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Doing Business in Africa and Leveraging the Influence of the African Diaspora – an Interview with Thierry Wandji

Thierry Wandji’s passion for Africa’s economic development is evident, even over Zoom. An immigrant from Cameroon—a country sometimes referred to as “Africa in miniature” for the diversity of its landscapes and people—Wandji came to the United States at the urging of his mother and on a scholarship to pursue a Master’s Degree at Morgan State University, an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) located in Baltimore, Maryland. Two master’s degrees and one Ph.D. later, he is the Director of Cybersecurity Education at NC State and the CEO of his own cybersecurity company, Cybastion Institute of Technology.

Towards the completion of his education, Wandji thought, “What can I do to help my home country? How can I leverage everything that I’ve learned?” he says. “Technology is huge in Africa. People use mobile money and rely on their cell phones to do everything. But they’re getting hurt a lot because it’s not secure, so I thought, ‘I need to start a cybersecurity company.’’’

Cybersecurity is a necessary foundation for tech-enabled growth. It underpins secure digital services that can be powerful tools to fight corruption, strengthening a country’s business environment. For example, according to Wandji, digitalizing the tax payment system for the Central African Republic (CAR) made transactions easier by allowing citizens to pay their taxes with their phones, rather than in person. It also made these transactions less vulnerable to corruption by moving them away from cash—resulting in a 12% increase in the revenue the government was able to collect.  

Cybersecurity can also support job creation, an urgent need on a continent where 60% of people are below the age of 25. This youth bulge could leverage technology and digitalization to “create the jobs that they want,” says Wandji. But poor cybersecurity undermines much of this potential, handicapping entrepreneurs and scaring off foreign companies.

As African countries work to upgrade their internet infrastructure and cybersecurity systems, Wandji’s expertise positions him well to close the gaps, as does his identity as an African Diaspora entrepreneur. His winning combination of technical expertise, cultural fluency (including being multilingual), and charisma enabled him to partner with Cisco and edge out a Chinese competitor for a contract with the Government of Burkina Faso—a testament to the  value that he and other members of the African Diaspora can bring to doing business in Africa. 

Finding Opportunities That Others Miss

Wandji has an ear to the ground in markets across the continent. He went to college in Canada and shared that many of his African Diaspora classmates returned to Africa to explore opportunities in entrepreneurship, private sector, and government, forming a network across the continent.

Wandji also keeps an eye on Africa-focused news—like Africa 24, a 24-hour, French-language news network dedicated to news across countries in Africa, and In Business Africa from the BBC. This enabled him to surface a significant business opportunity: Wandji heard that Burkina Faso had signed a contract with a Chinese company to build internet infrastructure and a data center, and that it was considering buying additional services. For Wandji, the next step would be to fly to Burkina Faso to seek meetings with government ministers about the contract. He was eventually able to meet with the director of the country’s National Information Systems Security Agency.

As Wandji describes it, “I tried to explain to him—I saw this on the news and I think I have a better proposition for a cheaper price. And he looked at me like I was crazy. So I said—Look, I’m just like you. I grew up in Africa. I went to the United States. I’m a professor there. And when I see what’s going on here, it just breaks my heart. I think I can help you.”

Finally, the minister agreed to give him a chance. Wandji had two months to produce a feasibility study; he and his colleagues spent several weeks in Burkina Faso putting together a technical proposition. The minister was interested, but the proposal had one problem: it was unclear how Wandji would finance the project. “The minister said, ‘We go to China because it’s a one-stop shop. How are you going to solve the financing?” says Wandji.

He asked for more time and called the U.S. Government for help. Wandji spoke to Prosper Africa’s Bill Fanjoy, then the Director of Commercial Service for Virginia and Washington, DC at the Department of Commerce. “When I first spoke with Thierry, I knew there was something here but I also knew most of the U.S. Government tools would not immediately address the challenges he was facing,” says Fanjoy. “However, as I looked at the situation more holistically I saw that there was an opportunity to secure other U.S. business collaboration and alternative investment and get the U.S. Government engaged. I was able to connect him with some private sector investors and kept the Embassy up to date as things began to accelerate with the transaction.” 

Fanjoy connected Wandji to Cisco Capital, which went on to provide much of the equipment needed to implement the project, with Wandji’s company managing maintenance and tech support. Cisco also connected Wandji with Vista Bank. Vista Bank delivered the financing for the project. This partnership held the key to unlocking the deal and beating out Wandji’s Chinese competitor.

“Bill Fanjoy is the best public servant I’ve ever seen,” says Wandji. “If it weren’t for Bill, I don’t think I would have started anything. Whenever I went anywhere, Bill always sent an email ahead of me to the Embassy, saying, ‘Hey, I have this U.S. citizen coming. He wants to do something great. Please talk to him. Help him out.’”

This U.S. Government support put the wind at Wandji’s back. Fanjoy even made sure the U.S. Ambassador to Burkina Faso attended the launch of the project. “The Government of Burkina is used to having Ambassadors from China or France or other countries come to support their businesses,” says Wandji. “If we didn’t have the U.S. Ambassador, it would have seemed like the U.S. Government didn’t trust my company, or that they just weren’t interested. It was very, very important to have her there with the Prime Minister to show the U.S. was backing this.”

A Winning Combination: Small Business, Big Business, and the U.S. Government

Markets in West and Central Africa vary in size, and this fragmentation makes it hard for large companies to identify business opportunities, accurately assess their risk, and tailor a pitch. While these markets represent a sizable opportunity in the aggregate, trying to approach them that way—with a one-size-fits-all offer—usually falls flat.

Wandji explains that his flexible, entrepreneurial approach to clients and markets is better suited to winning business. “All the big U.S. corporations will never be able to get into the smaller markets in West Africa or Central Africa if they just look at them as numbers,” he says. Their expensive sales approach and products are tailored for large clients and large volumes. “It’s not going to work,” in small African markets, he says. “The customer doesn’t completely know what they want, but they know it’s not that. It’s not customized to them.”

He believes the winning strategy requires someone like himself at the front end: a technical expert and salesperson who can see opportunities where others see risk, and who can make these opportunities visible to big corporates. This person must also understand what local customers need and be able to build trust and rapport.

Still, Wandji knows that he needs to partner with big businesses on the back end to be successful, and by joining forces with Cisco in Burkina Faso, he was able to put forward a competitive proposal. “If you want to counter someone like [Chinese telecoms company] Huawei, you need to bring in an established company,” he says. “To counter a giant, you need a giant.”

Wandji also needs their expertise and products. “I’m selling trust. I want the quality.… And I know, with Cisco, they have what it takes…. I know their equipment doesn’t fail. It represents the best of what the United States can do.”

Immigrants: America’s Vital Resource in Africa

The African Diaspora is already credited with having a major positive impact on African economies. That reputation to date has been earned not through trade but through personal remittances, which often exceed total development assistance to many countries. Remittances to Cameroon, for example, grew from $115 million annually in 2010 to $355 million in 2019, or from 0.4% to 0.9% of the country’s GDP. Larger and higher-income economies, such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal, receive far greater sums through remittances.

Still, when African emigrants return to do business in their countries of origin and neighboring markets, the impact can be even greater and have a longer-term influence.

“I can make bridges very easily,” Wandji says. “Even though I’m a foreigner, when I’m sitting with them, they usually don’t take me as a foreigner…They see themselves in me… They feel like they can go and have a beer with me,” he says. “In Africa, that trust is so important. I speak French with them. I can speak some of the dialects, and they really see me as one of them.” This language connection has significant benefits—Wandji’s customers don’t worry that they are misunderstanding something he is saying, or that they will be taken advantage of.

The African Diaspora, Wandji concludes, is a highly competitive resource and tool for American business success on the continent. The pool of American immigrants who were born in Africa exceeds two million, some of whom possess strong business skills that make them unique ambassadors and implementers of America’s policies encouraging increased trade and investment, he explains.

Wandji prides himself on being someone who understands what his customers need and doesn’t try to sell them things they can’t afford. He can often offer packages that are more attractive than international competitors who rely on aggressive financing terms because he knows how to tailor his offer wisely. For example, he leverages open-source software so that customers don’t have to pay for expensive annual licenses. He sells customers what they need and no more.

“I understand where they’re coming from,” he says, “I can give them the right technical requirement and build the right thing they need with room for growth, at a cheaper price. Sometimes they don’t need as much as you think they will. They don’t need to pay one million dollars in licensing fees every year. They won’t be able to afford it. I believe the fact that I understand the environments in Africa means that I am able to give them something customized, and that really helps them out. That makes our proposition different. And it means the country doesn’t have to take on so much debt.”

Another benefit for Wandji’s customers: he is committed to creating jobs and building capacity, training up local engineers to manage the facilities he builds. He only plans to operate these facilities for the first two or three years, then hand over the reins. He says, “What the Government [of Burkina] likes about us is, ‘Hey, ten years from now, our people are going to be able to operate this thing. They’re going to be able to do it. They’re going to be able to understand….’ It’s going to be integrated and installed by local people with the support of the U.S.” Wandji’s job as a professor makes him particularly well-suited to the build, operate, and train approach. He says that he was able to get a contract to bring 20 people from the Government of Burkina every year for the next five years to be trained at N.C. State, where he teaches.

While he excels as an entrepreneur, easily winning over clients and delivering results by harnessing powerhouses in finance, government, academia, and the private sector, Wandji remains an idealist and professor at heart. He hopes to see more students from the African Diaspora follow in his footsteps, urging them to: “get your education and get some experience. And then get involved with what’s going on in Africa. Find a way to contribute. The opportunity is there.”

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