Road to Renewal
As one of 200 Africans selected by the Obama Foundation in 2018 to its Africa Program, from thousands of applicants, Patu Ndango is a natural leader — but don’t think her entrepreneurial road was easy. A difficult career search persuaded Ms Ndango to seek success in Cameroon on her own terms. “Growing up in a country where jobs are limited you need to be connected to somebody that can facilitate getting a good job,” she says.
The first in her family to complete university, Ms Ndango lacked connections. A bachelor’s degree in environmental science from the University of Buea and a Masters program in environmental management and sustainable development at the International Relations Institute of Cameroon pried open no promising doors. “I started asking myself, what am I doing? Why waste years applying for jobs when instead I can think out of the box?”
She settled for a clerical post with the Parliamentary Network of the World Bank and the IMF, a nongovernmental organization where members of Cameroon’s parliament regroup to promote accountability and transparency in the finance sector. Meanwhile, Ms Ndango sought rewarding challenges with pronounced impact on the quality of life in Cameroon. Ubiquitous landfills drew her attention to environmental degradation and looming climate change. She enlisted like-minded young Cameroon citizens in the fight against pollution. In 2014 they formed the Youth Environmental Alliance for Sustainable Development (YEASD-Africa).
Big aims focused on attacking pollution in microclimates across Cameroon. Toward that end, Ms Ndango and her compatriots launched Operation 1000 Trees in Northern Cameroon where desert conditions prevail. A three-day agenda mobilized 400 young people with three major environmental goals. They spent day one raising awareness about climate change, focusing on ways that young people can protect the environment and promote sustainable development. Day two they conducted a massive clean up in a major regional marketplace. The commitment spurred local strategies for eco-friendly waste disposal instead of tossing trash into the street, inviting disease. Day three capped the event, when young people from the region planted 1,000 seedlings, an event the group plans to repeat.
Subsequent NGO programs in the Center Region of Cameroon have featured projects that acquaint thousands of pupils in primary schools with reasons to keep the environment clean. To guard against disease transmission, hygiene campaigns teach school children how and when to wash their hands, especially before they handle food.
Successful nonprofit initiatives roused the entrepreneur in Ms Ndango, who began to mull the prospects for waste remediation on a large commercial scale. She saw a yawning market gap. Organizations existed to collect waste in Cameroon, but none were equipped to extract the value. Mounting landfills endangered air and water quality. Worse, Cameroon relies on unsustainable farming practices to improve soil fertility, increase crop yield and resist pests. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides degrade the environment and pose health threats.
In response, Ms Ndango applied skills rooted in environmental sciences and NGO organizing. She launched Closed Loop System Ventures, a social enterprise focused on transforming organic waste into natural fertilizer. An eco-friendly mix of compost, biochar (charcoal produced from plant matter and stored in the soil as a means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere), animal manure and bio pesticides boost soil fertility and support pest resistant crops.
Social enterprises and NGOs are similar, says Ms Ndango. Both make a sustainable environment a top priority. They differ chiefly in that social enterprises generate profits to sustain themselves. NGOs rely on donors.
Starting a new venture invites big hurdles. “When I created Close Loop Systems Ventures, people did not understand what exactly I was trying to do,” she says. Her decision to leave a secure post looked very risky to skeptical observers. Despite pressure to keep her job, Ms Ndango knew that a new company needed all of her attention.
Restoring value to waste won allies, starting with her own family. Her parents voiced support and a brother pitched alongside many friends. They freed Ms Ndango to search for investors who share her passion for agricultural innovation.
Closed Loop Systems Ventures is still a work in progress, but Ms Ndango sees ample cause for optimism. Meanwhile, she has earned international kudos. She is a Techwomen Fellow [United States], a Young African Leadership Center (YALI) Emerging Leader [Nigeria], an AdamStat Entrepreneurship Challenge Finalist, a Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneur, and a Cameroon Women's Scholarship Alumna. In 2017, Ms Ndango was nominated as an Associate Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society in recognition of her efforts to make the world a better place. She is active also in the Cameroon Women’s Scholarship Association, which promotes the education and economic empowerment of women and young girls.
Her leadership dream keeps evolving. “I want to create a business that transforms lemon grass into lemon grass tea,” says Ms Ndango, who is passionate about creating meaningful employment in Cameroon. “I think every day how I can create something that will enable me to not look for a job,” she says, “and not be dependent on the government for anything.”