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In early spring, cases of Covid-19 started to spike in Cameroon. As the central African nation, located to the east of Nigeria, braced itself for the pandemic to spread, President Paul Biya pressured government officials to protect the country’s 26 million inhabitants.
One official made a call to an old friend residing in Burnsville, Minnesota: Cameroonian American software developer Yves Zouzouambe (pronounced Zoo-zu-ahm-bay).
Following the death of popular musician Manu Dibango on March 24, the country’s first recorded coronavirus casualty, public health officials were desperate to find a way to track the spread of the disease. They were also in urgent need of a mobile and web platform that would allow organizations and businesses to share their needs with officials, in different areas and levels of government..
Zouzouambe, the founder of the Minnesota-based software company ASM Logic, has been living in Minnesota since 1997, along with his wife, Ruth, and three sons.
A gifted mathematics and physics student, Zouzouambe originally dreamed of becoming a pilot. His wife, he said, did not like that plan, and so he sought alternatives.
“Computer science back in the day was beginning to boom and I saw ads on tv,” he said. “And I really loved it since then.” Over time, he went from working for different tech companies to building his own business, which now maintains offices in India, Cameroon and Minnesota.
From tax collection to pandemic logistics
The Cameroon official that called Zouzouambe was an old friend from high school, However, it wasn’t the first request he’s fielded from the Cameroon government.
In the past, he’s partnered with local municipalities to build platforms that manage tax collection.
This time, there was more than money at stake. It was a global pandemic and lives were at risk.
“He reached out to me saying that he needs a platform to record basically two type of actors: producers and users,” Zouzouambe said. “They needed to know the potential of the country to develop products and services related to fighting the virus spread or protecting the population.”
The platform the Cameroonian government needed would allow officials to learn how many people required face masks, or if people lacked shelter or food. It needed to be flexible and easy to use, so that citizens could receive the help in a timely manner, whether they lived in highly populated urban centers, like Yaoundé (the nation’s capital) and Douala, or more rural areas of the country.
Zouzouambe and his team had to sign a government document called a TDR (Terme de Référence), a government-issued proposal that outlines the high-level objectives for the project.
“Due to the time constraint, the work wasn’t as elaborate as they tend to be when [Cameroon] has the time to really build the project,” said Zouzouambe. “Consequently we had a lot of follow-up with government officials in order to pinpoint the specific requirements beyond the thin document that was provided to us.”
On a six-week timeline, Zouzouambe assembled his team: two IT specialists in India, four experts in Cameroon working on system implementation, six government officials, and himself, under lockdown in Minnesota. Together, they worked around the clock (in multiple time zones) to finalize the platform.
Hooking up small businesses, hospitals, churches
The platform Zouzouambe developed helps officials stay up to date with needs and demands from small and large businesses, hospitals and churches across the country.
“Organizations and businesses and groups can come and register into the platform and manifest what they can produce and how quickly they can produce it. It’s also accessible nationwide,” said Zouzoumbe.
Beyond aiding the government in the fight against COVID-19, Zouzouambe said he’s been able to engage younger Cameroonians in the work.
“In Cameroon, there is a lot of development, and I was able to use youth, which provides labor for a source of livelihood,” he said.
Seeking more projects across the African continent
Over the summer, Zouzouambe received another call from his friend: the platform had crashed.
“They requested us to increase capacities on the servers, because they had received some feedback that the usage was so high that they needed to increase the response time,” said Zouzouambe.
Although his aid to his native country came during a pandemic, Zouzouambe is proud of the work he and his team accomplished. “We took quite a bit of satisfaction in knowing that we’re bringing a tool that helps the government and the people organize and better manage the location of resources to fight the pandemic,“ he said.
Zouzouambe’s contract with the government has since ended, but he’d like to see this recent experience open more doors for collaborations.
“The effort was very gratifying,” he said. “I hope I can continue interacting with government officials and the private sector, and helping continue labor initiatives in Africa and providing solutions via software and improving efficiency.”