Linda Nanan Vallee on Fondation Jeunesse Numérique and tech innovation in Côte d’Ivoire

Sylvana Lewin | Wednesday, September 26th, 2018

Linda Nanan Vallee is the Senior Advisor in charge of innovation, new ICT jobs and accompanying startups at Côte d’Ivoire’s Digital Economy Ministry and the Post. Over the past few years, she has focused efforts on bringing ICT education to the country’s youth, and gaining global exposure for the growing number of innovative tech startups and engineers.

It is creating impact. This year, VC firm Partech Ventures announced a $100M fund aimed at startups in Francophone Africa. As well, VCs are starting to take note of companies coming out of Côte d’Ivoire. This year, social startup studio Jaango raised $1.18M to launch and grow new digital platforms targeting African SMEs while creating tech-enabled jobs at scale for women and youth.

MEST is excited to partner with Linda and the Foundation in Francophone Africa, as they share our mission of discovering and supporting talented youth in Africa’s tech space. We sat down with Linda to hear more about her role and where she sees the future of tech entrepreneurship in Côte d’Ivoire.

Tell us about your role in the Ministry and how you’re working to develop ICT education in Côte d’Ivoire.

We’re looking to better expose young people to ICT and help them learn from a young age how it can be an enabler for efficiency and innovation.

We hold workshops with students in high school, middle school, even primary school. We speak about data analysis, AI, the internet of things — and we talk about this early so they develop interest in ICT from a young age. We also talk about entrepreneurship, opening their minds to the idea that when you’re in your 30s you don’t necessarily have to find a job. You can be a job creator yourself. This is the main mentality change we’re trying to affect.

In December 2016, I was chosen to be the Executive Director of the Digital Youth Foundation (Fondation Jeunesse Numérique). This was officially created in July 2016. In addition to the Ministry, our founding members consist of a number of public structures linked with the ministry that facilitate ICT and startup development in the country. The foundation is also open to private members.

What are the main goals of the foundation?

There are four key pillars of the foundation.

  1. To introduce youth to ICT.
    This happens through workshops, on social media and at events. We’re looking to generate more interest in the digital economy.
  2. To discover innovative projects making use of ICT.
    These can come from any area, including education, health, media, tourism, agriculture, and more.
  3. To accompany project leaders and entrepreneurs via incubation and acceleration programs.

One of the things we offer is an incubation and acceleration program for ICT entrepreneurs. Incubation comes with coaching and training, as well as office space for new entrepreneurs. Most entrepreneurs have a day job during the week, so the coaching takes place on Saturday morning where members of the cohort will receive training on everything from how to write a business plan, to fundraising, branding, digital marketing and identity, the basics of accounting, and more. Saturday afternoons they participate in experience sharing, hearing from successful entrepreneurs, digital transformation directors, and more who come to share their experience.

The acceleration period can last between 6 months and 1 year. We will introduce them to partners, clients and potential investors, including business Angels and VC firms.

Those in this program may receive some direct funding. We offered a 0 interest loan to 25 startups last year, The total amount of money loaned to those startups was 15M CFA francs. This is exceptional for French speaking African countries. You don’t find a lot of structures that can offer funds this way. It’s really filling a gap in the market as it’s more than they can raise from friends and family but less than what a bank would give. Interest rates from banks are also often prohibitive.

4. To support innovation.
We’re always looking out for young people who are innovating in ICT.

For example, there is a team of students at ESATIC — a school where I teach and also founding member of the Foundation — who built a project where they transformed a room of the school into a smart room. I asked them to walk me through the innovation, and they went into great detail on the technical aspects. I fell in love with this team of six hardworking students. The foundation decided to give them something for this work. So we paid for their internship stipend. This is our way of supporting innovation.

On 6th August, their project then managed to win the National Prize of Excellence for the Best Digital Innovation 2018, which was delivered to them by the President. They received 10M CFA francs, and we were honored to accompany them.

How did you become involved with MEST?

When I started as ED of the foundation, one of the first tasks for my new team was to create a map of the main structures doing the same work as us in Africa and further. MEST was quickly identified as a key player, and we reached out.

It was obvious there were synergies and some fantastic things we could do together. I recently had the pleasure of attending the graduation of the first Ivorian MEST EITs. We got together to support these new entrepreneurs and met to discuss the main challenges they face and how we can address them together. There will be a formal partnership soon between MEST and the “Fondation Jeunesse Numérique”.

What is the state of tech entrepreneurship in Côte d’Ivoire and where are there still gaps to be filled?

In Côte d’Ivoire I am happy to say there is a boom in the tech space right now. I studied ICT myself and created a training center, thinking then about how we can begin to train children in ICT, robotics, programming, etc. and have been trying to do all I could to promote ICT in the country ever since.

Over the past 4–5 years, interest in ICT, the number of students studying ICT in schools, those pursuing it in their careers and the number of events around ICT and digital entrepreneurship have all increased significantly.

However funding for entrepreneurs is still not easily available. We’re working on this. Some manage to get loans from banks, but it’s tough as interest rates are at 10–15%. which is quite prohibitive. What we’re trying to develop now is a VC funding pipeline. For a long time people thought startups were too risky to invest in, so they had no interest. Today they’re beginning to understand that startups also have the ability to produce disruptive innovation, which allows them to get to a high stage of development very quickly, which can produce a return. Now they are starting to see that the risk is worth taking.

Tell us about some of the work your team is doing to create a better environment for tech startups to get off the ground in Côte d’Ivoire.

One thing we’re quite proud of is the Ivorian Startup Act which will soon be a law. Some private actors, including incubators, expressed what their startups need to be successful and brought those thoughts to the Ministry of Digital Economy, aiming to improve the tech startup ecosystem. The Director of International Corporation and Law Affairs is currently working on the law project which takes into account their inputs, as well as our inputs based on public sector and regulatory environment. We will then propose this law to the National Assembly.

This will allow us to offer answers to important questions such as:

  1. What characterizes a startup?
  2. What are the advantages a startup can receive?

What advice do you have for ways that government and regulatory bodies across the continent can better support startups?

It’s so important that public officials get out there and see for themselves what’s going on in the tech entrepreneurship space in their countries. For instance it was encouraging to see Ghana’s Minister of Finance speaking at the MEST graduation this year. Our Minister in charge of digital economy is very supportive of the Foundation and the tech entrepreneurship ecosystem in general.

My strength as a Senior Advisor to the Minister is that I was an entrepreneur myself. I am also an ICT lecturer and researcher, and since 2016 I have been part of the Ministry. We are doing a lot of sensitization so people realize how much is going on and how the tech ecosystem is being transformed right now.

Then we need to work on improving conditions for startups — changing the way they’re taxed, improving their visibility and offering training and skill reinforcement. In an effort to improve visibility, the foundation is finalizing a web platform “Startup225” that will act as the main inventory for digital startups in Côte d’ivoire. Investors shouldn’t just be looking at Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa — today there is interest in investing in Côte d’Ivoire, but investors don’t have visibility in our ecosystem. The idea is that this will enable them to easily see our vivid digital startup ecosystem, and easily find out how to contact these entrepreneurs.

Additionally, we will organize events bringing together startups and investors for pitches on a regular basis so that investors can understand the projects being developed and gain more insight into the ecosystem. Interest is certainly building, and I feel the future is bright for the ICT sector in Côte d’Ivoire.

Learn more about Fondation Jeunesse Numérique here. Learn more about the MEST training program by visiting meltwater.org.