Local solutions to local problems propel Cameroon’s startups scene

It’s the evening rush hour in Douala, Cameroon. In a quartier close to the university, Patrick Ehode is heading to his office where he and his colleagues run Vairified, the verification company he launched in April 2016. Moto-taxis with two or three passengers dexterously manoeuvre around each other as well as other cars and vehicles stuck in the evening traffic, carefully navigating the car-jammed roads.

Ehode started Vairified to help Cameroonians know which services, bars, restaurants, artisans and particularly taxi drivers that they can rely on and expect a good service from. As the app began to take off in Douala Ehode and his team expanded to other Cameroonian cities, such as Yaoundé, Limbe and Buea.

“It’s information,” he says. “People don’t have information here that can save their lives. I’m really passionate about helping people to get the right information to make decisions, so that’s why we came with a concept that is really simple: it [the company or establishment] is either verified or it’s not verified.”

Thus far the taxi aspect of the service has been the most successful.

“Most of our clients are women,” Ehode says. “Single mums whose children we take to school, companies whose staff have to work late…” Additionally, on late nights, for women whose homes are inaccessible by car the taxi drivers turn into chaperones, walking them to their doors to make sure they get in safely.

The lack of enforced driving regulations means that many drivers don’t have car insurance, and in some cases driving licences, according to Ehode. Such oversights and failings can lead to serious accidents. According to the World Bank Group in Cameroon, an average of 12 people per day die in road accidents in Cameroon.

Without hiking up taxi prices Vairified hopes to fill the gap that institutions have overlooked by raising standards and formalising an otherwise relatively informal sector of the economy.

The company has also embarked on a partnership with the multinational drinks company Diageo to provide a safe option for revellers to get home after a night on the town with ’Take Me Home’. The service, which launched in December, encourages drivers to use specially subsidised taxis rather than drink and drive, and currently has 50 cars stationed around Douala.

Vairified aren’t alone in tackling issues that arise from transport in the country. Traveler is an app that tracks user safety on public transport. Also new last year, having launched in October, Traveler monitors speed, detects locations and obtains information about the driver and passengers on a bus, ready to transmit to emergency services and road safety teams in case of an accident.

 
From the road to rural areas

The founders of the health app Gifted Mom, have a different approach to plugging gaps in the system. The app connects women in rural areas with doctors and healthcare workers who advise and educate them during and after their pregnancy, reminding them of their antenatal classes or baby vaccination appointments via SMS.

“We started with this because what came to our mind was how come with so much technology existing we still have maternal and infant mortality [problems],” says co-founder Alain Nteff.

For many women in rural areas health centres are just too far away to make regular inquiries; for this, Gifted Mom is also at hand. “Because the mobile phone is what they use all the time, through this medium we can send messages to these women,” says the organisation’s monitoring and evaluation program officer Dr. Agbor Ashumanyi Ako.

Scrolling through streams of messages between doctors and their patients senior engineer Hervé Dongmo highlights exchanges where one doctor marks whether or not the patient is at risk, so the doctor on the next shift can follow up.

“In places where the health centres are far away, women can stay home pregnant and think that they are good, everything is OK. We’ve had two cases where we’ve had to send for emergencies,” he laments. “For one of those [cases] the baby had died but the [mother] didn’t know.”

According to the information given by expectant mothers, the doctors can determine if the patient is able to attend her nearest clinic for treatment or if one of the health workers will have to intervene and treat the patient themselves.

“Our objective is to save your life, not just to speak with you,” says Dongmo.

While the app is live and manned 24/7 with up to 1000 messages with questions coming in each month, the team is in need of more logistical support as doctors – who are volunteering with the service – are only able to respond between their regular work shifts.

“There are startups providing solutions to a number of problems, including of course health and safety,” says Rebecca Enonchong. “What is important in a tech ecosystem is that startups focus on sustainable apps for which they will find paying customers and will generate a profit.

"This means that rather than create competing apps for health and safety, startups should identify a number of pain points and build an app to solve that issue.”

 
“I believe more in disruption”

In a country with 22 million people, two official languages – French and English – and a myriad of over 200 local languages, access to quick countrywide information can be difficult. Though Internet penetration is quite moderate – with 20.7 per centof the country online according to data from the World Bank – in November when violence took place in Bamenda, in the south-western part of the country by the police against Anglophone protestors, images and videos quickly circulated online across the country. People began to demand answers.

“The relaying of information through social media would have been impossible a few years ago,” Enonchong points out. “That coupled with better, cheaper Internet has made an incredible difference in getting information on the crisis, and forcing government to respond.” In all the solutions, disruptions, interventions and moves towards digitalisation, Enonchong believes that the incremental changes will have a lasting impact on the strength of the country’s institutions.

Nteff agrees – he is particularly pleased with the way in which local participation is solving local problems.

“For the last two years we’ve been talking about leapfrogging the health system using mobile phones. I’m uncomfortable with the word leapfrogging because it means that we can compromise certain things,” Nteff says.

“I believe more in disruption. We don’t have primary health systems. With technology we can standardise these things and move faster to catch up with the rest of the world. There’s a lot of opportunity... and we believe tech is the fastest way of getting things organised.”