By Cameroonian journalist By Che Azenyui Bruno, first published in Journal du Cameroon.
The nation of Cameroon woke up on 6 March 2020 to the worrisome news of the first confirmed case of the novel Coronavirus pandemic in the country. A French national, 58, visiting the nation’s capital had tested positive for the virus and as reported, had been quarantined in a facility in the capital Yaounde. Breaking the news to the nation, Public Health Minister Manaouda Malachie appealed for national vigilance, assuring all that measures were being taken to “prevent the possible risk of the spread of the virus”.
The news triggered a wide range of reactions nationwide in Cameroon especially as it came barely months after the first ever case of the virus was reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan. For some it instilled fear, for others it was the beginning of a new normal they had to get used to, while for still others there was just no certainty as to what lies ahead.
On instructions from the president the government was immediately put to work and within a very short while the entire nation was introduced to a completely new set of rules and regulations governing business, human interaction and even government affairs. Cameroon’s air, sea and land borders were temporarily closed, the issuance of entry visas suspended, gatherings of more than fifty persons suspended, all institutions of learning from nursery to tertiary were temporarily shut down and all missions abroad for members of government and public/para-public sector employees were suspended. The measures as explained by Prime Minister Chief Dr. Joseph Dion Ngute were intended “to ensure the protection of each and every one and to limit the spread of this pandemic”.
But it didn’t quite take long before the fear and anxiety that came with COVID-19 began to fade away in Cameroon. As early as July 2020, most of the stringent reforms introduced to contain the spread of the virus in the country were already being relaxed even without any official authorization. Companies began calling their workers back to work, schools and colleges were reopening again though with new regulations applied, the shops were opening up for business once more and the bars, the clubs, the parties and the social hangouts were beginning to boom with life once more. Face-masking which had been made compulsory nationwide gradually became more of a choice than a necessity despite government’s call for its strict implementation by forces of law and order. The country’s urban markets began crowding in again and almost all sectors of the nation’s economy and social life had gradually begun returning to business as usual.
The small and medium sized enterprise sector, initially feared to be the sector hardest hit by the pandemic, seemed as buoyant and vibrant as before the announced discovery of COVID-19 in the country. Orock Betang Egbemba, promoter of Entercomms Cameroon and idea initiator of Buea.cm recounts that despite the short notice and unprecedented nature of the measures prescribed for the prevention of the virus, he and his team at Entercomms still found it easy to adjust to the economic disruptions triggered by the Coronavirus pandemic and the unfamiliar changes that came with it.
“We had already begun unleashing some of the greatest tech innovations that were fast changing the face of entrepreneurship in Buea and around the country today. If anything, the disruptions that came with COVID-19 only served as a reminder to us that the future of entrepreneurship in Africa lies in innovation and adaptability and that is one of our defining features here at Entercomms Cameroon,” he recounts.
Betang is one of over 12,000 innovative entrepreneurs in the South West Region of Cameroon who make up what is popularly known as Silicon Mountain, a name used to describe the country’s largest tech incubator community and home to countless number of Africa’s tech-driven startups. His company, Entercomms Cameroon provides market entry and visibility support to small and medium sized enterprises in Buea, South West Region of Cameroon, and beyond. The 38-year-old computer scientist and business developer believes that if anything, his social enterprise has stayed resilient in the face of disruptions triggered by the COVID-19. “We have introduced a few innovations and structural changes aimed at preventing the spread of the virus within our team and around the Buea community. Before the announced outbreak of the virus in Cameroon, a lot of our work was done from our Bonduma office but with the outbreak, we quickly introduced remote work and work-from-home innovations in order to keep our clients satisfied without exposing them to the risk of infection via physical contact”, he explains.
Just like Betang, countless numbers of small and medium sized enterprises in Cameroon received the news of COVID-19 in Cameroon with a renewed commitment to innovation. In Bamenda, capital of the country’s North West Region, the COVID-19 prevention measures introduced by the government and public health authorities triggered a renewed commitment to innovation and service delivery. According to Wirba Relindis, Founder of Relindis Fashion, the social distancing and handwashing measures prescribed for the prevention of the virus were really not new to her enterprise.
“Before the news of COVID-19 in Cameroon, social distancing wasn’t much part of our daily activities here at Relindis Fashion but hand washing had long become part and parcel of our daily habit here especially given the nature of our work which brings us into contact with a lot of fabric types and other objects. Also coming from a country that has in the past been plagued by infections like cholera and other diseases, I believe that washing of hands had long become a practice that many of us had already become very used to here in Bamenda and that’s why it wasn’t difficult for us to adapt to handwashing as a way of preventing the spread of the virus”, she explains.
Jovani Parfait, Founder of Douala-based Agrifood Enterprise Legacy Holdings, recounts that beyond the disruptions introduced as measures for COVID-19 prevention, all other operations of his company remained largely unaffected by COVID-19. “At the level of our production Centre where we produce agricultural machines, there was really no direct negative impact of the crisis. We were able to produce as our clients demanded, we met all our deadlines, supplied in time and up until this moment, we have remained vigilant and all prevention measures have been observed to the letter. No member of our team has so far reported any case of infection”.
Jovani recounts that in order to keep serving their clients and to stay productive in a fast-evolving world of work, most of his services are now tech enabled. “We have developed with the support of our partners a wireless system of payment to cover the entire CEMAC zone and we look forward to launching it this year,” he explains.
Innovation for education
A sector that witnessed massive disruptions with the announced discovery of COVID-19 in Cameroon has been the education sector. Countless numbers of learning institutions at all levels were temporarily shut down while classes were completely suspended in the entire nation for close to two months. Upon resumption, stringent hand washing and social distancing measures were adopted so as to prevent the spread of the virus within the country’s institutions of learning.
All schools both private and public as per government instructions were required to have several hand washing points stationed at strategic positions within their vicinity and the sales of food and other edible items was placed under stricter control. Classrooms were massively downsized to 50 students per class in some cases and far fewer in others depending on the class size and number of students enrolled.
The General Certificate of Education examination, Cameroon’s biggest Anglophone system of education evaluation, usually organized in June every year, was convened in August 2020 largely as a result of the prolonged school closures. The FENASCO and University Games, Cameroon’s biggest school sporting competitions, were both postponed. Higher education Minister Professor Nalova Lyonga explained that all measures implemented had as objective “to beat a virus that we have never seen”.
In the Anglophone University of Buea (UB), a new set of digital tools were introduced to facilitate teaching and learning without any physical contact. UB Vice Chancellor Prof Horace Manga explains that despite being taken unawares and seemingly unprepared, the entire university community quickly became accustomed to digital innovations that were introduced in the system, most of which he says were already part of a bigger digitalization program earlier initiated within the university “We had to migrate to online lectures as an adaptation measure to prevent the spread of the virus. Our teachers had to get involved in the use of online platforms for the exchange of lectures and assignments with their students. They reached out to their students through the platforms, sent lectures and assignments through the platforms, took questions, corrected scripts and evaluated their students using the same platforms. This was particularly in situations where in-person lectures were prohibited. The major indicator of our success is the fact that the university didn't have any contamination whatsoever throughout the 2019/2020 academic year”, he explains.
Mayah Sylvester, Founder of Inter-Comprehensive High School (ICHS) in Buea explains that the COVID-19 prevention measures introduced nationwide and within his school premises only helped facilitate the digitization of education in his school. “Most of our students are now accustomed to the use of smartphones and digital devices for educational purposes and I think this has greatly helped shift their attention from some of the unproductive activities they had been using their smartphones for. This too is one of the amazing things happening on our campus as a result of the COVID-19 prevention measures we introduced.
“As a way of cutting down cost and ensuring access to basic necessities required for the prevention of the virus, we also engaged our science students into the production of hand sanitizers and reusable face masks to ensure that all our students had access to the masks and sanitizers without having to spend much for them,” he adds.
The agribusiness sector, one of Cameroon’s largest employers of private sector labour, witnessed significant disruptions as well though not at all stages of the commodity value chain. Amabo Gladys, an agri-commodity trader in Buea recounts that beyond the distancing measures introduced in the country’s urban markets, no other aspect of her business has witnessed any major disruptions as a result of COVID-19.
“We still go to our farms as usual, cultivate our crops undisturbed and harvest at the right time. I think the only area where we had some changes was when it came to selling our farm products. As a result of the virus the council split the Great Soppo Market into two in order to prevent overcrowding at the other market near the petrol station. Some of us had to come down to the old market near OIC and because of that some of us lost our customers especially those who had become used to our market positions and shed numbers,” she explains. “We are however getting used to the new system and most of our customers are beginning to locate us again,” she adds.
According to statistics from Cameroon’s Ministry of Small and Medium Sized Enterprises, more than 15,000 SMEs were created in Cameroon between 2019 and 2020, most of them registered by persons aged 20 to 40.
“I think this is an amazing pointer to the fact that a lot more of our young people in Cameroon are beginning to pick up interest in entrepreneurship and are gradually beginning to invest their creativity, ingenuity and innovativeness into solving some of the big challenges that we still face as a nation today. Our young entrepreneurs are also beginning to realize that in the 21st century, innovation is key to the success of their social enterprises”, explains Ewemeh Gilbert, Director of Operations of StartUp'Nkap, an investment company that connects Startups & SMEs to investors across Africa.
As of 30 March 2021, Cameroon had recorded a total of 47,669 COVID-19 infections with more than 35,261 of them recovering fully giving a recovery rate of 74%. This according to reports from the Ministry of Public Health.