Data for entrepreneurship: could AI-enabled social platforms support young entrepreneurs in Cameroon?

How could AI-enabled social platforms foster youth entrepreneurship and the business climate in Cameroon? Dr. Pierre Abomo, Mireille Ntachagang, and Pamela Bongkiyung formed a team to bring together different Cameroonian stakeholders to generate and discuss ideas around this question for a workshop called #data4entrepreneurship. In this blog post, they tell us about their process, the outcomes of those discussions, and what they think should happen next:  

African Capacity Development Consulting (ACDC) is a development consultancy with the mandate to accelerate ongoing transformation in the African continent. When INASP put out a call to empower Southern researchers and evidence professionals through an AI-enabled social learning platform, we came up with the idea of creating an AI-enabled social platform to promote and support youth entrepreneurship and improve the business climate in Cameroon. Under the leadership of ACDC’s managing partner Dr Pierre Abomo, this idea was converted into a project led and implemented in Douala, Cameroon, by Mireille Ntchagang, who is a founding member and partner of ACDC. Pamela Bongkiyung, who is a journalist and runs communications and corporate strategy at the Cameroonian startup BBincubator, joined our team.

Our next step was to bring together key players to reflect on youth entrepreneurship and the business climate in Cameroon and to analyse the opportunity to create a digital platform that could help provide solutions. We mapped out stakeholders and institutions to be reached, using our network with small and medium enterprises (SMEs), academic institutions, and local authorities, and invited them to a workshop.

The interest and enthusiasm for the theme was very strong. We organized a 3-day workshop in early November 2021 with 25 participants: five policymakers representing different ministries (finance, territorial administration, and decentralization) and a Deputy Mayor of Douala City Council, ten business entrepreneurs, seven social science researchers, one representative from the National Institute of Statistics, two representatives from the employer organization GICAM (le Groupement Inter-Patronal du Cameroun), and two representatives of a business incubator.

The workshop was organized in different table rounds which had to be as heterogeneous as possible in terms of profiles to stimulate reflection. A rapporteur was appointed in each group to record the main points of agreement or disagreement at the end of the discussions. On day one, participants were invited to diagnose the problem of access to entrepreneurship data. Day two was to address and look into how to solve the problem of access to entrepreneurship data. Day three was on operationalising the solution to the problem. 

Workshop participants in discussions

Some of the challenges to produce and access economical data for entrepreneurs listed:

  • A protective and distrustful culture of citizens and economic actors regarding the sharing of information. There is also a limited budget and time available for data collection campaigns. Data is thus often collected in a random manner with the final results being biased and incomplete.
  • The ignorance of key actors (such as politicians and entrepreneurs) on the reality of the business ecosystem and the lack of engagement of these actors in the creation of data to produce vital and essential information. Due to multiple sources and dissemination channels, an atmosphere of confusion is created which raises questions about the authenticity and reliability of existing data. Data illiteracy among key actors like entrepreneurs and politicians are another barrier.
  • Databases are not being updated, which makes the information and data that is available outdated and irrelevant for most actors.
  • Lack of communication: the workshop participants mentioned that programmes geared towards entrepreneurs are not communicated very well. This results in most entrepreneurs not being aware of those existing programmes. In addition, few local administrative offices have programmes targeting young people who are on social media.

Amongst the solutions to these issues, ideas for two types of data platforms were listed:

  • A platform that brings together the country’s entrepreneurship data qualitatively and/or quantitatively. This data could be segmented by geographical area and structured by sector (primary, secondary and tertiary, etc.). A platform of that kind should also be interactive with a general chat option where members could address their issues in real time.
  • A cross-governmental platform to bring together and share data from all departments, as the UK government does on www.gov.uk. There, people could find information on legislations, strategic information on various business sectors, how many businesses are created in each sector, their failures and progress, economic and other trends that affect the environment, and more. Such a platform should be created in collaboration with federal organizations like GICAM. The participants also suggested having a toolkit on how to start a business in Cameroon, providing tools and tips to thrive in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. This toolkit could also contain a list of prestigious and well-known Cameroonian entrepreneurs in different fields.

Many issues around youth entrepreneurship were discussed

There are two steps we think that should be taken forward:

  • Making high level contacts (e.g. with ministries) to advocate for the creation of an online platform to access economic data, notably through accessing different national databases. This could stimulate and encourage the implementation of national mechanisms facilitating the production, use and sharing of economic data for entrepreneurs.
  • The creation of a task force in charge of discussing data access needs: identifying where data is located and weighing up the sensitivity of it – and otherwise disseminating the data. This can be set up as part of the establishment for such a public platform.

After the workshop, we conducted a participant survey, in which 83% of participants indicated that they thought the workshop was either highly relevant or relevant to their institutions and activities. We therefore think that this workshop, which was new in Cameroon, was useful for participants to discuss their common challenges in terms of accessing data for their respective activity and to generate actionable ideas. As a team we will continue our efforts and establish a task force to take suggested solutions forward. 

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