First Monday

Small ads as first steps to Internet business: A preliminary survey of Cameroon's commercial Internet usage by David Zeitlyn and Francine Barone

Small ads as first steps to Internet business: A preliminary survey of Cameroon’s commercial Internet usage by David Zeitlyn and Francine Barone
We have surveyed current commercial use of the Internet in Cameroon. This paper provides some data on Cameroon’s presence on the Internet as an initial means of assessing the impact information technologies and the Internet have had on local business practices in Cameroon. We have found some NGOs promoting entrepreneurs and artisan producers to sell their wares. Alongside tourism and import/export listings, the use of small ads is predominant. Connectivity via fixed lines remains a bottleneck impeding expansion. Since mobile phone use is mushrooming, a suggested solution is the development of SMS–Web bridges.


Domain representation
NGOs encouraging business
Imports and exports
Discussion and conclusions





The old news is that the Internet has arrived in Africa. What is still newsworthy at the beginning of the twenty–first century is the impact it has had and how it is being used in Africa. After the early promises (Barlow, 1998) there is already some documentation of both the successes (Zachary, 2004) and the infrastructural constraints on expansion [1].

This paper evaluates how Cameroonian businesses are using the Internet. We gathered information by making a thorough search of Web sites from and about Cameroon to evaluate the use being made of the Internet and e–commerce by businesses in Cameroon. We set out initially to answer two questions:

One: are there any Cameroon–based businesses that are making substantial revenue from the Web (apart from Internet cafés)? If so, what are they?

Two: are there any Cameroonians who are making substantial revenue from business conducted via the Internet?

In our survey, we examined the use of the Internet for trading, buying, selling and advertising by entrepreneurs, manufacturers, distributors, traders, artisans, local shops, international importers and exporters. We also considered the business prospects for Cameroonians (at home and abroad): are they able to expand within the world (Internet) marketplace through personal initiative, NGO–supported or local cooperative enterprises? We included international import/export ventures within this strand of research. These include the sale of Cameroonian–made goods via the Web and the provision of Western commodities for sale in Cameroon, as well as mutual interests in tourism. We were unable to assess the extent to which the people involved in these activities are making substantial (or at least appreciable) revenue from the Internet; this is far harder to establish and will be the focus of planned future research. As an initial orienting step, we performed some general Web searches to determine how Web sites from or about Cameroon are represented across seven popular domains. Overall, this paper provides some data on Cameroon’s presence on the Internet as an initial means of assessing the impact information technologies and the Internet have had on local business practices in Cameroon.



Domain representation

In our initial exercise we sampled seven Internet domains (.info, .net, .com, .org, .cm, .fr and .uk), using Google to determine how Cameroon is represented, in general, across the Internet. We recognise this is a crude measure since it counts individual sites with many pages as equivalent to many small sites, but we also ran parallel searches for the Netherlands, a European country with a similar population to Cameroon. The comparison is telling.


Table 1: Domain specific search results from Google

Cameroon OR Cameroun
1 June 2004
Number of hits (percent)
Netherlands OR Holland OR "pays bas"
7 June 2004
Number of hits (percent)
3,910 (0.1)
2,530,000 (.nl) (9.3)
28,100 (0.7)
174,000 (0.6)
131,000 (3.5)
631,000 (2.3)
248,000 (6.6)
3,380,000 (12.4)
373,000 (9.9)
2,730,000 (10.0)
1,030,000 (27.4)
6,370,000 (23.4)
1,950,000 (51.8)
11,400,000 (41.9)
3,760,100 (100)
24,685,000 (100)


Within each domain, several hundred sites were sampled. Consistent across all domains are sites dedicated to tourism and tourist information, mostly compiled by Americans or Europeans. Equally prominent are both foreign and local sites for Cameroon football news, statistics and merchandise. The .info domain is used primarily for governmental, economic, demographic and geographic information, including international bodies concerned with malaria, AIDS and environmental degradation. Also included are general interest sites displaying maps, pictures, encyclopaedic sources and anthropological information about ethnic groups in Cameroon. Online newspapers, guides and directories within Cameroon additionally use the .info domain. The .cm domain yields the fewest results and is comprised mostly of governmental bodies in Cameroon including the national assembly and finance, education, industry and environment ministries. Cameroonian press and official news sites, political parties, national banks, universities, and major corporations such as Air France and Orange also use the .cm domain. The use of the country domain is the most significant difference between the patterns of usage between Cameroon and the Netherlands. Registration for the .cm is controlled by Intelcam (the state–owned telecom) and is restricted to locally registered companies or other organizations. The .nl is, in principle, unrestricted geographically, however a postal address in the Netherlands is required for official correspondence.

The domains .com and .net overlap with the .info categories above, but there are many more community sites hosting forums and chat rooms where Cameroonians can connect, search classified ads, and discuss regional issues and sport. The .com domain also contains many sites for development agencies and news sites with pages dedicated to current affairs in Cameroon. The .org domain is primarily dedicated to organizations such as the World Bank, World Trade Oorganization, International Monetary Fund, British Council, Amnesty International, Wildlife Aid Fund, Human Rights Watch, Global Forest Watch, and other NGOs with interests in Cameroon. Most Cameroonian French language sites use the .fr domain. A majority of these are based in France and represent French embassies and consulates as well as provide health information for travellers and tourist guides. Personal pages with general facts about Cameroon comprise much of the domain, including many tourist sites, health information, environmental concerns, world football, and a few trade sites.

Commercial Internet usage

There are three main ways in which the Internet is used by Cameroonians for business. Firstly, new or existing businesses located in Cameroon may hire a third party to host and/or maintain a Web site for the sale and distribution of their products and services. These third parties include charitable organizations and both local and international IT companies. Secondly, entrepreneurs or established business owners with knowledge of the Internet and e–commerce may create a Web site (again, usually with the help of a professional Web builder and hosting company) which they manage, update and use directly to engage with customers. Thirdly, many other business people choose to use the Internet to generate revenue without building their own Web sites or catalogues. Many entrepreneurs and companies list basic information, contact details, product offers and requests on international classified pages or newsgroups to attract potential trade partners. These three methods of Internet advertising are often used concomitantly, but the latter (the widespread posting of short, basic ads) is the most common, and possibly the most effective means of doing business on the Web, a point to which we return in the conclusion.



NGOs encouraging business

Despite its relatively recent introduction in sub–Saharan Africa, it is evident that the utility and business potential of the Internet has been recognized by local entrepreneurs. One way in which the Internet has been introduced to Cameroonian entrepreneurs is through non–profit organizations such as the Association pour le Soutien etl’Appui á la Femme Entrepreneur (ASAFE) [2]. These organizations provide resources, computer technology and IT knowledge for local people to develop their own Web sites. ASAFE’s "Cyberforum" for women entrepreneurs provides computer training programs to strengthen local businesses.

Despite its relatively recent introduction in sub–Saharan Africa, it is evident that the utility and business potential of the Internet has been recognized by local entrepreneurs.

PEOPLink, a U.S.–based non–profit organization, has created a functioning Web forum for local artisans to sell their products to the world. PEOPLink’s CatGen (catalogue generator) is an e–commerce platform that provides a template for artisans to create basic Web sites with product lists. PEOPLink also runs an an eBay user name on behalf of the sellers and encourages buyers in the U.S. and Canada to communicate directly by e–mail with the artisans. While, as yet, the uptake is small (so far only four Cameroonian artisans or cooperatives are hosted by CatGen), the project has good prospects. For example, the Presbyterian Handicraft Centre (PRESCRAFT) of Bamenda has used PEOPLink’s services to develop an extensive artisan network for the production and sale of handicrafts such as musical instruments, wood carvings, brass and clay pottery, baskets, toys, traditional stools and other objects within the North West province for sale to European and North American customers over the Internet.

Even where PEOPLink participants do not own a computer, they grasp the potential that Internet trading holds for attracting customers around the world. By generating revenue in this way, they are able to preserve indigenous arts and crafts in an increasingly wage–based economy; improve village life; and, encourage the idea of self–reliance. Individual artisans hope that, through this system, they will be able to sustain a reasonable livelihood by focusing on their traditional trades [3]. Despite these attempts to introduce the Internet into the daily lives of local people, there are comparatively few examples of Web sites wholly developed and run by independent entrepreneurs in Cameroon [4].

Arts and Handicrafts

The African arts and handicrafts industry is popular, and the Internet is being used to sell these goods around the world. There are several ways in which Cameroonian handicrafts are sold over the Internet. Firstly, artisans with shops in Cameroon have established partnerships to advertise and distribute their goods. This is usually done through a central Web site and distribution company based in a major city (within Cameroon, U.S. or Europe) serving as an intermediary between artisans and buyers. The producers in Cameroon ship their goods to their intermediary who arranges delivery. This system works because local artisans can advertise on professionally created Web sites and need only be concerned with the manufacture and shipping of items to a single location. These Web sites [5] make available the names and location of artisans, photographs of their production process, materials, and messages to buyers. However, apart from such arrangements and the non–profit initiatives mentioned above, the numbers of independent artisans with private Web sites for Cameroonian art (and African art in general) remains low.

One site called "Bayam–Sellam" [6] is the best example of an independent Cameroonian business selling handicrafts from the Web. It is run by a Cameroonian importer/exporter who gathers products from artisans in Cameroon for sale around the world. Craft pieces such as stools, statuettes, baskets and clothingare sold.

The major Internet–based exchanges of Cameroonian goods are usually part of larger African collections sold by foreign (mostly American and French) importers and exporters, with no clear information about where the objects come from. These companies may acquire their goods by dealing directly with the artisans on a long–term basis of supply and demand [7], or by re–selling pieces of artwork from private collections.

While some of these sites sincerely wish to support local artisans, others may be more exploitative. It is hard to assess the basis of the relationship between producer and retailer. This is exacerbated by the complicated partnerships needed to accommodate unpredictable fluctuations in customer demand which may be difficult for local producers to follow. Cameroonian handicrafts are often sold alongside other African works and there is little information about how they were acquired, if they are genuine, or what effect their sale has on the Cameroonian economy. Many sites are run by foreign travellers who re–sell their private collections at high prices. It is therefore difficult to determine if artisans are gaining much revenue from the sale of their products. However, any mention of artisans’ local shops on major export Web sites will presumably be beneficial for business from tourists, visitors and collectors [8].

While some of these sites sincerely wish to support local artisans, others may be more exploitative.

eBay and online auctions are also a popular venue for the sale of Cameroonian art. However, it is difficult to determine if the sellers are Cameroonian or rather foreigners who have acquired these items, let alone whether these sales increase local revenue. This is because few sellers list detailed information about themselves, except for American travellers or tourists. Cameroon sports shirts, postcards, coins and documents are sold from French, German, American and British-based eBay accounts, among others. We monitored eBay sales for a two–week period (21 May to 4 June 2004); not one seller during this period claimed to be from Cameroon. The economic benefit of eBay to the Cameroon economy is a fascinating and difficult topic which must be examined separately.

Local businesses (B2B)

The Internet is also used within Cameroon to advertise businesses and personal Web sites for the benefit of local communities. This is mainly done by listing sites on one of many Web–based directories, IT companies and ISP Web sites [9]. For example, "Cameroun Plus" ( lists the names and contact information of many local establishments, and hosts more advanced Web sites for interested businesses. The directory contains many restaurants, cafés, dance clubs, furniture shops, supermarkets, sports clubs (golf, equestrianism, yachting, petanque, rugby, tennis, squash), and over twenty fashion shops and modelling agencies. Such directories serve to heighten the exposure of local shops and outlets within Cameroon as well as attracting tourists from abroad. Other specialized directories can also be found for businesses such as law firms, clubs and societies. We explore later in this paper the use of the Internet purely for advertising purposes, with regard to imports and exports.

Many Web directory sites also host forums and chat rooms where Cameroonians at home and abroad can connect and exchange information. There are hundreds of private and public newsgroups and clubs for Cameroonians on major networks such as Yahoo!, MSN, and AOL. Some are used for the exchange of personal information and general chatting; others are dedicated to business and trade, travel, tourism and politics. These networks are not unimportant and should not be seen as secondary to the building of company Web pages.

Tourism and accommodation

Tourism Web sites about Cameroon mainly give basic information about foreign travel companies, sometimes with the names and addresses of local establishments or accommodation and restaurant reviews. For those who wish to book and plan tourist excursions or holidays in Cameroon, the majority of sites are based in Europe or America (many in France). They offer deals with European or U.S.–based hotel chains in Cameroon (such as Ibis, Hilton), car rental services (Europcar), and airlines (Air France). Excursions run by local companies are often "package" deals which do not give very much information about the Cameroonian businesses involved [10]. There are also several Web sites belonging to Cameroon–based tourist centres. They mostly offer activities such as safaris, hiking, park tours, bird watching, fishing, bicycling, hunting, and forest walks, among other sporting activities. Most businesses which provide accommodation also offer guided tours, excursions, safaris, and personal hunting assistance. These businesses also maintain connections with major European airlines and hotels. Two of the sites found were run by French couples who have recently settled in Cameroon [11]. The situation with tourist accommodation in Cameroon is similar: only a handful of Web sites are for hotels that are not part of major European chains [12].



Imports and exports

Of all the Internet business prospects open to Cameroonians, import and export advertising is by far the most common. While some industries may develop their own Web sites dedicated to imports or exports (like the African handicrafts sites mentioned earlier), the most popular form of advertising is by listing brief details, contact information, product requests and offers on trade networks, newsgroups, Internet business forums and classified ads. Established importers and exporters may join a Web site which connects investors, entrepreneurs, traders, producers and distributors [13].’s free advertising service for Cameroon (, offers customizable templates for businesses to create short information pages [14]. Such services are attractive because they offer widespread exposure and are easy to achieve without much time, Web–building knowledge or expense. Each page is linked to the fully searchable main site.

By generating revenue ... they are able to preserve indigenous arts and crafts in an increasingly wage–based economy; improve village life; and, encourage the idea of self–reliance.

It is difficult to tell if demands for imports are more prevalent than offers for exports, as there are many advertising sites dedicated to both. The most popular sites for listing brief advertisements and demands for imported products appear to be and, where Cameroonian ads can be found among many others from Africa and Asia. Search results are constantly updated and number in the hundreds [15]. In brief, the most popular products to import are mobile phones, computer equipment, CDs, DVDs and players, cosmetics and garments. Advertisements for exports are also regularly listed by the hundreds on popular trading sites and networks [16]. A detailed list of the types of products exported and associated companies can be found in Appendix B3, with the most popular being timber, African herbs and plants, handicrafts, cocoa, and coffee.

However, some caution must be exercised in interpreting the benefits of such Web advertising for importers and exporters. It is impossible to assess the economic importance of transactions generated as a result of this advertising, let alone whether revenue returning to the Cameroonian economy benefits local individuals. Repetition of some addresses, phone numbers and directors’ names, suggests that some of the companies listed might be somewhat notional.



Discussion and conclusions

In this survey, it has been found that the majority of Web sites about Cameroon are tourist guides and general information pages. However, the large number of local directory sites, forums and chat rooms with thousands of hits per day suggests that the Internet is a desired, well–used commodity in Cameroon. It is certainly used by entrepreneurs and local businesses to expand their horizons towards international buyers and sellers. Company Web pages for businesses based in Cameroon are not always detailed or informative and their design is usually basic. Still, the potential for the Internet to expand business possibilities appears to be well recognized by entrepreneurs.

There are many obstacles and frustrations for local individuals intending to use the Internet for business, including high prices, limited access, and minimal knowledge. One entrepreneur from Yaoundé comments on a message board [17] that participating in Internet business from Africa is "too high risk" for Africans who face slow and costly connections impeding even the posting of free classifieds. His solution is to turn to Internet companies that distribute advertisements widely (to "1500+ sites in an hour or so") for a single fee. Therefore, the use of short ads as opposed to full Web catalogues appears to be the most affordable and appropriate means of advertising for smaller–scale companies and entrepreneurs. Presumably, as the Internet becomes more widespread and affordable, and as connections become faster and more reliable, then businesspeople will build more elaborate Web sites.

Problems inherent in this type of research are questions as to whether or not these examples of Internet commerce actually provide personal income or revenue for Cameroonian entrepreneurs. It is impossible in practical terms to follow up on the business leads on import/export newsgroups, and some of the existing Web sites may be ephemeral. In most cases, foreign companies or importers based in the U.S. or Europe act as middlemen between most local initiatives including travel, tourism and the sale of handicrafts abroad. Hence it is difficult to assess the benefit to Cameroonian Internet entrepreneurs. One very interesting development is been the small number of Web sites for local businesses interested in attracting customers within Cameroon (such as restaurants, supermarkets and sports clubs), which shows awareness of the Internet by consumers, shop owners and entrepreneurs alike.

As Mbarika (2002) and others have demonstrated, some of the barriers preventing faster and wider adoption of Internet commerce in less developed countries are the lack of reliable phone lines and the high cost of using them. To illustrate, early in 2004, the entire city of Bafoussam — a regional capital in Cameroon — lacked Internet connectivity for at least two days (when one of us (DZ) was trying to check his e–mail). Anecdotally, this appears to be not uncommon. The recent (and continuing) explosion in mobile telephony may offer a solution — especially when combined with the popularity of small ads that we have documented. Although GSM mobile phones in common use do not offer easy access to the Internet, there are other alternatives. ISPs with good Web connectivity can offer commercial two–way SMS–to–Web bridges enabling entrepreneurs with only a mobile phone to submit advertisements via SMS and then receive responses also as messages on their phones. We believe this can be done as a commercial service and is technologically feasible. End of article


About the authors

David Zeitlyn has been undertaking anthropological research in Cameroon since 1985 mainly with Mambila people on the Tikar Plain (see He has been one of the pioneers in the use of the Internet to disseminate anthropological research data.

Francine Barone is a final–year undergraduate student of anthropology at the University of Kent, United Kingdom.



1. Mbarika, (2002); Idowu, et. al. (2002); and, see also Zachary’s (2004) discussion of Ghana as well as Uimonen (2001) for southeast Asian parallels.

2. See also: and PEOPLink.

3. See Appendix A1 for an index of Cameroonian PEOPLink participants.

4. A list of which can be found in Appendix A4.

5. For example, at, where six different artisans selling various objects from Cameroon are described and their products made available; and where Dr. Fongot Kinni of Yaounde’s African Arts/Handicraft and Environmental Management Institute sells various objects including batik artwork and clothing.

6. The term comes from the Cameroonian pidgin for a buyer–reseller; see

7. For example, and

8. A list of major Web sites selling Cameroonian arts and handicrafts around the world can be found in Appendix A2.

9. See Appendix A3.

10. There are many of these sites, a short sample list can be found in Appendix A5.

11. See Appendix A6.

12. See Appendix A7.

13. See, for example,,, and

14. See Appendix B1 for a list of participating importers.

15. A condensed list of popularly occurring companies and their desired imports can be found in Appendix B2.

16. For example, and




John Barlow, 1998. "Africa rising: Everything you know about Africa is wrong," Wired, volume 6, number 1, pp. 142–158, and at, accessed 11 June 2004.

P.A. Idowu, A.O. Alu, and E.R. Adagunodo, 2002. "The effect of information technology on the growth of the banking industry in Nigeria," Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries (EJISDC), volume 10, pp. 1–8, at, accessed 7 June 2004.

Victor W.A. Mbarika, 2002. "Re–thinking information and communications technology policy: Focus on Internet versus teledensity diffusion for Africa’s least developed countries," Electronic Journal on Information Systems in Developing Countries (EJISDC), volume 9, pp. 1–13, at, accessed 7 June 2004.

Paula Uimonen, 2001. Internet, modernization and globalization. Stockholm Studies in Social Anthropology, volume 49. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.

G. Pascal Zachary, 2004. "Black star: Ghana, information technology and development in Africa," First Monday, volume 9 number 3 (March), at, accessed 11 June 2004.



All sites were accessed in May and June 2004.

Appendix A — Products and services

  1. CatGen (PEOPLink) participants:
  2. Major Web sites retailing African/Cameroonian arts and handicrafts:
  3. Directories:
  4. IT/ISPs:
  5. Independently–run Web pages for local businesses:

    Artists (modern, abstract and performance art):

    Restaurants and food:

    Law firms:

  6. Cinema:

    Other businesses:

  7. Foreign–based tourism sites:
  8. Locally–based tourism sites:
  9. Hotels and Accommodation

Appendix B — Imports and exports

  1. Import/Export sites hosted by
  2. Imports and importers
    The following companies, indexed by products desired for importation, have listed advertisements on,, and/or, the latter being, exclusively, an online marketplaces for buyers and sellers. In many cases, the same companies listed similar ads on more than one Web site concurrently. A great majority of the companies are from Douala.

    Electronics: DVDs, CDs, cameras, computers, peripherals, mobile phones, car parts

    • Dunkans Group of Companies, Ltd.
    • Rignorous Ltd., Douala
    • Akiri’s International Marketing Ventures
    • AG Telecom Investment Sarl
    • Oducam Investment, Ltd.
    • ETS Maryklins Investment, Ltd.
    • Chililian Trading Company
    • D.Man Technologies
    • Excessrich Multicreative Inc.
    • Sarah and Sons
    • Christian Majestic Investment
    • Dedlinks Inc.
    • Trusthouse Investment
    • Comcat Technologies Inc.
    • Thomiscan Sarl
    • ETS New Age Trading
    • Neal International Products
    • Guy Prince Inter–Continental Sarl
    • Omniserv Enterprises

    Textiles, garments, and cosmetics (lingerie, used clothing, shoes, bags, jewellery)

    • UCI International Ltd., Douala
    • AG Telecom Investment Sarl
    • Eagle Speed Services, Yaoundé
    • Ndome Multi–purpose Sarl
    • Afrik Merchant
    • Silver International, Ltd.
    • ETS Willingness Innovations, Sarl
    • Afrique Sarl
    • Nadine links Sarl
    • Benefactor Inc, Ltd.
    • Rich Foundation
    • Thomiscan Sarl
    • ETS Maureen Cospharma
    • Agbai Flower
    • Kodex Global Investment
    • BFCC — Bouba Fils Cameroun Company
    • British-Muslim Trading Company
    • Microtex Invest, Ltd.

    Fertilizer, medical equipment, fire extinguishers, water purifiers

    • ETS Maureen Ventures Coy
    • Towerhill Ventures, Ltd.
    • Vedder Industrial Co.
    • Sanisaintl
    • Onamto Sarl
  3. Exports and exporters
    The following companies, indexed by products desired for importation, have listed advertisements on,,, and As with the list of importers above, this list is not exhaustive of all the sites which provide posting of such advertisements, but it seems to be representative of the products being exchanged between Cameroon and other global buyers.

    Plants, herbs, medicines

    • 2PC
    • Phytoff
    • Naturelink Ltd.
    • Sanitarum
    • Alobi Investment

    Clothing, jewelry, handicrafts

    • DNT Multicom
    • Synergie Corp.
    • Chesis’s Moon Light African Wear Fashion

    Cocoa, coffee, cashews, tea, fruit, palm kernel

    • Sustainable Project on Cocoa and Coffee Development
    • MIDHILL Common Initiative Group
    • Excessrich Multicreative Inc.
    • AGICOD
    • Divine Resources Ltd.
    • ETS Jopez International Corporation
    • Upper Banyang Cooperative Society
    • Victory Ventures
    • Joaik Enterprises
    • Monkam Investments
    • Alobi Investment

    Timber, charcoal, construction materials

    • Wincw/Weladji Inc.
    • Cush Company
    • AGICOD
    • Divine Resources, Ltd.
    • Groupe Ngongang et Fils
    • Mega 2000
    • Cam Ebony
    • Masstelecom
    • Victory Ventures
    • Johnwoocam, Ltd.

    "Exotic Pets," birds, reptiles

    • Kens Ecological Woodlands
    • Undacam African Gray Parrots

Editorial history

Paper received 21 June 2004; accepted 24 August 2004.

Copyright ©2004, First Monday

Copyright ©2004, David Zeitlyn and Francine Barone

Small ads as first steps to Internet business: A preliminary survey of Cameroon’s commercial Internet usage by David Zeitlyn and Francine Barone
First Monday, Volume 9, Number 9 - 6 September 2004