Betty Enyonam Kumahor on building technology and businesses in Africa

Betty Enyonam Kumahor on building technology and businesses in Africa
9 min read

Africa’s technological advancement and innovation over the past years may not attract significant global attention for many reasons. However, when conversations arise regarding the continent’s effort to utilize technology to solve problems and promote socio-economic development, it certainly cannot be ignored.

Betty Enyonam Kumahor, one of Africa’s tech heroines, is helping to improve lives, foster economic growth, while creating opportunities for people, companies, and countries within the continent.

Betty Enyonam Kumahor

Betty Enyonam Kumahor

Enyo, as she likes to be called, is the Founder and Managing Partner of The Cobalt Partners and serves on the Board of Directors of a number of Civic Society Organisations and technology-led enterprises. She is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader with an impressive background in the consulting and technology industries.

She previously worked as the Regional Managing Director of Pan-Africa for ThoughtWorks, a global IT consulting firm. Enyo joined the organization from Ernst & Young where she led the Ernst & Young’s Service Delivery Technology function for their Global Advisory practice deploying technology solutions across 140+ countries.

Betty Enyonam Kumahor

Enyo now invests in and mentors technology-driven companies committed to sustainable business in Africa.

  • Tell us about yourself, and your educational background.

“I was not the best student. I enjoyed playing; had tons of varied interests; lack of focus; and little to no affinity to getting good grades. What I did like doing though was solving puzzles and working with systems, and for that reason I gravitated towards the sciences. In secondary school, I took 10 subjects instead of the normal 8. I didn’t take 11 because I couldn’t figure out how to add the 11th to class schedule (varied interests). At A-Level, I decided to have more fun so I picked the normal 3 subjects and I did Physics, Math and Chemistry. In University, I knew I wanted to do something in healthcare but not being either a doctor or a nurse. I really enjoyed computer programming. Towards the end of my undergraduate Chemistry and Math majors I found out about healthcare informatics and left to do a masters in that. Without much industry work in health informatics at the time, I took the IT part of the degree and started my career in that. Then I found out I could solve puzzles and build systems in IT … I haven’t left since!”

  • You have an excellent track record when it comes to IT strategy and implementation. What inspired this?

“Probably, mostly, an exhaustion of seeing technology projects fail for reasons that often times had nothing to do with the technology itself and everything to do with the thought processes used in selecting and implementing the chosen technology. I still remember the first time I heard about the Standish Group study on why projects fail. It has been renamed the Chaos study which I find to be a completely apt name. In 2015, the Chaos study which is based on U.S. software implementations says that 71% of software projects are either overrun or an outright fail. I am confident the number across most of our continent is higher. When I first heard about the study it was almost 90%. That’s not a lot of improvement in 20 years. And when I think about the lost opportunities in terms of business enablement and improving lives, I am incensed…negatively inspired if you will…to be a part of changing the effectiveness of technology enablement, especially where it can make a social impact.”

“I would not say that those markets have been closed or did not exist…but perhaps they were closed or invisible to some investors like your quoter here. So the first thing that I think Africans have been doing well is investing in the continent themselves…or bringing in foreign investment. While this investment is still insufficient based on a scale of opportunity, it is encouraging to see intra-African trade and investment on the increase and more pan-African technology teams and organizations.

I also think that what we have done right is we have not tried to follow some other formula. For example, we did not keep implementing copper or even fiber terrestrial cables and instead went mobile. I believe that our success will come from us being able to innovate based on our unique circumstances, resources and needs, and we are doing that to some extent.

What I would like to see more of is the understanding that technology will succeed or fail based on how well we understand who is going to use it, how well we customize the technology for that particular persona or personas, and how well we manage the process of doing that. The context of the technology use is ultimately most important. The Standish Group study clearly demonstrates this and I speak about this at conferences often and yet I still see far too many projects that act as technology finding a problem to fix rather than shaping the technology based on the context in which it will be used. Only then do I think we will see fewer technology project cost overruns and failures, and instead more impactful implementations.”

  • Do our local governments limit technology implementation?

“If I had to give a simple Yes or No answer, I would Yes. The reality for the majority local governments in Africa is that they are still the largest spenders of technology, and where it is spent, directly impacts the experience and hence maturity of the local technology industries. There are few countries where I see a strong alignment of the technology industry, particularly software development, and the government and for a technology-driven world this is concerning. I can’t say that I have the magic formula for exactly where every government should spend or remove limitations but I do know that the technology business leaders and owners operating in that country would have a very clear sense of what works and does not work. There are a couple of bright spots, but much more needs to be done to ensure we have technology roadmaps and policies favorable to effectively implementing them.”

  • What are the pros and cons of “copying” technology used elsewhere and adapting it to fit African circumstances?

“I see no cons provided technology is adapted to fit the circumstance it will be used. Reuse should be a key strategy on every project.”

  • You could have worked anywhere in the world with your experiences. Why Africa?

“I have worked elsewhere in the world, and continue to live and work part of the time elsewhere in the world. But, Africa, is home. I left as a teenager because I had the opportunity to study and then work outside of the continent, but I came back because I knew that it was not fair that I could not get similar or part of those experiences here and I want to be a part of changing that narrative. I’m not sure that I would say there were challenges so much as the continent is a different place to live and work and at times it can be a frustrating process with projects taking 4 or 5 times longer than they should. You could call that a challenge but I prefer to look at it as an opportunity to change what does not work. So, what helped me when I first started working on the continent was letting go of any and all expectations of how things SHOULD be, and now what helps me is knowing that every ‘challenge’ is rather an opportunity to make it better.”

  • What keeps you motivated?

“I have fun building technology and businesses. It’s easy to stay motivated when you’re doing what you love doing. When a project helps a client, it’s a sense of accomplishment that I do not have a panacea or alternative for. And I am unapologetic about this now in my middle-aged life especially when you want to make every moment you are around count. And now that I have significant influence over my firm’s strategy, I can and do ensure that this is the primary and sole obligation to every client – that we make their business or organization better. It may sound trite but in practice this can be difficult to implement. In our case though we have literally said ‘No, thank you’ to would-be-paying clients where we simply do not think we can bring value based on the project they scoped. But where we can do good work I know the team, and myself, will be motivated and have fun.”