YooMee Helps Open Up Africa's Web Market
Internet Provider Paves the Way for Online Retailing in Cameroon
By EMMANUEL TUMANJONG
Updated Jan. 9, 2014 9:48 p.m. ET
YooMee is targeted at young university graduates and small and medium-size businesses to penetrate more remote corners of Cameroon. Emmanuel Tumanjong/The Wall Street Journal
DOUALA, Cameroon—Before flying out of New York last month, Jean-Blaise Ewane placed an order for his favorite Cameroonian dish of roasted fish. It was served not long after his arrival in his native city of Douala, the West African nation's economic capital.
"At first, I didn't imagine it was possible," said the 48-year-old businessman, munching his fish and fried ripe plantain at a restaurant in Douala. "Even by mobile phone."
Mr. Ewane's meal came courtesy of a new website launched by broadband Internet provider YooMee. The firm is a creation of a husband-and-wife team from Israel that has helped pry open the Internet market in Cameroon, paving the way for Web retailers in a small but promising frontier for online commerce in Africa.
After they decided Africa was the next big thing, YooMee Chairwoman Anat Bar-Gera and her chief executive husband, Dov Bar-Gera, secured a broadband license in Cameroon—a French and English speaking country that is a microcosm of a multilingual and multiethnic continent. In 2011, their company, 4G Africa, was launched in Cameroon under the brand name YooMee.
Prior to the couple's arrival, residents of the West African nation had access to only expensive broadband from a state-run telecommunications company—priced 10 times higher than what is available in Europe. YooMee leased broadband spectrum from the monopoly to provide more affordable wireless connections and multimedia access for mobile phones. They targeted young university graduates and small and medium-size businesses to penetrate more remote corners of Cameroon.
Now through YooMee's airtime cards, users can log onto high-speed Internet to exhibit and sell items, or search for things to buy from all over the world.
As a result, an online retail market has sprouted in Cameroon, with products ranging from televisions to toasters.
YooMee and others, including the local unit of France's Orange Telecommunications, are helping to fuel Internet penetration in Cameroon.
A new report from McKinsey estimates only 16% of Africans have access to the Internet, but the consulting group predicts that by 2025 half of the continent's billion people will be online.
YooMee is now rolling out broadband Internet networks and leasing capacity in Ivory Coast and has secured broadband licenses for Angola, Ghana and Rwanda.*
Yet the Bar-Geras' move into Africa has been anything but easy. In Cameroon, they face frequent power cuts, a shortage of technicians and an absence of modern mobile Internet devices, such as smartphones and tablets
Despite these obstacles, others are expanding in Africa, too. South Africa's MTN Group Ltd. has said it would partner with Berlin-based Rocket Internet GmbH and Millicom International Cellular SA to develop e-commerce businesses across the continent.
YooMee's executive team is unfazed. "We succeeded amid stiffer competition in Europe," said Mr. Bar-Gera, who resides in Switzerland but is constantly traveling in Africa with his wife. "We're carving out a niche market by training our customers and building them websites and providing technical support on how to do business."
In fact, the main goal of Cameroonian businessman Mr. Ewane wasn't just good roasted fish. He placed his order from New York, where he lives, to test if he could also buy fresh fruit and vegetables and embroidered African dresses from Cameroon via the Internet. Today, he is talking with YooMee to set up a website for his own budding online business.
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* Please note that YooMee has no licenses in Angola, Ghana and Rwanda. This was a misinterpretation by the journalist.