-hitting capitalists trying to make money,  venture capitalists saying: ‘wait we are missing out on an opportunity to invest in Africa. We are starting to feel a lot more of that. It is important because Africans don’t want to be treated as a charity they want to be treated as partners. So, the narrative changes, it was charity, charity, charity, how can I help those poor entrepreneurs, poor Africans, get them micro-credit for the women, you know; get them so they can go to the market and spend… If the narrative changes and says: ‘Oh my God, there are unicorns on the continent!’ There is so much potential on the continent, let’s get in now so we can make a lot of money, of course, we will make money as well creating wealth and creating jobs.”

Enonchong believes fintech – that has bred so many billion dollar start up unicorns – is far from its peak of moving money around Africa.  She believes that whatever works in Nigeria, doesn’t work in Tanzania; Mpesa is great in Kenya, but doesn’t work in South Africa. She believes each region will work out its own way of doing cross border transactions in a difficult regulatory framework that still depends on central bank approvals country-by-country.

“Some of the countries they don’t really know what to do with fintech and so the regulations are still being developed and created right now it is doing business on quicksand because you don’t know when they are going to ban it or make it illegal; like trading for an exchange for example, today its legal, tomorrow its illegal; crypto today it is legal, tomorrow it is illegal. There is no law and so you don’t know what regulatory guide to go to get authorisation to do business in a country,” she says reserving a little hope for the future.

“I think it will take time before we have a pan African player, Flutterwave is trying to set up in different countries but it is very, very difficult because of the regulatory constraints and that is something we are hoping  the African Continental Free Trade Area is going to change; reducing those regulatory constraints that are preventing the scaling of technology.”

All of these hopes are fine, but if African nations fiddle with the internet for political reasons – as a number of nations have done including  the land of Enonchong’s birth, Cameroon – all bets are off and then there is the cost.

“Internet is available, if you look at the number of cables along the seabed that land in Africa there is a lot of bandwidth there, so it is not necessarily a technology issue,” she says.

“Because many African governments do want to control internet in some way – so they can shut it down during an election, say. It makes the competition for a third player to come in, or a fourth player to come in, there is so much regulation there, that  they can’t afford to compete against the telcos established there already and the governments are also milking the telcos and they get a lot of grief…And so the cost of being a telco, the cost of providing internet is so high that the costs get passed onto the users and it makes accessing the internet a luxury – deciding whether or not you are going to eat your next meal or connect to an important call.”

Less than a year ago, Enonchong felt the full weight of the state bearing down on her following a bizarre arrest that make headlines across the continent. She laughs when I bring it up; but she wasn’t laughing under-lock- and-key in the grim Gendarmerie military police headquarters back in August 2021, in Douala, at the say so of the Attorney General.

“On the document was article 154 of the criminal codes and that refers to contempt of a public authority – an official  – basically,” she says.

“When diplomats asked the Attorney General why he did that, he said – in French ‘laver la tete’ -he had to clean my brain, wash my head…it was, like, teach her a lesson, basically.”

Enonchong said it all stemmed from an  interview with officials  to do with real estate .

“There was no confrontation, at all. The way they were doing certain things or the way they were handling some issues that related to me : I did question them; like, this doesn’t make sense to me, but there wasn’t any confrontation of any type,”  she recalls. Yet, the word came through from the Attorney General and she was led to the cells. She refused to show emotion throughout her incarceration, for fear of seeming weak.

“They didn’t have a cell for women, so I was led to a cell with these hard-core criminals – in a section where held the most violent criminals. They didn’t put me in that cell, but they put me in an office, it was…I don’t even know how to describe it – 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. If I didn’t wait until next morning when they would take me into another office that had a toilet. I remember,  I had a bottle of water that I had to use one night because I couldn’t wait: that is the first time in my life I had to pee in a bottle!”

There was a “Free Rebecca” campaign run by her supporters who printed t-shirts, but demonstrations  proved difficult.

“So, you know demonstrations here are not allowed, you get arrested for demonstrating. You get arrested for trying to organise a demonstration .You can even get arrested and convicted for having a meeting about whether or not are going to go to a demonstration!” she says.

“They had made t-shirts, but they would wear them inside out so they couldn’t see it said: “Free Rebecca”  on the front of them. But a lot of people gathered at the courthouse out of respect for me.”


She was also fortunate that, outside, eight lawyers were working for her release and she was spared the kind of rough treatment meted out to other inmates in Douala.

“People are tortured and I was very lucky to get out, before I was taken to jail. Because if I had ended up in prison; to get out is a legal nightmare. There are many people I know who haven’t even gone to trial who have spent years in prison,” she says.

Eventually, Enonchong walked free without charge. Many people would have been on the first plane out. Credit to Enonchong that she has stuck by her business Apps Tech in Douala – a business that she has arguably seen through thick and thin .

In 1999, she founded AppsTech- known first as Fintech – a digital fintech company that nearly sank before it swam.

“I had no clue how difficult it was going to be,” she says.

Yet the first year was good for AppsTech , rapid growth. Enonchong wrote a business plan for $1.8 million, yet the first-year revenue was $2.2 million.

“By 2004 we had revenue of $40 million dollars – then it came crashing down,”

says Enonchong.

“It was my fault. I did all my plans we had a business model, a subscription model way before anybody was doing subscriptions. We were providing services , but in a very innovative way. We were doing support and I had been in the industry for a few years and understood how important it was for large companies to support their Oracle based applications, so it was so complex

You would have to hire an army of people to manage your systems.”

Enonchong’s company came up with three plans; 9-5 Monday to Friday support; extensive support or 24-hour support. It promised economies of scale, you could have one team of experts working remotely on a number of companies.

“As we hid behind the product and told people to choose their package and they sold like hot cakes. They sold around the world Australia Russia Hong Kong. It made it easier for companies to sign a cheque and they didn’t have to worry about hiring people. We were saying, hey, we are going to make sure your systems work; $40,000, $50,000 dollars a month and we would sign contract after contract,” she says.

All was well until the company took out loans and poured money into one of the biggest customers on the continent – and the company didn’t pay !

“We took a lot of the resources we had from overseas and they worked on this project for over a year. They were happy, they were using it, but they didn’t pay their bills. It was a loss leader, we didn’t expect to make money on it, but we also didn’t expect to lose as much money as we did.”

Because the company had been raking in so much cash, it didn’t even have an overdraft to tide it over. Some of the other Telco customers were also struggling and started to cut corners and not pay on time.

“The business lost focus and that was a huge mistake on my part,” she says.

The salvation of the business, she says, was a pivot into voice-activated data system that gathers information from your company’s financial systems. It is being aimed at small businesses.

Where did Enonchong learn her skills as an entrepreneur ? Harvard or an MBA?

Neither, in fact it was selling subscriptions to the Washington Post to a bunch of uninterested bigots in Washington DC – where her barrister father had relocated the family. It was her first job. She was 14 years old and selling door-to-door in what they called the  Archie Bunker suburbs where no one wanted to read an expensive  liberal paper like the Post. Archie Bunker was a US TV comedy character full of racist bigotry.

The Post employed many a bunch of black children to sell subscriptions with an idea that the more determined and unlikely the seller, in  the customers’ eyes, the more likely the sale. Also, the newspaper understood the market because the more affluent suburbs already subscribed.

“I learned so many lessons from that one job that they 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 recalls about a job where she became the top seller through rain, snow and blinding sunshine.

“I also learned it was the product first. I used to hold the newspaper up when they opened the door. Then there were also 10 refusals that people always gave – I went away and worked out answers to them so could come back. I still do that, even when I was arrested, I wonder what are they going to come up with ?”

A bitter-sweet teenage doorstep experience was to set up Enonchong for life and you get the feeling she has only just got started.

Join Rebecca live on Sunday, April 24 as she shares her secret to making money. 

Secure your seat