“Ovamba is a Cameroon-based platform that provides micro, small and medium sized African businesses with access to short-term trade and growth capital. ABA had the opportunity to share some thoughts with one of its founder: Mrs. Viola Llewellyn“
- Tell us about yourself and your organization
Well, you have my name, so that is a start! I am the co-founder and President of Ovamba Solutions (www.ovamba.com). My parents are Cameroonian, I was born in London. I was a typical “Diasporan” – aware that I was African but too busy “living my life”. My business partner alerted me to the opportunity that Africa represented, and I have never looked back. We created Ovamba in 2013 in Maryland and began operations in Cameroon in June of 2014. Ovamba started out wanting to connect people from the diaspora to investment opportunities in their own countries. However we later found out that actually this was not a viable business model. After many pivots, we arrived to where we are: A FinTech company that provides “Growth-As-A-Service” by making short term funding available to African SMEs. However, we are different from other solutions because our focus goes beyond “access to finance”. Our business model is not just about lending money to African businesses, its more about helping them grow. We help them gain global access to acquire more of the inventory and services that they sell or provide as their core business. A serious business wants to grow and increase revenue, so we help them do that.
- How much did you need to start your organization and how were you able to raise that capital?
GREAT question! We actually didn’t know how much we needed because our business model kept changing the more we did our research. In the end, we decided to be bold and get started with what we had with the plan that we would try to launch our MVP (Minimal Viable Product) and start trying to generate revenue to build the value of the company. We were able to raise US $650,000 in seed capital from friends and family between April 2013 and September 2013. We pitched and spoke to everyone we knew. After that we got our first VC investor GLI who invested $1.3million. The process of this large investment took about 6 months; from May 2014 to October 2014. When GLI decided to invest in us, we had not generated a single penny in revenue which is quite a first for an African company like ours!
- What are some of the challenges you face in your organization and how do you overcome those challenges?
The culture – it was so hard to take off our western hats and transition the African way of doing busines. To overcome this challenge that came with such transition, we had to learn to view the world from a Cameroonian/African perspective be patient and willing to make some costly mistakes which we were savvy enough to only make once!
Capital – Everything costs more and takes longer than expected. We just have to keep marching forward and make a lot of personal sacrifices.
Building a Business Model in a Vacuum – No one had built an “Ovamba” before so we had no competition to chase and no model to copy. We overcame this with crystal a clear vision, flexibility to pivot, creativity and a “lean” approach to building and developing the company. Early one we adopted the savvy approach habit to test everything before full roll out.
Unexpected growth – If you don’t plan growth correctly, it is hard to manage and duplicate it. We had to document everything and examine it to see the patterns and create our own internal policy and culture
Regulatory Environment – Much of Africa, Francophone Africa especially is resistant to disruption and change. The regulatory environment is a hand-down from colonial times and is structured to prevent businesses from escaping Government controls. This explains in part why it is extremely difficult to find major African brands recognized globally. In Cameroon for example it is hard to find a local company that has successfully exported its brand outside the country!! Despite of those constraints, we chose to operate in Cameroon and focused on providing a necessary service to clients with an emphasis on customer service. We followed all laws and rules but realized that “advisors” were more attuned to trying to make us change our business to fit the laws instead of creatively looking for ways to allow our business goals to be realized and thrive in spite of the existing outdated laws. That is why we chose to do our own research and teach our staff how to think creatively and laterally.
Qualified Staff – For us, qualified staff means creative and inquisitive. It’s very hard to find to that. We overcome this by consistently and constantly training our staff. We take 1 week to interview people and understand what they are really made of; we have a set of qualities that we check for. This is all part of our corporate culture and development
Explaining the Value Proposition of Africa to Westerners – For some reason some non-Africans just prefer to think of Africa as a “country” that is in need of charitable solutions and NGO support. They have no idea what a titan of global impact the Continent is. Africa is a continent where business is thriving and should be seen as a destination for high return investments.
- Where do you see your organization 5 years from now and what steps are you taking today to reach that objective?
I firmly believe that Ovamba will be the main alternative to banks and the only choice for SMEs growth. Ovamba delivers “Growth-As-A-Service” which is our suite of products designed to help companies reach hyper-growth. We help them buy and sell more of their products and services. In 5 years timeframe or less we will be a total sub-Saharan offering for businesses, and a pioneer in tech-driven Sharia compliant trade and investment products. We would have succeeded in making Africa an investment destination for global investors and created a brand new asset class. We also believe that we will be the central point for African SME private sector data. Everything we are doing now in terms of pioneering new technologies and opening new markets is geared towards reaching such objective. While doing so, we are also making sure that we become the number one trusted partner to African companies who want to grow.
- What advice would you give other entrepreneurs looking to start a business or invest in Africa?
Too many to list but here are a few:
Managing expectations: There are always stake holders and people who are affected by the decisions you make. You must communicate clearly and have a clear understanding of what you mean and what your goals are. You cannot please everyone all of the time.
Prioritization: When you get started there is so much to focus on and everyone wants to tell you what to think and what to do. The choices are yours alone. Your success, your failure, your destiny. Be willing to shoulder this responsibility.
People: They are often a HORRIBLE let down! However, the right team around you will really take you to the next level. Choose wisely, be aware of labour laws and employment laws – they are not always the same thing!
Unwanted Advice: It’s your business, your vision. Learn to say NO and learn to say TELL ME MORE as is appropriate
Money/Capital: You need to know when you are going to run out of cash and plan accordingly!! Get a good CFO! That is NOT the same as an accountant! Don’t be fooled!
You don’t know what you don’t know: So read, read, read, and talk to people who have walked your journey. You do not always have the answers, and you don’t need to have all the answers to get started
FAIL FORWARD: You will only learn if you fail – but fail in the process of progress. Take risks that are understood and calculated. It’s OK to fail.
- How is your organization participating to the development of Africa?
Everything mentioned above and a whole lot more! We are the first to do what we do. We are addressing the missing middle and developing tech and processes to help companies grow in the key sectors that drive African GDP.