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Morning chat with Cameroon’s serial entrepreneur Fritz Ekwoge Ekwoge

Fritz Ekwoge Ekwoge and his father Chief Ekwoge John Ekeme

This morning in Buea is cool after an early morning rain. Clouds still hang on Mount Cameroon as I sit down to talk to a local legend and one of the first entrepreneurs to graduate from ActivSpaces. They call him ‘Fee.’ He hails from the Southwest Province and ‘doesn’t shut up about his products or the potential for SMS.’ His favorite quote from the 2001 movie Antitrust, ‘this business is binary. You are a one or a zero. Alive or dead.’

When he was five years old his dad would send him to the store to buy groceries, but he had a hard time following orders and would often buy something like sweets instead. His dad told him he could never be a doctor because he would forget the scissors in his patient’s stomach and told him he should be a computer analyst instead. Fritz explains, ‘I had no idea what he meant, but I knew I wasn’t going to be doctor. When I grew up there was no computer around me. But later at boarding school one of my friends had a TI82 programming calculator.’ Fritz would borrow the manual and learned about concepts like loops, conditional statements and assignments. With those basic instructions he was able to clone games like snake, minesweeper and even built a mathematical equation solver. He continues, ‘One night I took a Son Goku image and pixel by pixel I replicated it on the calculator. I used to fool my friends that I had built a scanner that could lift images from a book. Most people in high school knew me for tricks like this.’ Needless to say in school Fritz became an invaluable resource for students struggling to pass their exams :)

The famous TI82 :)

Getting excited Fritz continues, ‘I realized I was spending more time with my calculator than my studies. I knew this was my future. After highschool I went to the Polytechnique and got great results. There I continued programming but still I had no idea about the web or the Internet. Everything was PC programming. One project we did was to build a 3D model of the school in C++. In 2005 I created my first Yahoo account in a local cyber cafe for 5000 CFA (about 10 USD).

Asked how he made the jump to becoming an entrepreneur he describes one of the defining moments of his life, ‘One day I was so broke I didn’t have any money for food and went home to chew on raw onions. I knew I wanted out of this situation and could see that the Internet was a better way for me to deploy my software. At the same time people were willing to pay me to develop websites. Becoming successful it wasn’t long before Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) came to the campus and offered me a job. It wasn’t 100% technology but I decided to enter the financial world and it was good to get some business background. I think its the combination of the technical, financial and corporate experience that makes for a good founder.’ With this experience and background Fritz didn’t wait long to start out on his own.

Kerawa, his first independent project, was started in 2007. When Fritz moved to Douala he had a really hard time finding a place to stay and he knew there had to be a better way. Kerawa is an online classifieds service similar to Craigslist and maintains 200.000 listings. By the third year they passed a 1.000.000 page views a month and Fritz is proud to confirm that the project makes a profit. Asked how, he explains that the most significant revenue source is from AdSense and now increasingly from the ‘VIP ads’ service.

Asked about his enthusiasm for SMS he says, ‘My passion for SMS started at school. We were supposed to come out with an Operating System project in 2006. I set up a team and I wanted to go beyond computers and leverage the mobile phone. There is so much power with SMS.’ He created a unique shell that allowed him to command his PC (and all the PCs in the school network) via SMS. He says, ‘Any command on my phone could be executed on the PC. If I wanted to shut it down I could type in ‘Shut Down’ and send it to the machine. The application was originally called VeSMS but is now known as COMPP.’ See one of his academic papers.

Realizing he had the skills to do something interesting Fritz explains, ‘I was telling myself I have to do something with SMS one of these days. I thought there should be a simple way to find contact details for people via their phone. In Africa we grew up with mobile phones but we don’t have a yellow pages or white pages. In Cameroon we have 100.000 fixed line users compared to 9 million mobile phone users. But where is the directory? How are we going to translate the idea of a directory for our needs here in Cameroon?’ On February 2009 he he launched the iYam.mobi beta.

He set up the company with one laptop (which acted like a server) and two phones that served as SMS gateways – one for MTN Cameroon and the other for Orange. He put up a 1 page website to explain how it worked and immediately he saw people testing it from the African countries and the US.

It was a matter of time before the project was discovered by people like Bill Zimmerman who could coach him and help promote him as an entrepreneur. Fritz says, ‘With help and mentorship I was able to secure the funding I needed to grow the iYam.mobi business.’ Now he processes 30.000 SMS a month and recently added an appstore and group SMS functionality.

Asked about the future Fritz pauses, ‘One of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs here is getting paid for their services. Many people are not comfortable paying online and so we need to develop the sales force that can develop our offline channels. This offline approach is one of our key efforts moving forward.’ Indeed, taking concepts into the market is a real challenge. Not only for Fritz but for starting tech entrepreneurs in countries like Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, etc. His offline efforts are commendable and I think offer a needed focus.

Asked about ActivSpaces he responds, ‘Places like ActivSpaces are so important. I got to meet experienced people and received the support I needed to develop my ideas and build my business. It helped transform me from a local geek to a local star.’ It’s great to meet Fritz and to see first hand some of the progress he is making here in Cameroon. Even more exciting, I can see he is not alone and is surrounded by techies with great projects making similar strides.

And this is only the beginning Fritz explains, ‘We are still in a starting phase here in Cameroon but we are developing models now and I can see things changing. People are abandoning their jobs, not giving into the frustrations and are taking their destiny into their own hands.’ Being at the VC4Africa meetup last night with Buea techies @mambenanje @ekwogefee @nyvacol2005 @didiblaise @camvista & @mohamed_felata I couldn’t agree more.

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