Interview with Cédric Atangana
In this interview, Cédric Atangana, a young African, passionate about technology, talks about his academic background and professional life while presenting WeCashUp, a product of Infinity Space, a digital financial services startup he co-founded and currently manages. Q1: Dear Cédric, could you please tell us about you in a few words? Cédric Atangana (CA): Hello my name is Cedric ATANGANA, I was born in Cameroun 25 years old ago and I graduated as an Industrial Engineer from the Polytech Marseille in France. I am the co-founder of INFINITY SPACE, a start-up FinTech company in Douala, Cameroun, which later spread to Nairobi, Kenya and is currently based in Marseilles, France. We created the WeCashUp (www.wecashup.com); a universal payment platform that enables digital companies to use their Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), and offer their clientele a variety of digital modes of payment that exist on the African continent; cash, mobile money, and many more. Q2: Could you tell us more about your work experience? CA: After a difficult teenage life in Yaounde, Cameroun, I was lucky to be admitted for a Telecom Engineering course at the "Faculté de Génie Industriel" (FGI) in Douala. While in my third year in Engineering School, and given that I was passionate about Robotics, I sat for the entry exam to the Polytech Marseilles, an Engineering School that specializes in Industrial Design, IT and Robotics. I passed the exam and left thereafter for France in 2012. When I finished my studies at the Polytech Marseilles at the beginning of 2015, I had to undertake an internship programme in order to obtain my degree. I chose to do so at INFINITY SPACE, a young innovative company which I had founded with my friends in our student rooms. The company was launched, although I was acutely aware of my knowledge gaps in innovation management. I therefore applied for an MBA programme at Stanford University, San Francisco, USA and I lucky to be admitted. After finishing at the Polytech Marseille, and with INFINITY SPACE launched, I soon realised that despite the fact that I had one of the best Finance Directors in my co-founder; Mrs Annicelle KUNGNE, we lacked expertise in International Finance and Banking Law. This is the reason why, in addition to what we were already doing, I applied for a second MBA programme in International Finance at INSEAD, London, and was lucky to join at the beginning of 2017. That is a quick overview of my career path with a focus on my training and specialization. Q3: How did the idea of starting Infinity Space come about? When did you decide to set it up? CA: When I arrived at the Faculté de Génie Industriel back in 2012 in Douala, I discovered a dynamic entrepreneurial spirit at the Engineering School. Students would meet in various specialized clubs to collectively develop innovative projects. There was the Telecom Club, where students designed the best electronic systems and web design software, the Civil Engineering Club, where students designed futuristic house models, the Industrial Technology Club, where students worked on tomorrow's mechanical megastructures models, the Naval Shipbuilding Club where students built sea vessel models for commercial fishing in Africa etc. All these clubs worked towards what in campus was popularly referred to as the "Industry Week" with the support of our Dean, Professor Robert NZENGWA, an inspiring eccentric genius, and a man I personally consider my role model. During the Industry Week, each club would present its creations to the Minister of Higher Education, in the presence of media outlets invited by our Dean to showcase to the entire country the creation of his students. The best project was rewarded and subsequently received the Dean's unconditional support on a professional level with the full backing of the University and on a personal level through facilitating financing, logistical and technical support. When I arrived at the University, I had already tried my hand on computers. Ever since I was around 10 years old, I would try coding using my brother's computer books. Even then I was already intrigued by Robotics which is an interdisciplinary concept that combines three applied sciences disciplines, IT, Electronics and Mechanics. Back to the clubs, I had tried out all the available clubs at the FCI campus and each of these clubs had geniuses who worked on topical projects, every one of them as interesting as the next. However, the TCI school mechanics did not have adequate IT skills to work more efficiently. The electronics students would design the best possible remotely piloted circuits, but they did not know how to code. The computer scientists lived in a kind of imaginary world and nobody quite understood what they did exactly. In short, they all worked in isolation and I found it a pity. It is then, while still in my first year, a group of second year students with whom I used to hang around with, and I decided to create the UNIT-FGI club. It became the first club to truly bring together all skills from the other clubs. I was then chosen to be the President of the club. We were eager to set up revolutionary projects. We wanted to change the world. We had started with a smart house project which was self-sufficient in terms of energy where students majoring in civil engineering had developed a prototype, with both energy production systems as well as energy recycling units that use solar, wind and water. The Electronic Engineers were implementing the circuits to operate the doors and windows and the IT engineers were programming the artificial intelligence to monitor the entire system. A little while later UNIT-FGI changed names and became "INFINITY SPACE". Finally, at the end of our time at the Polytech Marseille, my new friends and I decided to create our own company, and to name it INFINITY SPACE thus providing an international follow-up to the FGI student club that started in Douala, Cameroun. Q4: Infinity Space flagship product is WeCashUp. Could you tell us more about this project? CA: Let me take you back to Doula in 2011. While I was studying at FGI, the American company Google organised "G-Cameroun 2011", a high-tech conference around Google technologies; Android, YouTube, the Google App engine. The team was lead by Mr Tidjane DEME, who was at that time the Google Director for Francophone Africa. He now works at Partech Venture, a capital fund based in the USA and with presence in Europe. I skipped class for two days so as to take part in the event with a few of my INFINITY SPACE friends at the time, and it truly changed my life. The direct contact with Google's engineers whet my appetite for innovation in all areas, and not only in Cameroun, but at global scale. After the conference, other young geeks and I launched the first Google Technology User Group in Cameroun; the Douala GTUG, and I had the opportunity to be its first President. We were all trained by Google engineers in the USA, and we set up hackathons to train young Cameroonian developers in Douala, students, young entrepreneurs, and many other Google technology fans. We organised coding labs, developer contests, etc. With time, this movement spread outside Douala into other towns in Cameroun, Yaoundé, Ngaoundéré, Dschang, Buea etc. The GTUGs became Google Developers Groups (GDG), and I became the first National Officer for the Google developer communities in Cameroun, with officers in each major city across all 10 regions of Cameroun.. It is after this experience that in 2013, when I was already in Marseilles, France, Google organized the Google Student Ambassadors Summit in Nairobi, Kenya. Google Student Ambassadors are students who represent Google in their university campus by setting up hackathons and other events around Google technologies. This is how I met Alain NTEFF, Check NYAH, Fabien BEGNI, and many others. Although I was in Marseilles at the time, I was invited to the Google Continental Meeting of Communities' Officers in Africa and had the honour of carrying the Cameroonian flag in the capacity of National Officer. This is also where I met Kenneth KINYANJUI, Google Communities Officer representing Kenya, who joined INFINITY SPACE and became its Chief Products Manager. After the conference, I wanted to buy some souvenirs for friends such as my co-founder Annicelle and other people in Marseilles, so I went to the "Masaï Market", a small famous market in Nairobi. As I prepared cash to pay the lady who sold small handmade handbags, she told me that she only accepted M-PESA payments and not cash payments. I had no idea what the heck M-PESA was. She explained that it was a mobile payment system that everyone in Kenya used. So I opened my first M-PESA account the equivalent of Orange Money or MTN Mobile Money in Cameroun, and I paid my goods using it. I was impressed that in Kenya, where only a few people have bank accounts, the entire society can purchase goods using their mobile phones. Back in Marseilles, I discussed this revelation with Annicelle, and we carried out a continental market study. We then realized that although M-PESA is very popular in Kenya, it is not the only mobile payment system on the continent. Other operators such as Orange Money, MTN Money Airtel Money and Tigo cash are developing similar solutions in other countries. In fact, there are more than 155 mobile money wallets of the kind, but they are all interoperable; meaning that an Orange Money customer cannot transfer money to an MTN Mobile Money customer, and nobody can buy anything on the Internet using a virtual payment system. This is how INFINITY SPACE decided to create WeCashUp, www.wecashup.com, a universal payment platform that interconnects all Mobile Money payment systems on the African continent and which offers online stores a single payment portal that incorporates all the aforementioned solutions? Now, an Orange Money customer can transfer money to an MTN Mobile Money customer. In short, WeCashUp covers 155 Mobile Money wallets, 800 million potentials clients that can be reached via a single API (programming interface). WeCashUp mainly targets companies willing to be paid via Mobile Money (online or off line) throughout the African continent. Q5 : WeCashUp has received many awards and accolades from across the world. What about Cameroun? How is the project perceived there by the authorities and investors? Do they support it? CA: We are lucky to have a skilled team that is versatile, and multicultural. We started small and today there are 16 of us, from 11 different countries; Cameroun, Congo, Kenya, Mali, Madagascar, Senegal, Togo, China, France, Germany, USA. This multicultural aspect not only brings us closer to our countries of origin but also to other countries given that our vision at INFINITY SPACE is to challenge what seems impossible in relation to solving the issues of millions of people in Africa and everywhere in the world without exception. As for Cameroun, we have noticed the wide acceptance of the WeCashUp technology, and our investor pool counts a good number of citizens of Cameroun who believe in our vision and who have accompanied us both in Cameroun, where we have a team on the ground and at the international level. We are in good terms with the Government of Cameroun and we hope to work more closely with them and all the other African governments soon. Q6: We know that your targets are huge but can you give us a few figures so we can gain more insight on your progress thus far? Also, can you tell us Cameroun's role in the WecashUp's success story? CA: For the time being, our clients are local and international companies operating online businesses in Africa. To date, close to 4,000 companies use the WeCashUp technology to collect online payments from various Mobile Money operators in Cameroun and in Africa. Their geographical footprint is as follows: 35% from the USA, 25% from France, 15% from Cameroun with the rest scattered across the world. This shows that Cameroun is topping the list of African countries that have adopted the WeCashUp technology and we are very optimistic about the future. Q7: Is WeCashUpthe only product of Infinty Space? To put it in other words, what other activities or products does Infinity' have? CA: Basically, INFINITY SPACE is a technological innovation company. We are experts in innovation broadly speaking. With WeCashUp, we decided to focus on FinTechs that resolve the online payment in Africa; because in today's Africa, more than 800 million people are unbanked, with neither bank accounts nor credit cards, a figure that accounts for more than 80% of the continent's population. We tested the e-commerce market with WeShopUp, a product in the form of a marketplace that enables small African businesses and entrepreneurs to sell their products internationally, in an attempt to reverse the African e-commerce model, whose products are usually imported to Africa from other continents yet hardly ever the other way around, other than in the form of raw materials... Q8: Let's talk about you: many people only know you because of your entrepreneurial activity. Besides your numerous professional activities, could you tell us what drives you? CA: As an entrepreneur, it is very difficult to do anything else. Focus and persistence are key aspects in any entrepreneur's life. So basically, I only work for INFINITY SPACE, and study at Stanford University and INSEAD. Q9 : What are your hobbies and passions? CA : Martial arts (Jeet-Kune Do - JKD), music (Country Music, Hard Rock, and Métal), and reading. Q10: To many you are a genius. What do you have to say about that? CA: I would love to meet one, one of these days. I doubt I am a genius. I'm simply a young African who had the chance to meet outstanding people along the way, including all members of my team and who dreams of Africa as a continent that can enlighten and inspire the world. Q11: Where do you see yourself in ten years' time? CA: In Cameroun or Côte d'Ivoire, tilling land to feed people. Q12: To conclude, can you talk to us briefly about entrepreneurship in Cameroun? CA: When I left Cameroun in 2011, our business ecosystem was at a nascent stage. Today, I am amazed by its impressive growth and by the number of young people willing to change the world. I believe in this Africa, a positive and rising Africa.