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Built in Africa: Olivia Mukam on solutions for Africa’s micro problems

Built in Africa focuses on entrepreneurs, startups and technologies that are affecting the continent and empowering African people.

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Non-profits are important and harnessing the power of a community to power a business is key in building ecosystems. Empowering Africa’s youth and training them with the right tools for the 21st century is also important. In this, the third installment of our “Built in Africa” series, we feature Olivia Mukam, a self-professed “solutioneur” from Cameroon, her community and youth-driven NGO and for-profit business.

Mukam and I first crossed paths on Twitter, where I became more and more intrigued with what she was doing — so eventually I picked up the phone and called her.

“Oh you’re Mich from Twitter,” she laughs. “Yes I got your mail, I am excited to talk to you.”

She is more than 5 800 kilometers away and the day is winding down, but we settle in to chat about what she is up to and what it means to be a “solutioneur”.

Mukam is the founder of two organisations: one makes money and the other is a non-profit. After graduating from university, she started Harambe Cameroon, an organisation that aims to engage youths to be national problem-solvers through skills and knowledge training. She sits on Microsoft’s 4Afrika youth advisory board and has also been featured on the Daily Beast’s Women in the world list as of one of 125 women impacting the world. Through the success of Harambe, she was able to co-found a for-profit business, Solutioneurs SARL (LLC).

“We started a profitable business through the success of our NGO,” she tells me.

The company taps into the database of skill sets that Harambe has spent the last four years gathering (statisticians, accountants, engineers, IT technicians and translators) to deliver affordable micro-tasks to small businesses in Cameroon, Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United States. It’s a simple model really: train them up and get them jobs.

Harambe’s mission, as Mukam explains it, is “to inspire and engage a new generation of young leaders and entrepreneurs who see problems as opportunities.” This is where the idea for Solutioneurs came about: if entrepreneurs saw every problem as an opportunity they would develop solutions for them. For her, most of the social problems that Africa faces can be solved through a business venture.

“Here is how it makes sense in my head,” she begins … “Based on economics 101 principles of supply and demand, when there is a pertinent problem in a community, there are many people who DEMAND a solution to that problem.”

It makes perfect sense. In her mind, if someone were to design and supply a relevant solution to that problem, they would have an existing market and a specific target population that would buy said solution.

“The key, I think, is for people to switch their mindsets and start viewing problems not as obstacles anymore, but as opportunities to provide solutions that can generate some income for themselves, while improving their communities,” she adds.

The way she sees it, with the number of problems Africa has, the business opportunities should be endless.

Africa and its multiple innovation paradigms

“In Africa, innovation has multiple definitions,” says Mkuam. She argues that most African entrepreneurs innovate within their communities by finding and adapting technologies to specific problems. The truly successful ones are able to take that model and expand it outward.

“You often hear about how iROKO TV founders created a ‘Netflix-like’ platform for Africa’s Diaspora, or that Seun Osewa’s Nairaland ‘works like Reddit or Craig’s list’,” she says.

Mukam believes that there are pure innovators in Africa, but argues that it should not be the sole priority for entrepreneurs.

“I think we are at a phase in which we can still copy-edit-and-paste to local context, without worrying about being innovative. I think at some point the tech hubs in many African countries were challenged so much by pure innovation that many startups were created, funded, but died because they were not relevant to local context.”

She argues that entrepreneurs in Africa need to focus their attention on understanding their environment, identifying latent problems, and proposing solutions to them.

“Not everyone will create the ‘next big app’ or the ‘next big platform’. With what I have seen in Cameroon, I have realised that most successful business people are in the retail business of consumer goods.”

For her, it is all about adding value to what already exists in Africa in three “easy” steps:

  • Businesses should position themselves on one point of the production line, or the supply chain
  • Propose a service/product that thousands of people can pay a minimal fees for
  • Be flexible and adapt to local contexts

“Don’t apply the technics you use in Lagos to Accra, don’t approach Yaounde the way you would Kigali. Do your research, know your environment, know the existing demand (and existing supply) before you position yourself with your product/service).”

Charity (solutions) begins at home

Before Mukam can beginning solving Africa’s many problems she needs to solve Cameroon’s first. While at university, she initiated a water addition project that engaged the Engineers Without Borders team from the University of Delaware to work in the community of Bamendjou, in the West Region of Cameroon. After six years of execution, the project significantly solved the problem of water-borne diseases (such as cholera and dysentery). Today, more than 5 000 villagers have access to clean water.

Four years later, Harambe has set off a movement of enthusiastic problem-solvers in eight out of the 10 regions of Cameroon.

The success the organisation enjoys now did not come without its fair share of challenges.

“Harambe was not an instant success,” Mukam recalls.

She explains that back in 2009 when she set off on this journey with a shiny new slogan — “Transforming our problems into opportunities” — for Harambe Cameroon, she did not anticipate what would follow: That the offices would be burgled twice, that volunteers would embezzle money, partners and colleagues would duplicate the platform and events or that sponsors would pull out days before an event.

She says she had to get through these hiccups because of how important she believes the project is within the African context.

Building a business out of an NGO

Now Harambe Cameroon is a success on all counts. The platform has of more than 10 000 youths in the 10 regions of Cameroon, with close to 3 000 youths engaged in its annual social business plan competitions and bi-annual training seminars on business, leadership, marketing, and financial skills.

But all that isn’t sustainable if the organisation keeps relying on donors and sponsors, Mukam tells me.

“The foundation of my entrepreneurial life started with the NGO,” she says. “Once the financial director of the organisation made us realise that the sustainability model of the NGO is faulty, due to the over dependence on sponsors and donors, we designed a hybrid organisational model.”

So instead of just waiting for donors and sponsors to see the potential of what they were trying to do, Mukam and her partners decided to build a business arm to the NGO using its database.

“We tapped into the database of competences we had all throughout the country to propose solutions to business micro-tasks. If someone needed to have a market analysis for an upcoming product in the far-north region of Cameroon, we knew who to refer him/her to and who would do the work.”

This made Solutioneurs the go to place for micro-tasks because Harambe had already trained a bunch of people for the jobs at hand.

But more than that, Mukam says, it is about building and developing communities.

My challenge is to convince and engage more youths to see the opportunity that lies in transforming our problems into business opportunities. Because, I think the more of us that get involve in the problem-solving exercise of Africa’s micro/community problems, the more likely we are to advance and develop our various communities.

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