Christian Ngan left Cameroon in 2002 to study in Paris, and was then employed by French firms in private equity and investment banking. But in 2012, he made the life-changing decision to quit his job and move back to Cameroon to start Madlyn Cazalis, a bio-cosmetics company that produces natural body oils, lotions and soaps for the Cameroon market, as well as some neighbouring countries in Central Africa.
Ngan, now aged 30, is also the founder of Goldsky Partners Advisory, a small financial advisory firm in Cameroon, and he expects that he will be involved in more ventures during the course of his career. How we made it in Africa asks the young serial entrepreneur about why he saw potential in Cameroon for his two companies, his entrepreneurial journey, and his advice to others who are looking to do business in the country.
What was the inspiration behind your decision to move back to Cameroon to start a bio-cosmetics company?
It seems a bit weird to say, but I felt like I woke one morning and my vision changed. On one side, Europe was facing a financial crisis and I did not have a social life. On the other side, Africa was booming and my dreams seemed more feasible over there.
Why did I pick the cosmetics industry? First, because of the influence of my mother. She is a pharmacist and I often witnessed her take care of her patients when I was younger. She would assess their problems and give them concrete solutions. Secondly, because I went to Cameroon in 2010 and noticed that skin bleaching products were thriving on the market and that the women were buying very dangerous substances. They were taken advantage of by people who were ready to do anything to make money. I am not against making money, but I am for doing it in an ethical and responsible way. Furthermore, African women really invest a lot in their beauty and care because they value their appearance but there are not many products done and commercialised by Africans.
Was starting a business in Cameroon what you thought it would be?
My answer might surprise some but yes, it ended up being exactly how I thought it would be. I really had to prepare myself psychologically before I decided to return to Cameroon. I put myself in the skin of someone who people will try to discourage, of someone who will be criticised, of someone who will have to face unhappy customers and the administrative burden. Today, the customer satisfaction level is above 95%.
However, the Cameroonian business environment is not the easiest: there are not many initiatives to support small and medium enterprises (SMEs), a high administrative burden, a lack of clarity when it comes to legal documentation and a lot of issues related to the quality of service. In spite of all those imperfections, entrepreneurs should still work hard to forge their own destiny, overcome those challenges and prompt the public sector to put together structural reforms to improve the current system. Regardless, it is still very encouraging to see more young Cameroonians taking the entrepreneurship route every day.
Tell us about the potential for cosmetic companies and products in Cameroon.
Cameroon is a country with an incredible amount of resources but many of those are not exploited. Our climate, our wildlife and our flora can make people envious. Today, many realise the importance of healthy products issued from biological agriculture. There is a middle class slowly taking shape and consumers who have less interest in imported products of lower quality. Africans want products that look like them and that can make them proud.
Currently, the market can be divided in three main categories: the major multinationals already present in Africa; some industrial African groups that have emerged in the last 10 or 20 years; and a scattered number of artisan producers. We are somewhere in-between the last two categories with the ambition to be part of the first at some point. We are creating a market that does not currently exist in Cameroon. We are offering professionalism, a service of quality and a brand Madlyn Cazalis that will make a lot of Africans proud within the next few years.
You have also started Goldsky Partners Advisory. What was the inspiration behind this endeavour?
Goldsky Partners is another venture that allows me to use my skills from my initial career path. After I received my master’s in Financial Engineering, I had the chance to work on complex projects (mergers and acquisitions, project financing, capital investment) from the early stages (pitch presentation, teaser, memorandum) to the execution (closing the deal). My experience in different sectors gave me a certain approach when it comes to solving problems.
Through Goldsky Partners Advisory, I offer my expertise on financial projects, on contracts in the public sector and also to mentor and coach young entrepreneurs like myself and help them develop their strategy. For example, I recently worked on the creation of microfinance, the restructuring of a pharmaceutical company and financial planning for a client to relieve him from his debt on a project estimated at more than CFA franc 4bn (US$8m).
At this time, I still dedicate around 80% of my time to Madlyn Cazalis. Goldsky Partners will progress with time and probably though partnership because we still need high quality consulting firms in Cameroon.
What are some of the main challenges you face in business in Cameroon? How do you plan to overcome them?
The biggest challenge in Cameroon is scepticism. The public sector is not making things easy. Also, a lot of people are still scared to consume Cameroonian [products] because there is that myth that products of quality must necessarily come from overseas. The hardest thing to accomplish will be to establish our model and to reassure the Cameroonian consumer by inspiring trust.
For an outsider thinking of entering Cameroon to do business, what advice do you have?
I would ask them to take their time to think about their project and to keep learning every day from others and from their environment. When you start a project, it is good to ask yourself: ‘Why am I doing this? Do I want to change the world?’ Changing the world does not mean reinventing the wheel. Changing the world is sometimes bringing a breath of fresh air to solve simple problems. The farmer who creates five new jobs is changing the world, a volunteer for a non-profit organisation fighting hunger is changing the world and a young man who builds a startup with a different approach is also changing the world.
The main difficulty is still the resistance of a world with a unique view or the fear of being judged when you innovate, for example. We should just go beyond our apprehensions and break the current models to innovate. At the end, it is the entrepreneur with his heart and vision that carries the project.
In which other sectors or industries do you see potential for business success?
I would say that today in Africa, all the sectors are a source of opportunities because everything needs to be redone. Everything depends on how one starts his business and how he reinvents the existing model. Some countries in sub-Saharan Africa still need a lot: infrastructure (roads, real estate), energy (solar panels, electricity), media (TV stations), healthcare (hospitals, urgent care facilities), manufacturing (products made in Africa), entertainment (cultural products and events), processing of natural resources (mines, metallurgy), affordable and reliable means of communication (telecoms, IT). As you can tell, the list is pretty long. So if someone is passionate about what he does, I would encourage him to come home and to add his stone to the African edifice.