A Mobile App Maker In The Extreme

{ Posted on Nov 23 2009 by Bill Zimmerman }
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Categories : From the office

The Extreme North of Cameroon is aptly named for a variety of reasons, apart from being the remote northern terminus of the country. It is, in many respects, a land of extremes with a vastly different character from the Grand South. Situated at the edge of Sahelian Africa, the climate is typically hot and arid with dry season temperatures reaching highs of 118°F (48°C). During this period, the rain ceases to fall in any appreciable amount for months on end, replaced by Harmattan dust whipped up from the depths of the Sahara Desert. When the rains return, bone dry mayos (rivers) and plains are subject to flash floods that may displace entire villages. Lacking any viable roads linking it to the south, travel to the region is achieved only by booking a flight on a small plane (fast and expensive) or an overnight train from Yaoundé followed by an 8 hour bus trip (slow and affordable).

With all its challenges—the climate, geographic isolation, poverty, poor infrastructure—it’s about as unlikely a place as any to find a nascent mobile software scene.

Until Djorwe Temoa arrived, that is.

Born and raised in the village of Tchatibali, Djorwe traveled to study at the prestigious National Advanced School of Engineering Polytechnique in Yaoundé. Degree in hand, Djorwe began his career in 2001 working for Orange, a leading mobile service provider. After his success in the mobile industry, he returned to the Extreme North with his wife. Following BarCamp Cameroon, Djorwe asked if he could visit Limbe Labs to get a copy of the iPhone SDK (at a whopping 2.3GB, a download well beyond the grasp of most Africans).

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While he copied a trove of Mac OS X software to his external hard drive, Djorwe demonstrated two mobile apps he’s developed for the local market. I assumed that Mac users were rare in Maroua and aspiring iPhone app developers rarer still, so I was eager to hear his story. Djorwe was happy to oblige. The highlights of our conversation are below:

BZ: Tell me about becoming an entrepreneur with a focus on the mobile platform.
DT: I wanted to start my own IT company but I thought it required a big investment. Later, working with Jean-Francis [Ahanda], who was very interested in Open Source software, I discovered that it doesn’t take too much capital to start a software business. I also wanted to create software that most Cameroonians could use, which is why I chose the mobile platform.

BZ: And you’ve got a strong interest in the iPhone now?
DT: I’m interested in developing for the iPhone, but it’s very expensive. I know I won’t get one million subscribers in Cameroon with an iPhone app—not now. So I started with J2ME and SMS applications because more Cameroonians can benefit from them.

BZ: Describe for me what it’s like working as a software entrepreneur in Maroua. Are there others like you?
DT: I work from home. I can say, I don’t know anyone else in Maroua making mobile applications. As for the environment, it’s very hot—especially in March and April. So the best time for me to work is during the night. The good thing is it’s calm, so there’s no distractions. For an internet connection I use Camtel 128k ADSL, but it can go down for 1-2 days at times.

BZ: I couldn’t help but notice your new MacBook Air. I’m sure those are rare items in Maroua.
DT: Yes, they’re not common! (laughs) I bought the MacBook Air from a shop in Douala because I’m interested in building applications for the iPhone. Also, it’s a gift for myself.

Just when I think I have the software landscape in Cameroon pretty well figured out, a guy like Djorwe comes along to turn all my assumptions upside-down. If iPhone development can be done in Cameroon’s Extreme North—about as harsh a computing environment as one is likely to find anywhere—it opens up a vast range of potential footholds for software engineering elsewhere on the continent.

Djorwe is in Yaoundé as I write this, returning soon via train to his home in Maroua.

I'm an engineer, ex-Microsoftie, founding board member of AfriLabs, co-founder of ActivSpaces in Cameroon and VC4Africa. Drawn to innovation, creativity & all things tech. More at splinter.me/billz