Award-winning Cameroonian techie, Churchill Nanje was a high school student with a penchant for breaking rules. Today he is causing another kind of disruption. And it is changing Africa! The Google inspired geek talks innovation, business and big dreams with Ngum Ngafor.
Hello Churchill. Thanks for speaking to AS. Picture this: you are at a cool techie mixer and you meet Mark Zuckerberg. How do you introduce yourself? [Laughs]. I would say I am Churchill Nanje, a young, self taught software developer-turned-entrepreneur based in Buea (Cameroon). I have been been running businesses in technology, web and mobile enterprise applications since 2006. Njorku.com – the job search engine for Africa – is a startup I recently founded.
What attracted you to the tech industry and how did you become a part of it?
It happened by chance. As a high school student, I was into science and computers. This was when the telecoms sector was booming in Africa. My plan was to study telecommunications at university and work in that industry. But I didn’t make it to Cardiff or Sheffield University (in the UK) as I had hoped to. Instead I headed for Trustech Institute of Technology (in Buea, Cameroon) with the view of focusing on computer repairs for a year while thinking of my next step. It was there that I got introduced to web development, which I loved doing. After my training, the school hired me as an instructor. While teaching, I started building websites for people and eventually left the organisation to start my web development and consultancy service, AfroVisioN Group.
Your latest venture, Njorku has caused quite a buzz. What inspired its creation?
Several things. As my AfroVisioN workload increased, I needed to hire staff to manage it. Also, in the technology world, people switch jobs a lot. Another problem we have in Africa is that most skilled young people tend to travel abroad for other opportunities or they leave to start their own companies ( which is a good thing). I always need to hire people very fast because the work is always there. However when I initially tried to do this, it soon became clear there was no one place from which I could source talent, so I decided to build a platform where anybody looking for work could interact with prospective employers.
I understand why you would create such a service to cater for your needs. But what convinced you that others could benefit from it too?
Well, I looked around and realised many people were looking for work. Also, on talking to some companies, I learned that they spent a lot of money and time trying to find the right talent. My research showed organisations were spending about half a million CFA ( $1000) to hire a good engineer or accountant, for instance. The recruitment agencies they were working with also had difficulties managing their data. This mix gave me an opportunity to create a technologybased solution to these problems. Award
Running your own business must be rewarding but also challenging. What are some of the major issues you grapple with?
My main challenge lies in finding the right human and financial capital. Njorku runs on a lot of servers which are costly. As the priority now is to develop the product we need to keep investing in it financially. Getting the right skill mix can also be difficult especially as some technologies I would like to work with in the future are not y et part of learning programmes in our schools here. My way round this problem is to hire young people and train them in these areas.
How did you manage to secure financial backing for Njorku?
I have always ensured that I work extra hard for my clients so they would be so satisfied with my services that they would wish to see me succeed even more. Those who backed Njorku are people with whom I have developed good working relationships. I told them about the project, they liked it and came on board.
What has been the response to the platform from recruiters and job seekers across the continent?
Job seekers are very impressed. There are people using it in Kenya, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mexico, Hungary as well as the UK and US. Generally, recruiters are positive. We’re working on specific tools to meet their needs You are not the only one in this game. How do you plan to keep ahead of the competition? , For now, we are unique in a sense because Njorku is the only job search engine focused on opportunities around Africa. If competitors come, it won’t affect our goals because we will stay focused on what we set out to do. As a team, we will judge our success or failure by our ability to meet these objectives.
As a keen innovator, you have expressed interest in building a product that facilitates food processing in Cameroon. Tell me more about this please.
This idea comes from my interest in finding out how things work. Once I had grasped the function of technology, I started trying to procreate things. So when I saw that (the wastage of agricultural products) as a problem, I thought I could use my skills to help people in this area. At the moment, I am still working on a concept. Many ideas spring to mind. For instance, while brainstorming with my team recently, we realised that the problem lies beyond the preservation of food and their products; produce usually decays because farmers take it to market but are usually unable to sell it all or consume the unsold food. It also became clear that farmers sometimes hold on to crops which eventually rot because they don’t know who to sell them to. A potential solution to these problems is to set up whole foods supermarkets around the country, from which we could sell food bought from farmers on a wholesale basis and preserved for resale.
You recently visited the USA for a business exchange programme. How was the experience and what did you find Cameroonian and American techies could teach each other?
I was one of delegates from various countries who attended a programme organised by the US embassy and State Department. We travelled across four states and learnt about business-government relations in the USA through encounters with entrepreneurs, Chambers of Commerce and NGOs. In terms of what we can teach each other, I think Cameroonians ( or African entrepreneurs/ techies) come up with really outof-the-box creations which their counterparts in the US are less able to think of because they do not face the same constraints as Africans. On the other hand, techies in America have advanced systems which we are yet to develop because we are still at the start of the internet (age) in Africa. So we can learn from the decades of research and development they have been working on while they can gain a perspective of how situations they faced many years ago are being replayed in another context. Take the iROKO TV creator, Jason Njoku for instance. When he went to Nigeria (from London) to set up his business, he didn’t assume things would just work for him. He went to Alaba market to negotiate movie rights with producers. Mr Njoku also understood the limitations of the Nigerian legal system, so instead of signing written contracts with the marketers, he recorded their sales of rights to him on video. Now we know that contracts can also be done like that. The constraints in Africa are pushing its techies to figure out interesting things which can inspire their Western colleagues.I recently found out on facebook that some UK banks have adopted the mobile money transfer system which started in Kenya. This is an excellent example of how South-North knowledge transfer can work.
How would you describe the state of your country’s tech industry today and the way you envisage its future?
Allow me to focus on Buea as that is my base. Before I started out there were hardly any developers and most of them left the country. I stayed was because I saw the game changing potential of this sector. In fact, I have always dreamt that one day we will be able to have a vibrant ecosystem, just like the one in The (Silicon) Valley. I am confident that within the next couple of years we are going to have a similar set up in Buea because the community is growing fast. Recently, a young man who has been doing part time work with me, while studying Computer Engineering at The University of Buea participated in a Google competition and won. He just returned from Google’s Head Quarters in California.Things like this will be happen more regularly and there will be many more young people who can write code, engineer new gadgets and build software.
“Constraints in Africa are pushing its techies to figure out interesting things which inspire their Western colleagues”
You enable a selection of university students to gain free access to your facilities. What is the motivation behind this?
It is mainly social. When I was learning, I didn’t have a computer as my parents couldn’t afford one, so I depended on cyber cafes where people would take a shine to me and allow me to use their computers for free. Sometimes I would help the cafe owners sell internet time in exchange for use of their servers. For over a year, I enjoyed free net and computer access. That helped me grow my skills and develop a successful career. So I see what I am doing is a way of continuing that chain of opportunity. I hope the young people I enable today will achieve as much as I have or even more. Also, this programme creates the right conditions for developing an easily accessible talent pool which might be lost if the very bright students I work with cannot afford training fees.
Running a venture like Njorku must be demanding. How do you manage to relax?
[laughs]. I love music! If I wasn’t writing code, I would be a musician. At times I sit on my piano and just play (he’s self taught) or learn a new tune. I like the fact that this has nothing to do with computer screens or monitors, so it relaxes my mind. I also play table tennis and swim. Travelling to new places – preferably with no computers – is another hobby.
What is the future for Churchill Nanje and Njorku?
In a few years, I hope to be able to impact millions of lives around the world with my skills. As for Njorku, I would like it to serve millions of job seekers in the easiest and most convenient way.
EXCEL IN BUSINESS LEADERSHIP
The best way to lead is by gaining a sound understanding of your field of expertise and demonstrating best practice (to your team and peers) through action.
As a tech entrepreneur in Africa, micromanagement works best for me because finding the right talent is a challenge. I train my staff and oversee their work until their output meets satisfactory standards.
To lead effectively, one needs a solid vision. That is, an outlook that considers success and failure within a specified period. It is important to sell ideas to one’s team by telling them about the overall plan and identifying its risks and benefits.
Friendliness with team members is a good thing but when in charge, you need to be very disciplined when rolling out necessary changes. Firing, hiring or any kind of change management must be done with the conviction that it is the best way to deal with the given situation. While this is important, it is equally necessary to learn from mistakes and evolve.
A constant quest for knowledge is also vital. I learn everyday. In fact, I feel bad if a day goes by without me learning something new. Prioritising the welfare of users/ local communities is the best way to ensure sustainable growth and development. This is something good business leaders must know.