This entry is part 6 of 19 in the series Running a StartUp in a Crisis Economy

With the rising cost of office space in Buea, further exacerbated by the Anglophone crisis, it is increasingly costly for small businesses and startups to operate in the already expensive city. This puts pressure on these baby firms that are struggling to stay afloat financially. As rental prices increase, co-working spaces have, therefore, emerged as an alternative to traditional offices for individuals and startups.

In the Silicon Mountain, one place these startups and entrepreneurs are turning to is ActivSpaces, Cameroon’s leading tech hub.

The hub, through its co-working space program, gives startups access to its co-working space facilities, freeing them from the burden of securing a costly office space while they are still just starting out. It also offers entrepreneurs and startups alike, the benefits of being part of its vibrant tech entrepreneurial community.

With co-working spaces like ActivSpaces, startups may be able to save a significant amount of cash by renting an office within the hub compared to renting a traditional office. In Buea, where it has its primary hub for instance, ActivSpaces currently offers co-working space to SBSC (Small Business Support Center) and in Douala, it offers office sharing to some young startups like TCT&CO, KEMY DISTRIBUTION, AXE DIGITAL, LOBRI, and H&B CONSULTING.

These spaces provide individuals and small teams with offices or desks in communal rooms in which they can work productively.

To facilitate productivity, these spaces also offer great amenities to its members. For ActivSpaces, its co-working space program includes among others, 24-hour access to high-speed Internet. It also includes daily cleaning, access to conference room and equipment, access to its Post Office Box and community events. Co-working companies also boast that their workspaces foster cooperation and innovation through networking among its members.

Prices for these spaces vary depending on the needs of startups and individuals. Individuals that simply need a desk and an outlet for their computer can reserve desks at co-working offices. For an average of FCFA 52,500 per month, these memberships guarantee that members will have access to a desk every day. However, the exact desk might switch from day to day. It is also possible to rent a dedicated desk for approximately FCFA 25,000 to FCFA 40,000 or more per month.

Besides ActivSpaces, Jongo Hub — a startup incubator in Buea — also offers co-working spaces to startups and entrepreneurs.

This hub, aimed at helping entrepreneurs hone their business skills, is home to Cameroonian young entrepreneurs who dream of transforming innovative ideas into funded startups and multi-billion dollar companies.

The ActivSpaces space story

Founded in 2009 by Bill Zimmerman in the beach town Limbe, ActivSpaces incubates young startups and entrepreneurs who want to build their own businesses. When Bill Zimmerman arrived Cameroon in 2009, he realized a lot of young people were building their own technology businesses. He, therefore, tried to bring together, a few young entrepreneurs to start an incubator.

At the time, Valery Colong, ActivSpaces’ Hub Manager in Buea, was just a young tech entrepreneur working on an agricultural venture, Agro-Hub. He needed space and a community to work with which was not available at the moment. So, when Bill proposed the idea of running an incubator, he readily accepted.

How Startups are Cost-Cutting Via Co-working Space During the Crisis
Valery Colong, ActivSpaces’ Hub Manager in Buea

Because the town is more of a vacation destination with mostly commercial activities and holiday resorts, Valery and Zimmerman were quick to realize that Limbe wasn’t the best location for a hub. In Buea, however, the seed of technology incubation had already been planted. Buea at that time, had a thriving university community, increasingly affordable Internet connectivity, and gifted with “natural” air-conditioning by virtue of its location on the cool green slopes of Mount Cameroon.

Then of course, ambitious young technology entrepreneurs were in abundance. They were making use of cybercafés and hacking together code, but frequently in isolation. And startup ideas were often treated as closely guarded secrets.

“So, it was only normal that after operating in Limbe for one year, it was clear that Limbe was not the place for an incubator at the time. So, we moved over to Buea and the idea was readily welcomed by the community that already existed here. That’s how it just started. We just took off almost immediately,” Valery Colong said.

When the crisis hits

Fast forward to 2019, the unrest in the English-speaking part of Cameroon has dealt a serious blow to ActivSpaces. It almost resulted to a situation where the management considered a temporal shutdown for the hub in Buea.

To make matters worse, the crisis has also had a hit on the hub’s finances and is threatening to hit even harder if the situation remains the same.

“Due to the crisis, some of our funding has been discontinued. Then of course, the number of persons who used to show up at the space has reduced since students who used to come around do not anymore because it’s not safe to move around. Also, we used to have lots of activities at night. These days, however, we don’t even organize activities at night anymore because of security concerns.

‘Of course, incomes we used to get from co-working space and other activities has reduced. The economic damages we’ve suffered are quite huge. But we just have to keep riding on because we believe in what we’re doing.”

Waving through

Despite the challenges, Valery still has his head above the water. As with every entrepreneur, the hub had to adapt to the changing conditions.

“We changed strategy in the way we organize our community events. We have also shifted focus a little bit away from community activities to more of engineering activities.”

While there might have been a slowdown on the community side, ActivSpaces is, however, picking up a lot of steam on the engineering side. This is even more important for the hub because it generates revenue for the young engineers working in these labs. This also generates some income for ActivSpaces to be able to run activities.

During this time, the hub has taken the time to start working on the ActivSpaces Labs. This program brings together engineers to work on many different projects.

“We’re recently seeing a lot of projects coming in. And many of the youths we have talked to, we’re trying to encourage them to come and join efforts with the labs.”

Valery’s advice for other entrepreneurs on surviving the crisis

Valery believes that startups and entrepreneurs, with the Internet during this crisis, can do a lot behind their computers. For him, it’s not enough to just shutdown.

“I think that anybody who has shut down because of the unrest whereas we still have the Internet, is just being lazy. His business needs to learn how to adapt. Because there’s still a tremendous opportunity with the Internet and we can still do a lot. I think this time around, it gives us some sort of focus. If you’re able to focus, you can still make it.”

Africa is the last frontier market for entrepreneurs and a whole new group of co-working spaces is coming to support them. These spaces are popping up all over the continent and are quite popular. With many startups and entrepreneurs turning to these spaces during the crisis, ActivSpaces might become the ‘WeWork’ of Africa.

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