Verone Mankou is widely credited as the manufacturer of Africa’s first tablet computer, the Way-C, but acclaim did not come easy for the Congolese tech entrepreneur. His abiding ambition, since 2006, had been to design and manufacture low-cost laptops to give more people in his country access to the internet. He worked on the idea for six months but the project proved to be more complex and expensive than he anticipated; he basically failed to make headway. Then one day in 2007, he saw Steve Jobs on television presenting the first iPhone.
“For the world it was a revolution,” Mankou told Wired.com, “but for me it was a revelation.”
The aspect of the iPhone that first caught his attention, he noted, was its lack of keyboard. That was how he got the idea to make a tablet computer, or what he called a ‘big iPhone’.
Between 2007 and 2009, he threw himself into acquiring the requisite knowledge to achieve his dream. He bought books online and took trips to China. He was self-funded until he created the prototype of his brand of tablet computer, the Way-C. At that point, he needed more funds to go commercial. Banks would not invest in his idea. Some even tried to discourage him because they felt his idea was crazy. He recalled a banker telling him, “Son I love you, but your project for tablets, you are wasting your time – stop it!”
Then Time Magazine came to the rescue when it wrote a feature about his project. A Congolese Minister read the story on a flight from Singapore to Brazzaville. The Minister reached out to Mankou and helped him secure government funding of $700,000. With additional help from unnamed African businessmen and support by way of an advance from a Chinese assembly plant, his company, VMK Tech, manufactured the first 5,000 Way-C tablets in 2011.
According to Zdnet.com, the Way-C measures 7.4″ x 6.7″ x 0.5″ and weighs 13.4 ounces. It has Wi-Fi connectivity and 4GB of internal memory.
While working on the tablet computers, Mankou realised that the difference between a tablet and a smartphone was only a matter of size. So in 2012, he began the manufacture of the smartphone brand, Elikia, which means ‘hope’ in Lingala. The VMK company has since added other models to its range of mobile phones.
VMK has sold thousands of tablets and phones and has begun expansion into neighbouring West and Central African countries, starting with the opening of a store in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.
“The opening of a store in Abidjan is an essential step in the extension of our Pan-African vision,” Mankou said. “It is here, at the crossroads of West Africa, that VMK has decided to embark upon conquering the new class of African consumers.”
Despite the success of his company, Mankou doesn’t care for the hype. He maintains that the ultimate objective of the expansion is to bridge the digital gap in Africa, to make new technology accessible to the masses. In each of their store location, there would marketing, sales, and after-sales departments to deal with customers’ complaints and inquiry.
In July 2015, Mankou launched his factory in the Mpila district of Brazzaville to move production of his devices home. Though designed in Congo, production had been in China due to lack of factories and manpower. With the opening of his plant, which cost about two million dollars, Mankou has promised to search for and train local talent to handle the production of 350,000 units per month.
Mankou, who was born in Pointe-Noire to a school mistress mother and an engineer father, hopes that in the future, VMK Tech will be quoted on NASDAQ.