In today’s edition of Africa’s Most Innovative Companies, Ventures Africa speaks to Verone Mankou, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of VMK – producers of arguably the first African designed smartphone – about his ambitions to make the technological “DNA” of businesses available and affordable to African entrepreneurs.
Mankou early on placed large stock by the importance of technology to the success of businesses, he explains: “I would say that technology is part of the DNA of the business.”
This remains as true in Africa, although Mankou soon realised that there are considerations pertinent to the launch of business-assisting technologies in an African context.
“In Africa, as elsewhere, technology has become a central element in the life of the company. The particularity of Africa is that she wants the same thing elsewhere but at a relatively low price.”
With this in mind, Mankou set about his project of designing a cheap computer for Africa during 2006. However, he says, his plans were revolutionised by the release of the first iPhone – immediately he turned to producing a “big iPhone” – a tablet – that would provide people with computing capabilities and internet connection at an affordable price.
“Since the beginnings of VMK, I always thought that we would succeed if we find the right balance between quality and price, so our products are widely available at a price attractive enough, and this is what we have managed to do,” the CEO says, remembering the evolution of his business model.
Mankou has sought to create a range of fully unique products for the African market, and this he says, could only be done by an African, who can understand what local consumers want and need.
“Our products are unique in their origin and vision… all our products are designed in Africa…we find African markets. Through this vision, I think only an African can know what is best for Africa, starting with the content,” he says.
In addition to VMK’s device offerings, Mankou has also developed a platform to make useful content accessible for African consumers: “we’ve launched VMK Market which is a marketplace to promote the content developed in Africa and for Africa before we did,” he explains, adding: “we saw that Africa has trouble to pay for applications because no payment solution is adapted to our continent – let us recall a very low rate of banking, and cards – so we launched VMK Market.”
Although VMK is already gathering a significant following and is enjoying substantial success – the company having made and exceeded its first million dollars in 2012 – Mankou already has a whole list of plans for the future of the company.
“In 5 years, I hope that our products will be present in more countries than today and that we will be able to give millions of people access to technology,” he comments, going on to outline a project he is particularly fond of – the accessible tablet designed to improve education across Africa.
“This year VMK will launch four new products, including … our educational project tablet which will cost less than $100,” he reveals, explaining further: “the aim here is to give all students the continents have a digital textbook in their shelves, I consider that a tablet can easily replace a binder and I fight for that by the 2nd half of this year thousands of people in Africa to have access to this product.”
Uptake is already strong, discloses the CEO, saying: “Please note that this product will be sold only to states and NGOs, not directly to students. Today, several countries have already approached to place an order.”
In further plans: “One of the largest European mobile operators is currently testing our concept for a digital class …” he says, giving a sneak-preview of what may be in store.
Mankou accepts that there are certain challenges to achieving business success on the African continent, highlighting the main problem experienced by many entrepreneurs as lack of funding opportunities.
“I would say the biggest challenge is probably known lack of funding, especially in francophone African countries where risk capital does not exist. But more than that there are other serious problems as the lack of qualified manpower to areas of relatively high profile in addition to that tax policies and customs of some countries kill entrepreneurship especially in the case startups.”
Had Mankou had access to the necessary funding in time, he reminisces that the global technology history may have looked somewhat different: “because of lack of funding my project touchpad was born in late 2011, if I had funding, I could have launched the tablet end of 2009, well before the iPad, who knows, maybe the story would be written differently …”
As to advice for budding entrepreneurs, Mankou has a few poignant comments to make:
“Be passionate! Because regardless of the complexity of a project, I consider only the passion you can face the obstacles that we encounter every day in Africa!”