BUEA, South West—Every year, this small town on the slopes of Mount Cameroon attracts thousands with one of the world’s toughest foot races – a climb to more than 4000 meters above sea level and back.
The annual “Race of Hope” has come to define Buea, a historic town that sits on piles of volcanic rocks and ashes. It used to be the capital of the country and still has a centuries-old German mansion, with a tapering roof.
These days, Buea is basking in the limelight for more than its celebrated race and colonial past. The sprawling town of more than a hundred thousand inhabitants is becoming famous for tech innovation.
It has been code-named Silicon Mountain and is already considered one of Africa’s tech hubs to watch. In a few years, the town has produced more than 50 tech start-ups and a growing community of savvy innovators.
This is where thirty-year-old Churchill Mambe Nanje founded Njorku, Africa’s largest jobs search engine. He started with nothing but lots of passion. He says Silicon Mountain has a unique approach to business, which is driving its growth.
“What make us stand out [are] our technical abilities. In Buea, the unofficial consensus is to build great technology before we go to the market.
“Our friends in Nigeria are preaching sell, sell, sell; make money, make money, make money and then grow. These are different philosophies.”
The best place to find some of the innovators driving the tech industry here is a venue called Active Spaces. It is a Google-funded hub with shared work spaces that also runs an incubator program for young engineers and entrepreneurs.
The facility is a crammed room on the ground floor of a mountainside business plaza, overlooking Douala and Malabo in neighboring Equatorial Guinea. Outside, the mountain peaks above everything else, hiding its crown in thick white clouds.
It is the perfect place to write code and to think. It is quiet, miles from the bustling university community downhill.
Temperatures generally stay low. It is part of the reason early Germans picked this part of town to set up their colonial base.
In the past five years or so, Silicon Mountain’s young community has transformed dozens of ideas into real life solutions and services.
Viva, for example, launched earlier this year. It is a service that streams onboard entertainment to commuters’ mobile devices and computers via an in-coach Wi-Fi network.
Another start-up, called Feem, makes it possible to wirelessly transfer files across devices without internet. A service called AgroHub enables farmers to monetize their produce. And, Camer Recipe teaches users how to cook Cameroonian dishes.
Paul Otto Akama founded an e-learning platform called Skademy to bridge the gap between the growing need for tech and business skills.
He is also the Community Manager at Active Spaces. He says Silicon Mountain’s entrepreneurs and developers have opted to work together rather than compete.
“The tech guys in Buea are very determined to build a strong tech ecosystem that will support their individual startups. “These entrepreneurs know that by themselves, they will not be able to enjoy the benefits of localization. So they support young people as they try to build other startups that would become complementary to their own businesses.”
Entrepreneurs and engineers at Silicon Mountain are far from reaching their peak. Limited skills and resources make achieving their goals an up-hill battle. Most of the projects are underfunded and run on passion.
Otto says some outside cash is beginning to trickle in. The community has enjoyed some good press in the past year and that has helped to publicize their work and built trust. But it is still a challenging task.
“Most entrepreneurs get money from consulting services and reinvest this money into their startups,” says Otto.
In 2011, Forbes Magazine listed the search engine Njorku as one of Africa’s best startups. Since them, the service has grown and now scurries through more than two million pages to link job-seekers with offers.
Nanje says, like many in the industry, he trained himself to write code and run the business.
“I actually leaned how to code in cyber cafes around Buea. Everything is on the internet. I was digging the internet, going through forums, talking to other people via Yahoo Messenger. Some guys in Pakistan. Some guys in India. I read on forums. I asked questions. I tried things.”
By every means, Cameroon’s tech industry is in its infancy. Nanje admits the South African tech scene is more advanced, with a lot of fine engineers and good cash.
But as the annual mountain race here proclaims, there is plenty of hope.