Nelly Chatue-Diop (MBA.08), an entrepreneur and computer scientist from Cameroon, founded Ejara, an investment and savings application for French-speaking Africa. A start-up that looks like a revenge on history. Interview.
One might imagine that the world of finance is cold and technical. When you add in the world of IT development, data and blockchain, the atmosphere suddenly seems cold… It’s time to revise your prejudices: warmth is part of the landscape here. And there is a human touch, a real-life experience, and enthusiasm in Nelly Chatue-Diop’s itinerary. At 41, this Cameroonian entrepreneur and computer scientist, mother of two boys aged 6 and 9, is one of the rising figures of African fintech. Two years ago, she founded Ejara. The name is not insignificant: the « e » stands for e-commerce; « jara » in Bambara means « lion ». « My grandparents, members of the chieftaincy, had this animal as their totem, » Nelly explains. On the African continent, the king of the savannah embodies both power and protection. In the past, the men who hunted him dressed in the skin of the deceased feline to take advantage of his presence. Ejara is a « Little Thumb » who advances in the heart of Africa to serve Africans, and who aspires to become a beautiful and noble roaring lion, » Nelly poetically summarizes. This is a way of expressing the philosophy of this application dedicated to investment and savings. Based in Douala and operational in French-speaking West African countries (Cameroon, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Benin, Togo, etc.), the start-up already roars for more than 60,000 regular users. Last year, it managed to raise 2 million dollars to support its rapid development.
Taking back the power over finance
« Our goal is to democratize access to modern financial tools, » says the entrepreneur. The tool in question looks like a small revolution for the African continent, as it guarantees a secure environment with the highest international standards to finally give people the opportunity to invest easily and affordably in several assets, whether in fractional shares or cryptocurrencies. Ejara also offers its users several savings options via Mobile Money. Added to this is the Ejara School, financial education courses offered on a free basis. My goal, » insists Nelly, « is for Africans to finally turn money into wealth. Today, crypto-currencies open, for example, a huge field of possibilities, and I wanted all communities to have easy access to them from a simple smartphone, even with modest incomes.”
This adventure began with a historic event: the economic cataclysm caused by the devaluation of the CFA franc. It was in 1994. The value of the currency was cut in half. Nelly was then 13 years old. A radiant childhood in Douala and rural vacations in Bandjoun, a village in western Cameroon. The schoolgirl was top of her class, excellent in mathematics and science as well as in literary subjects. At home, we were five girls, » she recalls. My father, an enlightened and literate man, never stopped encouraging our emancipation as women through studies. But, like all middle-class Cameroonians, the devaluation hit my family. Overnight, all our savings were gone and the government could no longer pay the salaries of civil servants. That was the first time I saw my father cry… » Today, to illustrate the extent of the disaster, the entrepreneur readily recounts this anecdote: in college, she used to sell popcorn. « It was more fun with friends than a money-making activity, » she recalls.
Nevertheless, she earned a few bucks from it. Many years later, her mother would confess to her that, on certain days, it was her little teenage business that allowed the family to pay for the groceries! « From this black episode, engraved forever, Ejara draws her fundamentals », recognizes Nelly. The same goes for her determination to pursue her studies. A few years later, in 1998, she received a scholarship for excellence from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Here she is in Lyon, starting a course in computer engineering, which she will complete with an MBA at HEC and a passage through the London Business School. In Europe, another injustice jumps out at her: the astronomical cost of transferring money to Africa. They represented up to 20% of the amount sent, » Nelly insists. But when you are in the diaspora, you always have someone back home who needs help. A good part of my modest budget was spent there! The Ejara project was also born from this experience.
Tech and wax
Enabling people to no longer be the first victims of the local economy or political instability, facilitating transfers between the diaspora and families, encouraging investment by making banking tools accessible, or giving African women the opportunity to make their savings grow, including those who run simple market stalls or gather in agricultural cooperatives. This is what the mobile application created by Nelly aims at. With this urgency to « reduce the fractures inherited from the colonial past ». « All the great technological revolutions have passed us by. This time, Africans must not miss the train! Before returning to her country, Nelly had a career in Europe with Casino, Darty and Betclic. Each time, she was in charge of pricing and data development, including fraud detection on transactions. A valuable expertise to lead Ejara and reassure investors. When she travels around Douala or Yaoundé or in rural areas where her teams go to do training in local languages, she often hears the same question: « Is Ejara really for us? » « Nothing warms my heart more than seeing people suddenly become aware that they have the right to appropriate, via their smartphone, the tools of international finance. » With 200 million people using the CFA franc, the market is huge. Not to mention that this zone has many assets. Starting with its youth (60% of the population is under 25 years old), which already uses digital technology on a daily basis. « Let’s not be complex anymore, we Africans! We must get away from the idea of a savior from outside. The Internet has brought all the knowledge of humanity within our reach, » says Nelly, who sponsors orphanages in Cameroon where computer training is provided for young girls aged 8 to 13. With the cheerful voice, determined look and permanent smile of someone who has found her way, the forty-year-old divides her life between the Cameroonian economic capital and Bordeaux, her heartland in France. She travels a lot. But wherever she is, she knows how not to go unnoticed in this world of finance populated by charcoal suits. For a long time, she wore the all-purpose outfit. Then, she preferred the local dress, the one sewn in the sublime wax fabrics that can be found on the markets of Yaoundé, Dakar, Lomé, Conakry or Cotonou. An emblem of West Africa. « When I was a teenager, I didn’t want to wear this outfit. Today, it is a pride. And then, it creates a formidable cognitive dissonance: a businesswoman in a traditional dress who deals with fintech, it’s not very common, right? Well, not yet. »