Image: Paul Lamontagne, Chief Executive of Sagarmatha Technologies. Supplied: Ian Landsberg/ANA PHOTO
“I’m purpose-driven. I moved to Africa because I wanted to change the world and I felt it was the right place to make an impact,” says Paul Lamontagne, CEO of Sagarmatha Technologies.

Lamontagne is no stranger to the African continent. A posting initially pencilled in for two years, ultimately led to him moving his family to South Africa and today, over a decade later, he has no plans to leave. 

In 2003, Lamontagne started working on the Enablis Entrepreneurial Network, a Canadian non-profit organisation founded by Quebec entrepreneur Charles Sirois, and Accenture, with the support of the Canadian government.

He is chairman of the organisation, which aims to support SME entrepreneurs who create jobs in developing and emerging countries, leading to sustainable economic growth.

Initially, Lamontagne travelled back and forth between Canada and South Africa every two months, until he moved to South Africa. 

Enablis launched in South Africa in 2004 and has since supported over 2 400 entrepreneurs. The organisation also operates in West Africa (Ghana and Senegal) and in Latin America (Argentina).

Lamontagne is currently the executive investment partner at Capafrica, a Canadian private equity fund with interests in renewable energy, infrastructure, agriculture and telecommunications. 

His new company, Sagarmatha Technologies, strives to be the leading digital technology platform group in Africa. “We are active in ecommerce, branded digital media, syndicated-content distribution and technology ventures, with proprietary data-driven technologies,” he explains.

“I’m still purpose-driven today and believe the opportunity to lead Sagarmatha will allow me to leave a sustainable legacy around technology and improve economic development in Africa.”

Delving deeper into his background and the new company, African Independent sat down with the accomplished CEO.

Can you give us a brief background of your academic career?
McGill University in Montreal (BA). Both my parents also attended McGill. Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (MBA), in France.

You have been active in Africa for a long time. What was the biggest motivating factor?
My first trip to Africa was as a tourist in 1989 to Botswana. It was an incredible experience. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the African landscape was.

My first business trip was to Cape Town in 2000 for a G7 DOTFORCE (Digital Opportunity Task Force) meeting on bringing greater capacity and venture capital to technology ventures in Africa in order to improve development. The beauty of Cape Town left an indelible mark. 

In 2003, I started working on the Enablis Entrepreneurial Network model by travelling back and forth from Canada to South Africa every two months, then moved with my family to Cape Town for two years in 2005. Though, as you can see, I’m still here after leading Enablis Financial Corporation, serving as Head of Africa and Middle East in the Global Banks division at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and as Executive Investment Partner at Capafrica, a Canadian private equity fund investing in renewable energy, telecommunications and agriculture in Africa.

In a nutshell, how would you describe Sagarmatha Technologies?
We strive to be the leading digital technology platform company in Africa. A platform is a foundation, underpinned by technology upon which we can develop new business models that are scalable and that we aim to monetise. 

What are your thoughts on Africa as an investment destination?
It’s the modern day gold rush!
We’ve heard the Africa rising story for the past 10+ years and in many ways the continent has underperformed, yet I’m very bullish. I think Africa is at a tipping point right now more than ever. I’m an Afro-optimist! 

Why choose Africa, specifically? What was the key motivating factor?
The numbers can shed better insight into my reasoning:

Africa is already the second most populous continent at over 1 billion people and is forecast to become the most populous at 2 billion by 2050,

Africa’s GDP is expected to double to approximately $5 trillion by 2030,

Africa is projected to have the largest working age (18-35) population in the world at 1.1 billion by 2035.

However, doing business in Africa is not for the faint-hearted. You need determination and a keen understanding of the environment (political, social, business). It is 54 different stories, so you can’t look at Africa as a single market, but rather as a diverse one, with many opportunities, and where some markets are more mature than others. 

We’re an African company, with an Africa strategy, so we understand both the opportunities and the risks. Not everyone is prepared or capable of doing that!

We believe Sagarmatha can play an important role in improving global investor confidence in the African story and enable international companies to conduct business more easily on the continent. 

What makes you certain that Africa will be a key centre of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
Africa might have missed the second industrial revolution at the turn of the last century, brought about by mechanisation. It didn’t benefit enough from the third industrial revolution started in the 1960s and brought about by computing, but I believe that Africa is primed to take advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution brought about by digitization for four reasons:

In recent years, there has been massive investment in African infrastructure and energy, though much more still needs to be done, 

Africans are in some ways more tech savvy than anyone else, with 900 million active mobile phones and the huge growth of mobile banking platforms, such as MPesa, 

This is a millennial continent today, with less than 2% of the economy currently digitised. This is forecast to grow to 20% by 2025,
Conventional business models have changed with disruption. Thanks to technology, entrepreneurs can dream of ways to revolutionise industries such as the hospitality industry (Airbnb) and the transportation industry (Uber), so those dreams are possible here as well.

When you look at Africa, it is the millennial continent, it’s where young people are and we know it’s much easier for them to take up and adopt, and leverage technology. 

It always astounds me as someone in their 50s to look at children today who take their parents’ phone at three or five years of age and they’re able to unlock and work their way into it. 

The approach you are taking seems quite multifaceted, can you explain why you have decided to take a more diverse approach as opposed to specialising on one key avenue/venture/approach?
We have a bold vision and we don’t think the one-trick pony approach works for us. We see lots of opportunities in Africa and as a platform company, we intend to leverage them across all our businesses. In many cases, the same technology can underpin multiple market opportunities.

They say data is the new oil, you need to store it, mine it, curate it and monetise it. It’s an important focus of investment for us and we expect that our efforts in artificial intelligence (AI) will have a ripple effect across all our platforms. 

In fact, we intend on launching a business plan competition to identify the best technology ideas in AI ready for commercialisation. We want to invest in these businesses and then scale in Africa and globally.   

Who will you be partnering with in this global venture in order to deliver adequately, any key African players?
We believe in partnerships to reach our ambitions, so we favour a collaborative approach. We already have strong partnerships in South Africa and will look to build more technology and media partnerships as we grow our footprint into the continent. 

The recent announcement of our International Advisory Board shows how important networks are to us. We plan on engaging with and leveraging the global networks of this group of pre-eminent business people and investors to achieve our ambitions of taking Africa to the world and bringing the world to Africa.

We recently announced that we intend to invest over R1 billion in African News Agency (ANA), one of our group companies over the next five years. As ANA expands into Africa, we hope that this will enable our group and partner companies to benefit from the strategic media and technology partnerships already established, as well as those to be established. 

It’s premature to talk specific new partnerships at this point, but we expect to grow organically and through acquisitions, so partnerships in areas such as Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Fintech, Edutech, Healthtech, etc. will be considered.

Why does Africa need a company like Sagarmatha Technologies?
As a continent, Africa needs to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution as an agent of change. We believe Sagarmatha can provide the spark of disruption and promote this quiet revolution around technology and greater opportunity. 

We want to be a technology company that is for Africa by Africans. That’s our Africa First ethos. We have local perspective, which we believe is different from many international technology companies operating in hundreds of geographies around the world. 

Our headquarters is in Africa and we’ll be investing in the continent. While some international companies come and go, Sagarmatha is home-grown and here to stay! 

What separates Sagarmatha Technologies from the rest?
Clear vision, talent, existing technology platforms, entrepreneurial spirit, collaborative approach, first to market and a strong determination to succeed. I learnt from famous Mount Everest climber Sibusiso Vilane that having a common objective helps drive determination. Similar to Sibusiso and his team’s determination to summit Everest in 2003, the Sagarmatha team is determined to achieve our objective of being the leading technology platform company in Africa.

The train has already left the station and we’re starting with a solid foundation of assets. Companies in the Sagarmatha group that are active in syndicated content distribution, ecommerce and branded digital media have already built strong platforms that can be both scaled and leveraged.  

Our clear focus on the African opportunity, which we believe has significant potential, is what distinguishes us.   

Can you tell us more about the company’s name?
Sagarmatha is the word the Nepalese people use to refer to Mt. Everest. The highest peak in the world at 8 800 meters. Summited by only a few thousand climbers in 65 years. 

Our motto at Sagarmatha is to scale new heights, conquer the summit and touch the sky. We have our eye on the prize and will maintain the determination to achieve it. Failure is simply not an option!

We recently hosted Sibusiso Vilane at our headquarters, the first black African to summit Mt. Everest in 2003 and then again in 2005. Sibusiso inspires us at Sagarmatha.

How will you help Africa’s young working population?
Africa needs jobs and we believe these jobs are most likely to come from SMEs, so we need to empower the SME sector with the technological tools to be successful and grow. We also need to inspire a new generation of digital entrepreneurs to start new businesses. 

Of course, a lot still needs to be done around graduating more engineers and training more computer programmers in Africa. Sagarmatha will encourage university bursaries & scholarships in engineering, as well as the training of thousands of new computer programmers in universities & technical colleges. Sagarmatha, which aims to become a leading investor in the African technology space, will look to attract much needed international investors and donors.

Finally, we’re getting ready for Generation Z, the first true digital generation, and there is forecast to be a growth of the post-Millennial generation workforce in Africa, competing with the rest of the world. It’s a huge opportunity for us. 

You have ambitions to open offices in three other regions on the continent over the next 12 to 20 months. How will you achieve this?
We plan on opening new regional offices in East, West and North Africa over the next 12-18 months. I’m as excited about our expansion into Africa as I was when I embarked in my previous role as CEO of Enablis on a similar expansion, where we opened offices in Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Ghana. 

Beginning 2018, I plan on touring all these regions and visiting 12 African cities, where we will meet with governments and decision makers, universities and technical colleges, venture capitalists and angel investors, NGO’s, incubators and accelerators, technology companies and, most importantly, digital entrepreneurs. 

We intend to design our offices as collaborative work spaces where Sagarmatha group companies can pursue their growth plans, strengthen their respective platforms and tap-into local & regional tech communities. 

In addition, we plan to give our partners access to Sagarmatha’s infrastructure and resources to achieve their own ambitions. Let me be clear, we’re not running an Amazon-like HQ2 process as they are doing in North America, with a reported 100 plus cities having bid to host this Amazon campus and reap the economic impact. 

However, our choices will be informed by governments’ digital strategies, the existence of a tech eco-system, proximity to higher learning institutions, a local investor scene and of course, a vibrant start-up community and lots of digital entrepreneurs. This all aligns with our vision for Silicon Africa.    

What does the term ‘Silicon Africa’ mean?
It’s coined after Silicon Valley in California, which is the Bay Area across the bridge from San Francisco. It’s where the microprocessor was developed (the computer chip) and is home to many of the world’s tech giants; Apple, Intel, Netflix and new disruptors such as Airbnb and Uber.

I believe that there are four key reasons that Silicon Valley works: universities with strong technical programs, like Stanford University; a culture of research and development stemming from the 1940s; a vibrant venture capital industry of risk-taking investors; and a large pool of entrepreneurs supported by the tech industry and inspired by so many successes. They work together as part of one, close eco-system!

Our vision for Silicon Africa is to replicate those critical pre-conditions by:
Building a common vision with governments and political leaders, NGO’s, tech companies in Africa, incubators and accelerators, the media and entrepreneurs,

Encouraging more scholarships and bursaries in higher learning institutions across Africa, particularly in engineering, and training of thousands of new young computer programmers in Africa,

Continuing to promote digital literacy to ensure that the technological Fourth Industrial Revolution does not lead to greater inequality, but rather to greater prosperity,

Providing critical venture capital to take ideas to the commercialisation phase.

In the near future, we plan on launching a business plan competition in Africa to identify the best companies and entrepreneurs working in the field of AI, a leading area of technology. We’re looking for the hidden-gems and to put the spotlight on Africa’s AI stars! 
How will Sagarmatha become a dominant market player?
I like to think of Sagarmatha as an agent of disruption, ready to look at new business models and take advantage of opportunities to leverage our technology platforms, many of which are proprietary.

If we embrace disruption and are constantly prepared to re-invent ourselves through new business models, we think we will have a better chance at being a dominant market player. We seek to be a role model for emerging tech companies in Africa by showing leadership in this regard. 

As an example, in content syndication, ANA is the leading local market player in Africa. It has carved out a niche for itself by providing its subscribers with a comprehensive source of African news and has a clear strategy for the continent to build more media partnerships and make its product offering available around the world. 

Our brands in ecommerce and digital media are well-known in South Africa, and we believe there is lots of room for them to grow and scale across the continent. Online shopping numbers in Africa are still below 2%, while they are above 10% in countries like the UK, US and China, and I believe there will be a significant uptick on the continent in the future.