In Africa there are lot of game changers and pacesetters and we can’t talk of them leaving out one edu-preneur from Cameroon who is changing and redefining education in her country. Fotabe Elmine is making a significant contribution to Cameroon and I get to chat with her as she shares more about her journey and inspiration.
Please introduce yourself to our readers.
My name is Fotabe Elmine. I am the founder and Chair of the Fotabe University of Cameroon -FUNIC. I am equally the founder of the Association for the promotion of decent work for women and girls (ASSPRODEC).
How did you become an entrepreneur, particularly a social one?
From childhood, I developed a desire for Entrepreneurship. When I was studying for my Master’s in Human Resource Management in Rome, one of my professors asked me what I planned to do with the knowledge and skills I was acquiring. I had not thought deeply about it. But in that instance, I realized that my country has so many problems that I could contribute to solving. So, I told her I was going to return to Cameroon and set up a Placement agency and Human Resource Consulting firm. This I did in 2009 but interacting with employers on one hand and employees on the other hand revealed a pertinent problem – a wide skills gap that needed to be filled. This is how I decided to become a Social Entrepreneur and contribute to solving this problem.
What’s your typical day like?
My typical day begins at 5:00 am with the study of the Bible, then I exercise for at least 30 minutes. I leave the house at 7:30 am for the office. So typically, I have 4 hours of lectures in a day and then I supervise activities at the incubator at FUNIC. Late afternoons are usually reserved for reading and the supervision of students’ final thesis.
What’s your motivation and how do you manage to stay motivated & focused?
My motivation is the very need that I set out to meet. While I believe that God’s kingdom will put an end to mankind’s suffering, I am motivated to do my part to lessen the suffering I see around. I am a firm believer in the power of education to eradicate poverty and restore human dignity and I also believe that having 1 million small entrepreneurial ventures will create more economic and social equality than one large entrepreneurial venture. This is what keeps me focused.
Can you kindly share about the journey of Fotabe, from college to now being a university?
Yes. The Human Resource consulting firm I created in 2009 failed to achieve the objectives I had set. So in 2011, I brought in a colleague of mine as a partner. We extended our operations to include financial solutions. By the end of 2011, we decided that we needed to venture into education so that our solutions could touch many Cameroonians, especially young people. So by 2012, we were running a Polytechnic in Buea, but problems with partnerships made growth very slow.
I began thinking of something else that could restore my satisfaction at work. I always had a passion for fashion design, so, when things became very difficult between me and my partner, I created the Fotabe University College, a vocational training center to train people in fashion design, beauty, and skincare. My vision was that one day, it will become a full-fledged University institute, specialized in African arts.
By the last quarter of 2014, it was clear to me that running the polytechnic with my partner was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My vision was becoming diluted and my passion was dwindling. So, in December 2014, I decided to quit an organization that I founded and worked day and night to build. In January 2015, I decided to focus all my energy on college.
Growth is slow in the vocational training sector, so armed with my experience in Higher education, I decided to expand by creating the Fotabe Universal Higher Institute of Cameroon (FUNHIC) in Buea, to run mainly Business programs. The unique and innovative curriculum was carefully designed to provide learners with Skills, Experience, and the right Attitude- hence our popular SEA model.
By 2016 when the socio-political issues started in the South West and North West Regions of Cameroon, we were doing very well, but the crisis intensified and we had to move over to Douala and created FUNIC Cameroon Higher Institute of Entrepreneurship and Technology.
We also created a campus of Fotabe Entrepreneurial Leadership Academy in Douala including the African Arts academy, to continue my vision of valorizing the Cameroonian culture through Education. So, Fotabe University of Cameroon is now an umbrella institution for 2 higher institutes and 3 vocational training centers.
Any challenges you faced in building and registering the university especially with responsible authorities?
I left the Polytechnic with almost nothing, I was penniless. So, registering the institutions especially at the level of Higher Education was going to be tough. I pushed the vocational center until I could put some funds aside to compile the authorization documents for Higher Education. I received support from friends and when I shared my vision for the Higher Institute with the Minister of Higher education, he waived some of the requirements, especially the land ownership which I couldn’t afford at that moment.
How is the uptake of Fotabe on the market and partners?
We have succeeded over the years to build a brand known for innovation and differentiation. We do not operate like any mainstream university. I can say that FUNIC is a combination of a university, a business school, a TVET center, and a business hub. Growth has been steady. The number of partnerships has grown from just Rome Business School when we started, to including the Indian Institute of Logistics, the Good Ocean Maritime Institute of Logistics in Dubai, and EMAS Business School in Russia. Locally, we have forged a partnership with Green House ventures, an Agricultural company that solidifies our Agricultural Entrepreneurship program. In 2020, we announced a powerful 11-man Board of Trustees which provides strategic support to the University.
How have you managed to carry the youth along in your entrepreneurial journey?
It’s difficult to carry along youth who have repeatedly been told that the government has to make everything work for them. It’s tough to motivate youth who hear nothing else but criticism of the system. Most often they are designed to feel that all is lost. I have been able to carry some along with my example. I started this journey long ago as a very young girl in her early 20s and today, many look up to me as a success story. I share my experience with them every chance I get and support them in different ways too.
Building an organization is not always a one-person journey. How have you managed to build an effective team towards building your business?
My team has always been the real reason why we have accomplished the results I mentioned. I have never thought I have a team, I always thought I had a family. So, I carefully select my team members and work hard to ensure that the team remains small. We all share our successes and our challenges so that even when things are tough, everyone puts in their best to make things work. My team never makes me feel that it’s my problem.
Any individuals or organizations who have played a very critical role in your journey?
My journey has been marked by the support of real friends, from the Mayor of the Buea council now Senator Mbella Moki Charles who believed in a young girl to provide supplies to the council and increase my startup capital, to the Minister of Higher Education Prof. Jacques Fame Ndongo as I mentioned earlier, to my partner at the Rome Business School, Antonio Ragusa, to Mr. Fomba Bernard, who, provided me with my first campus and all furniture, even though I was setting up to compete with him, to the men and women who joined the teaching team as volunteers from the beginning to journalists who took interest and told my story, I have been blessed to receive real support.
What are your secrets to success?
Firstly, I do only the things I am strongly passionate about. I make sure that I take up only ventures that contribute to the general well-being of society and leave me with a good conscience.
Secondly, I keep it simple. I know that my success depends on people and I am grateful to God for the opportunities I have had, for the friends I have met, and for the things I have done. So, I keep my life simple. This simplicity draws people to me and they get to discover the things I do.
Thirdly, my mantra is differentiation. I believe that to go fast, copy. To go far, differentiate. This mélange of simplicity and differentiation has worked wonders for me.
Fourthly, I deliberately condition my mind for challenges by building scenarios in my head. So when they come, I’m shaken but never broken.
If you are to rate Fotabe University on a scale of 1-10 how best would you rate it.
Well, there’s a lot we still have to do. So if I have to rate our success versus our vision, I would say 4. I do not believe in comparing the Fotabe University of Cameroon with any other University institutions because we simply do not operate on the same pedestal. We’re creating our world of education.
Why should someone opt for Fotabe University instead of other universities or colleges across Cameroon and even Africa at large?
The Fotabe University of Cameroon is more than just a school. It is a place where mindsets are shaped and dreams are encouraged. While other universities and Higher Institutes focus on helping young people acquire knowledge and certificates, we focus on reshaping mindsets. We believe that the problem of Africa is not physical, it’s not knowledge, it’s the mindset. So, the new generation of African Entrepreneurial Leaders we’re raising has a growth mindset.
What programs and other opportunities are there at Fotabe that one can take advantage of?
We focus on Business (From Diploma to MBA and Doctor of Business Administration through our strategic partnerships), TVET (Technical, Vocational Education and Training), Computer Engineering, and Agricultural Entrepreneurship.
What role do you think training and skills development plays in developing and preparing the youths for entrepreneurship?
Many think that Entrepreneurs do not need any formal training but, I believe that training and skills development cannot be taken out of Entrepreneurship; This is because there is no single course that teaches someone to become an Entrepreneur. There’s no single skill needed, it is an ensemble of many soft skills and many hard skills. It is understanding different cultures and how the economy functions. It is understanding the laws and policies governing Entrepreneurial activities in different countries. It is understanding the tax systems.
I see there have been some entrepreneurial products out of your students, how best are you refining them and upscaling these initiatives to ensure that such ventures become even bigger entities.
We have a research and development department which I head. We constantly work with experts to find better ways of improving production. We are also partnering with supermarket chains around the country to distribute our products. However, our vision is to set up our distribution facilities in the future, managed by our students and staff.
How effectively have you been closing the gap between rural and urban skills and education acquisition?
We have developed programs for every African. Our research revealed that students from rural areas are comfortable with farming. That’s the income-generating activity they and their parents engage in throughout primary and secondary school. For them, the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Community program is just what they need. We give them the unique opportunity to use their natural habitat as their wallet to fund higher education and acquire skills in Business and IT. What is interesting is that this program is tuition-FREE! Students who grow up in urban areas have a completely different orientation. They fancy corporate jobs and prefer the service sector for Entrepreneurship. So all the other Business programs have been designed for them.
How has COVID-19 affected you as an institution and any measures, innovations, and strategies you have put in place to ensure that learning continues.
Well, as I mentioned earlier, our learning options have always included On-campus, online, distance learning, and blended learning. So COVID-19 just came to convince us that we were doing the right thing. Learning has never stopped at FUNIC because all our students, irrespective of the study option they choose, have a blended learning experience through seminars facilitated sometimes by our partners and other experts from around the globe.
Where do you see Fotabe University in the next 3-5 years
I see FUNIC as the reference when it comes to Education in the African continent. We will attract students from the 4 corners of the continent and students from other parts of the world will come to FUNIC to learn African Business models and the Cameroonian culture.
Now let us talk about your philanthropy work. Why philanthropy?
I have received a lot from God and other people. Philanthropy is my way of giving back. But more than just giving fish, I teach people how to fish effectively. My Association’s model is quite different, we empower women-led organizations to become sustainable by providing Microcredit, training, and support. We work with young girls by showing them dignifying alternatives to choices like prostitution. In a nutshell, what ASSPRODEC does is provide mentorship and sponsorship to women and girls.
If anyone out there reading this interview wants to be like you, what secrets would you share with them that has made you be an entrepreneur-par excellent?
I would say; Set a goal for yourself, become obsessed with your goal, get yourself a mentor; Take baby steps; Celebrate your small wins; Remember that humility is like a magnet that draws real people to you; Avoid fake news on social media. Nothing kills a good reputation like fake news; Learn to work smarter and not harder and lastly, sleep more, exercise more, and above all, set out to meet needs and not to make money. If you cannot create value for people, you cannot capture value from them.
Recently you have been crowned the Female Entrepreneur of the year 2020 battling it out with nominees from Cameroon, Rwanda, and Zambia. How did you feel?
Well, I felt humbled by this great honor and at the same time, I also felt challenged to do more.
In conclusion, any words you would like to share with anyone reading this interview today?
Love! Love yourself enough to do that which makes you happy and keeps you safe. Life is a precious gift. Love your neighbor enough to avoid what causes them pain. Especially on social media. People have become so emboldened sitting behind keyboards that no one cares about the emotions of others. But you cannot capture value from someone whose emotions you have trampled upon. Love your environment enough to preserve it. Love your country enough to do what you can to make it better. Love your creator enough to appreciate His gift of life.