Serge Ntamack was born in Cameroon and spent his early years in different cities in the country, courtesy of his parents, who moved from city to city due to the nature of their job as bankers.
He decided to be a lawyer at quite a young age because of his love for justice and interest in travelling. Despite pushbacks from his parents, the dream came through, and his career as a corporate lawyer has taken him to several countries and generally helped him live his dream.
After studying law in his first degree and International trade law in his postgraduate degree, he has been working professionally since 1998.
Of his 24+ years of practising, 14+ years went into handling compliance and legal affairs for Microsoft in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and Africa (MEA).
It might seem Microsoft had the best of Serge, but the multinational tech corporation is not the only big name on Serge’s list of impact. United Nations (UN) in Geneva and some African governments are also on the list. Serge has also played advisory roles for African governments like Mali and Senegal.
His thirst for exploring made him try his hands at Intellectual Property in banking, cybersecurity, and compliance in manufacturing, among others. These days, he’s handling cheques to startups, sitting on startups’ advisory boards,, and looking for the next African unicorn that would make his angel investments worth it.
Serge, a professional corporate lawyer and tech policy expert spoke with Techpoint Africa and shared pointers for anyone looking to get into the legal space and how startups can navigate the African regulatory landscape.
You can watch the full video for the complete experience.
Here’s a refined and brief version of the interview.
Kolawole Oluwanifemi(KO): Tell us about your background.
Serge Ntamack (SN): My parents were both working in banks and moved around a lot in Cameroon. I recall not spending more than two or three years in a single place when I was young. I spent the majority of my life growing up in the capital of Cameroon. I used to read a lot, still an avid reader. I can read at least two or three books per week. I was always very curious.
I got interested in politics, foreign countries and cultures. And I always had that sense of justice, you have to follow principles. But very interestingly, my parents, especially my mother, didn’t want me to get into law. She was dreaming of me being a doctor or an engineer because that’s very prestigious.
So I became very less interested in mathematics and physics, and I became more interested in literature, and she was very disappointed. I think that sense of justice in me would be an opportunity to help people and also give me some freedom.
I got a law degree in Cameroon; I moved between three universities in Cameroon. But it’s not bad actually, because it gave me a fairly good exposure to my country. I started working after my law degree because I wanted to be independent financially.
I started working as a legal associate in a bank after my degree. I was lucky enough to be recruited by a prominent organisation in Cameroon, the African Intellectual Property Organization. I spent two and a half to three years there. And then, I went to do my postgraduate in Pretoria, South Africa, at the University of Pretoria.
And the good thing was that it was a dual degree. it was a joint program with University in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. I got a scholarship for that.
And then I finished that part of my life by spending six months in Switzerland. And I did a few months at the World Trade Organization, it was more of an internship/consultancy.
KO: How did you get these scholarships?
SN: Three things; hard work, luck, and the ability to seize opportunities. When I started to work as a banker in 1998, things were very much manual at that time. If you can recall, the Internet in 1998, especially in Africa, was accessible to only very few people.
But when I landed the job at the African Intellectual Property Organization in early 2000, late 1999, I remember when the HR team was doing a tour, the HR director told me, “this is your computer. You have access to the Internet.” And I asked him, “Hey, hang on. So you’re saying I have access to Internet? 24 hours a day?”
He said, “yeah, It’s always connected.” I said, “what!?”
And I sensed that it was my window to the world. Access to the Internet became a defining moment in my life. Back then in Cameroon, you could easily have access to 30 minutes Internet connection for close to $10. It was quite expensive. And I had it like 20 hours a day. So I thought to myself, ‘look, Serge, this place is actually your opportunity. Your window to the world. So you need to find a way to maximise the opportunity.’
So I started looking for postgraduates in Africa, Europe, and anywhere that pretty much matched my profile. I sent 20 applications to universities for two and a half years. And I was admitted to six or seven, and I picked Pretoria; it came as a scholarship.
KO: What made the difference?
SN: The first was my profile. I was already a professional, with over half a year’s experience in an international organization. Secondly, I’m bilingual; I speak both French and English. And I’ve discovered that this has been an advantage for me throughout my career to speak both French and English, especially working in Africa.
Thirdly, I prepared for the interviews and the application process quite seriously. I actually researched extensively.
KO: Did your mom eventually come to terms with your profession?
SN: Yes. She’s passed away, unfortunately, but I think she was proud of me when I started working and travelling for work. Interestingly, she dreamt of being a lawyer herself when she was young. But then she had to change the course of her professional career.
She understood why I didn’t want to be a doctor eventually. She was happy for me. And we used to spend hours on the phone talking about statutes and legal records. She became quite interested in it.
KO: What lessons have you learnt from travelling wide and practising corporate law?
SN: I’ve travelled the world quite extensively. I’ve probably been to 75% of the countries in Africa. And I’ve lived in various countries. Thanks to being a lawyer, I’ve lived in Nigeria, Accra, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Burkina Faso, for instance. I’ve met other people from different cultures, other lawyers and other legal systems.
For instance, there’s the civil system which is influenced by the French law. And then you have a colonial system which is by the British, which is in Nigeria or English-speaking countries. And I’ve been fortunate enough to experience both.
I also lived in Europe, in Amsterdam. I was fortunate also to be in a university where we had people from very different parts of the world, Asian, European, and African.
And I learned a lot. We learn a lot about customs because people have different habits and different cultures. And I think it probably made me a better person to some extent.
Then, I went to Switzerland; I worked at the UN. It was a good experience working at the United Nations in Geneva, getting exposure to the UN system, meeting people from various nationalities and being also exposed to diplomats. It gives you a different perspective on what you have when coming from the country.
KO: Can you give us a glimpse of your career journey between 1998 and 2021?
SN: Our legal system is a bit different. For instance, in Nigeria, you have a law school. So you have to be admitted to the Bar to be admitted to practice.
It’s a bit different in Cameroon, you don’t necessarily need to be admitted to the Bar to practice law. For you to appear in court, you have to be admitted to Bar, but for you to work as a corporate lawyer or company, you don’t necessarily need to.
So I didn’t do the Bar exam. I started working immediately as a corporate lawyer, writing memos, notes, and advising. It’s been a very interesting journey, in the sense that my role as a lawyer has evolved with technology, experience, and exposure to different types of cultures and opportunities. Even my approach to law has evolved.
1998, the Internet was non-existent. I worked in banking and intellectual property. I advised on things like employment and contract law, which are very standard legal issues.
Then I moved to Geneva. I worked at the UN in Geneva but wasn’t necessarily interested in staying there. I wanted to come back to Africa because I felt that there would be opportunities for growth because of the Internet revolution.
I had several offers and opportunities. I went to Senegal but not as a corporate lawyer. I was really interested in customs laws, things like, how do you move goods across borders? Interestingly, the company I joined was actually setting up a production facility in Nigeria, and they wanted to move goods across West Africa by leveraging regional economic communities like ECOWAS.
So, I changed from a corporate lawyer to a hybrid, the regulatory, legal, external relations, PR person. That’s another defining point in my career. I was called to be creative and define my role.
After three or two years there, the institution that gave me the scholarship for my master’s degree called me, “Hey! We have an opportunity in Mali where the government is looking for an advisor on trade law, and we thought you’d be a good fit for that.” And then I said, yes.
After a year in that role, I got a call from a headhunter asking me, “Would you be interested in a role at Microsoft?” I said, “Yes! What do we do? What next?”
That one, frankly, I didn’t apply for it specifically. And then, I went through the interview process for five or six months. Nine interviews! And then, I landed the role at Microsoft, and it was a role that brought me back to Cameroon.
It was a role that was not necessarily a legal role. It was more of a project management role for someone who had a legal background. My role was basically to ensure that the company is compliant for intellectual property.
I did that for Cameroon and Francophone Africa, and then I moved to Nigeria. Then, I got a promotion for the entire sub-Saharan Africa in that role.
And then, someone got interested in me and said, “Hey! I have this role as a legal director for Francophone Africa, plus public policy, and I think you’d be a good fit. I want you to join my team.”
That was when I came back to being a corporate lawyer and a public policy expert for Francophone Africa, and then I moved into a role in Middle East Africa and sub-Saharan Africa for Microsoft. So the rest is history.
KO: Corporate law or litigation? Your honest opinion on which is the best law career to choose.
SN: I will give you a lawyer’s response: it depends on your interest. I prefer corporate advisory, it gives me many opportunities to know people, cultures, etc. I like the fact that the boundaries are really fluid.
Litigation is also good. A good lawyer should have some litigation experience. My litigation experience is very limited, but I think it’s too hard. And if one is interested in it, I advise them to go for it.
KO: What interests and skills gave you an advantage in your career?
SN: Being open to change, adaptability, agility, and the ability to do several things at the same time. When I look at my background and I look at my experience, I’ve done so many things. I’ve worked in so many different industries.
The second thing that is important to have is discipline. You have to be disciplined, you have to be focused because ultimately, what is a lawyer’s role? It’s to serve clients. You have to be really structured to offer them what they ask.
When you are a lawyer in the corporate world, even outside, people would often turn to you for expert advice. And people usually listen to lawyers and go by what they say. The third thing that has helped me is being thoughtful and analytical.
The fourth attribute is reading. I think it’s more than reading; you should have a curious mind and be willing to learn. I define myself as a learner, not as an expert, who is always learning, and thinking about how to acquire new skills.
KO: How would you describe corporate law in tech compared to finance, manufacturing, government, and every other industry you’ve worked in?
SN: I think each of these experiences gave me insights into how the world operates. Working in banking, for instance, taught me about reviewing loan agreements. Moving into government also made me understand how a state or government operates, what sort of language do you need to speak to the government to make it move or for you to be able to build connections and make things happen?
Working in manufacturing was great because it gave me a very good experience on how to ensure optimal operations, to ensure that the products you’re selling are visible and accessible to clients. And I absolutely loved that experience as it truly immersed me into how fast-moving goods and manufacturing are.
And then I.T., working in Microsoft was fantastic, being on the side of intellectual property. Things change so much in technology. So adaptability and just being ahead of the curve all the time is important.
KO: What other skills did you have to learn to become exceptional in your career?
SE: A good lawyer is as good as his knowledge of his people. If I’m advising my company, I need to understand the products. For instance, I needed to understand what are Microsoft’s products to be able to talk about them as an expert. I did some certifications in Microsoft to be able to understand the product.
The second thing is I did some leadership courses to understand what it means to be a leader and really understand the dynamics. How do you operate or interconnect with other people? You need to be able to give an honest, thoughtful and credible opinion.
I think it’s important if you can have a degree in business. I haven’t done it, but I’ve done short courses in finance management at a point where I needed to advise the finance team, the technical team, etc. Some of these certifications or courses are very important when you’re serving particular constituents.
And perhaps after some years of experience, like what I have, people will come to you for advice, not necessarily in terms of business advice, but, strategic advice. For instance, one of the things that I’m doing is helping startup founders, mentoring them, and supporting them.
So being part of a board of directors, it’s a totally different sort of skill that you need to have.
KO: What are the current trends in corporate law and tech that we have to keep up with?
SE: What we see, for instance, is that there are a lot of startups being created in Africa; statistically, we’re catching up and there’s money that’s coming up to the ecosystem. These startups are quite fragile and young structures, they will need lawyers to draw up employment contracts.
‘How do you help me to make a contract with my investors because I’m a startup founder? I want to raise money. How can you help me to tidy up and just to make sure I can keep control of the company, etc.’
Another thing is big corporations like Microsoft are investing heavily in things like cloud computing. People may not know, but behind cloud computing, you have huge servers, huge data centres scattered across the world where data is being transferred and posted. There is a totally different type of legal area here.
How do you monitor privacy? Not many specialists here. Personally, I did a certification of privacy, but it’s a lot there to be done.
There are also a lot of concerns about technology and the security of our data. When you use your credit card, how do you ensure that it’s not going to be hacked or that your email account will not be hacked? Or your Instagram account isn’t going to be hacked?
There are a lot of concerns about cyber security, and it needs people who specialise in cybersecurity who can write contracts more on cybersecurity or can help enforce cybersecurity requirements, etc.
Communication is a very important skill. If you get into the corporate world, one thing is to do what you’re being asked to do, but equally and more importantly is to talk about what you’re doing because if you don’t talk about what you’re doing, frankly, nobody will know.
One of my mentors and one of my managers at Microsoft used to tell me to over-communicate. Don’t be afraid to over-communicate. It’s better than insufficient communication.
Sending a reminder, connecting with people, asking for opinions, and sharing your opinion proactively are super important. Add to that the ability to present. Of course, to be able to concisely and precisely share a point with people.
For instance, if you’re presenting to an executive – a very busy person – and they give you a little bit of their time, they expect you to come to them and tell them, ‘this is a problem, and this is the solution. Let’s decide.’
They’re not expecting you to come and ask them to give you the solution. It doesn’t work like that. So you have to be very concise and very clear.
KO: How can tech companies and innovators navigate regulations in Africa?
SN: Firstly, we need to acknowledge that there’s been a lot of progress in Africa in terms of creating an attractive environment for companies to operate. There are very good examples. When you look at making it easier for people to create and set up a business.
You have countries where there’ve been laws that provide incentives or specific support for people who are creating startups. For instance, Tunisia and Senegal have done it. I know few other countries are actually considering what they call the Startup Act. So, in terms of the background, it’s encouraging, I think we’re moving in the right direction.
Now in terms of my perspective on investment advice, I think there’s always this tension between what the private sector wants; they want as much freedom to operate as possible.
What the government wants is to ensure that there is growth, job creation, investment, etc. ‘Invest in my country, and you have those skills available, I can make things easy for you to set up your business.”
So, we need to move in the direction where countries think through what exactly are the advantages of startups.
The second thing is we have to be careful about what is perceived. I’ll give you an example; I’ve worked in I.T. A data centre, for instance, is a massive facility of hundred square meters. But it doesn’t provide the most jobs; in fact, it’s like an empty warehouse.
You have racks of servers, and usually, you don’t need a lot of people to man that because it’s digital. But a lot of governments love it because it’s visible. It’s physical, they can come and cut the bows and say, ‘we have this investment in our country.’
What we need is to encourage investments that are more capital intensive and in the sense that they bring actual jobs and also technology to countries. So we can actually take that technology, and use it to our own advantage.
Unlike big corporations, startups typically don’t have the capacity to address the red tape or roadblock of regulations. But the reality is that admittedly, most of the jobs will commonly come from startups and smaller, medium size enterprises.
So governments need to pay attention to the needs of startups and make things easier. For instance, why not invest in research and development? Why not help them in terms of posting them abroad to countries where they can actually learn that knowledge and bring it back home? So we really need to be thoughtful about how we structure our startups so we can bring value where there is a need in the country.
KO: What other interests do you have outside practising corporate law?
SN: I like reading. When I was in Nigeria, I remember I was part of a group of people who got together to share our passions for books.
I love travelling a lot. One of the last places I went out of curiosity was Cabo Verde. It’s an island off the coast of Senegal. It’s beautiful. I love golf. I love music, Jazz. I’m crazy about Jazz. I can travel to very bizarre places just because I heard about a Jazz festival.
I’m trying to learn to play the guitar as well. One thing that I love the most is spending time with people. For me, it’s one of the most rewarding experiences. We’ll just be discussing, learning, and talking about things.
One thing I feel about our time now is we spend so much time on technology. That’s the downside of technology, and we need to be conscious of it.
We spend so much time in front of our computers and phones, and we forget to connect with humans. We’re losing our humanity. And that’s not good. People will spend time on Twitter and WhatsApp, etc., but they don’t even know who their neighbour is.
Knowing how traditional Africans are, we must be careful and keep those emotional connections going. You need to talk to people, connect with people, and learn about people because that’s how we grow. Technology is just a means, not an end.
KO: How do you maintain a work-life balance?
SN: I don’t think that is anything like work-life balance. There’s an attempt to work-life balance that we are always trying, but we’ll never get there. Maybe we shouldn’t call it balance. Probably, management.
Family is important to me. I have two kids. What I try to do is spend quality time with people that I care about. For instance, I know I can travel a lot, but when I spend time with my kids, I make sure that we get a lot from that connection, even if it’s a very short time.
And the second thing is I use technology to do things. I told you about learning to play the guitar. I’m using an online tool for that.
The final thing I do is have a deep appreciation of life. Working in a very intense environment, we forget to appreciate the value of things.
I was very lucky to work at Microsoft, be exposed, work with entrepreneurs, and help them grow. For me, it’s just taking a step back from time to time and say, “Hey, what’s the journey and what’s next?”
And if you do that, I think it helps you get the balance you’re dreaming of. Because the reality is that if you keep on running endlessly, the reality is that you’ll always be forced to play catchup and you’ll be frustrated not getting there.
But at one point, if you stop and say, “hey, when exactly is the endpoint? Do I really need to go there? Maybe you need to make a change here?” Then you start reflecting on it and look at it differently; maybe that can change your perspective and help you to focus on other things.
KO: How do you stay productive?
SN: I put a lot of things in my calendar, including private things. I’m battling to do that, but I’m always trying to do that. As much as possible, I try to plan my day in my calendar. I put my guitar classes in my calendar; if I have to go swimming or I have to read a book, I put it there as much as possible.
So, we come back to the discipline of a lawyer because there is so much information we’re getting. And there’s so much that’s distracting us. At one point, you really need to have structure.
I do not think that I’m the best at that discipline, but at least I’m trying, for the most part. Something I’m trying to achieve. Is to spend time every week with at least one person that will teach me something that will be valuable. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I had lunch with a friend of mine who is a makeup artist. She’s very good at that. She’s lived in South Africa. I learned a lot about her business.
We need to continue learning, if you stop learning, frankly, there’s no value in life anymore.
KO: After 28 years of practising law, what are your future plans?
SN: I’m very open about my future. I think I love what I’m trying to do now with this consulting. The wealth of expertise that I’m bringing to the table is valuable for many companies that want to do business in Africa, especially I.T. companies. Or companies that want to understand the regulatory landscape and how to navigate it.
I also love what I’m doing with startups, mentoring, and being a business angel investor.
I hope to be able to find the next unicorn, maybe one of the next unicorns in Africa, and make good money from there. Those are the things that I have in my mind.
I don’t mind going back to corporate. Because I believe it’s the corporations that have that ability to accelerate things because of their size.
I’m looking at the market and am always interested in opportunities. But for now, it’s how to deepen this consulting expertise. Helping startups both as a mentor and as an investor.
And there’s quite a lot to do in Africa. One of the projects is to write a paper that summarises all of it – regulatory challenges that startups face when they’re operating in Africa and some recommendations for that.