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The Steve Jobs of Africa

August 14th, 2017
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Republic of the Congo
tags:Democratic Republic of Congo, Elikia, Steve Jobs, Verone Mankou, VMK, Way-C

The world has christened him the Steve Jobs of Africa. But for Verone Mankou the CEO and founder of VMK, a technology start up in the Republic of Congo, the fire in his belly was sparked by the need to ensure that technology is accessible to the greatest number of people at the cheapest cost ever across Africa.

His passion has seen him design the first African tablet and the first smartphone, dubbed Elikia, or hope, designed in Africa.  He has also launched a smartphone and tablet manufacturing unit in the capital Brazzaville.

He talked to FairPlanet about the genesis of his zeal, what inspired him to come up with what he calls the tablet of development, why he wants to get everyone in Africa hooked to technology and his greatest worries.

FairPlanet: You have brought Africa some of its first and life-changing innovations, the first African tablet computer, Way-C and the African smartphone, Elikia, tell us where it started and the journey you have walked so far.

Verone Mankou: It has been a long, sometimes tough but very rewarding journey that stemmed from when I was seven years old and developed a huge passion for technology and specifically computer science. I wanted my life to take this route. I nurtured my talent so aggressively that when I joined a specialized technical high school I became certified in network maintenance. I got employed as a network architect by an internet company and also at one time was an adviser to the minister in charge of Post and Telecommunications. But in all these endeavours I noticed that there was something missing. That access to internet and technology, though very important to the people was prohibitively expensive.

It is how I decided to set up VMK. The goal has been to ensure that people in my home at the Republic of Congo have access to gadgets that have been customized to their liking, addresses their immediate needs but which are also within their reach financially. We have brought the country and continent, the first African smartphone and the first African tablet computer.

People have christened you the Steve Jobs of Africa. Do you feel that that title best describes you?

That is quite an honour and I have always admired the late Steve Jobs for positioning the tech space in ways never seen before. However, I feel Jobs had his ways and reasons and while mine may somehow tie with his, I am just a young man working to ensure my people are empowered.

Your home country the Republic of Congo is considered one of the most difficult places in the world to do business. How do you navigate this and keep shining?

The Republic of Congo, like most African countries, has its own fair share of challenges and true the business environment is tough, but the idea is to have a product and entity that people can identify with. It then becomes very easy for people to support you, because they see your product as one of their own. We are also very lucky that the government has been very supportive because it believes in the power of technology.

How big is the reach for your technologies?

We are in major cities of the country and have also partnered with other telcos like MTN and Airtel who stock our products in and out of our country. Since we went commercial with our first products in 2011, we have managed to sell over 100,000. It is quite motivating.

What drives you?

My guiding principle is the everyday interaction I have with ordinary people and the transformative role technology has played in changing ordinary lives. When I see one young soul able to access a product like Elikia and using that to empower themselves, it gives me great impetus to reach more people.

Africa still experiences a huge digital divide- the difference between those who have access to technologies and skills and those who don’t- how in your opinion can this be bridged?

To majority of the people especially in rural Africa, internet remains a luxury. Yet to the few who have embraced it, it is a world of difference. Access to the internet for the African rural population should not be a matter of if but when. Governments cannot do this alone. Public private partnership would go a long way in ensuring we reach those in hinterlands. If government creates an enabling environment for private companies to reach this people, then the private sector will rise to the occasion.

What is your response to critics and skeptics who argue that tablets and smartphones claiming to be "African" are only Chinese designs with only superficial unique traits?

There have been major claims over the years especially because some of these gadgets were traditionally manufactured in countries like China and only came to Africa to be assembled here. But Africa has come of age, we have phenomenal squad of young innovators who are burning the midnight oil to design technologies that are African. We at VMK are a classic example. There is no doubt about that. The African tech space has moved from just an assembler to an originator and creator. You only need to move across each African country to appreciate this.

What is the market perception and reaction to your products compared to the more established brands like Samsung, Apple, Nokia?

Those who have interacted with our products especially in the Republic of Congo love them for their accessibility, because they are cheap, and because of their unique designs and functionalities that are simple. It explains why we have managed to sell over 100,000 gadgets since we started. We rely heavily on feedback from the people we make these gadgets for, and so far, the reception has been fantastic.

One of your mantras is “It is useless to offer good products to people if they do not have means to buy them”. Tell us more about this

It pretty much means that you have to tie quality with affordability. While we endeavor to create quality products, we also need to make sure that they are readily available and at very reasonable rates. The idea is to ensure that you can create a product, show its value to for example people at the bottom of the pyramid in the economy then have them buy it because it is affordable and they can see its value in their daily lives.

What sets these African technologies, the tablet computer and Elikia, apart from the others? How different are they?

I think people love identity. People love something they can call their own. The fact that Elikia, Way- C and other technological products have been manufactured for a specific target market in mind, the African, mean Africans appreciate them more. From the African themed designs, to affordability. In a nutshell it is giving people a product that serves their purpose but at a reasonable price.

You have set up VMK Academy to tap into African tech talent. Tell us the progress so far and what ultimate dream of the academy?

The Academy seeks to nurture and tap young talent while exposing them to global best practices. We believe the future of Africa is in tech and what better way to prepare for it than to tap into young minds who will drive it. We have been taking our students to other countries like China for exchange programmes.

What is the next big Africa innovation that the continent and world should expect from VMK?

The plan is to continue innovating and responding to African problems and needs with homegrown solutions. We want to be the ultimate tech company for Africa, everyday evolving while ensuring every African has access to technology. It is possible, and we will do it, no matter how long it takes.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Republic of the Congo
The Republic of Congo, like most African countries, has its own fair share of challenges and true the business environment is tough, but the idea is to have a product and entity that people can identify with.
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