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Tech Entrepreneurship in Africa… on a Bus

What do you get when you throw forty geeks on a bus to zip around Africa for a week? Well, ideally the next big African tech start-up of course. 

During the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Kenya this year, Nairobi received a wave of global media attention. With facilities like iHub, the city is becoming synonymous with original tech hubs such as Silicon Valley in the United States. 

Resources on the continent are not limited to those offered by Nairobi – the key is connecting entrepreneurs and ideas with resources. “Even the people from Benin, they have probably never travelled to Togo, so to travel to all these neighbouring countries and see what the tech community is all about there, this is really huge,” said Marianne Kuhlmann, AMPION ambassador.

 

 

AMPION is a Berlin-based accelerator and advisory services firm that supports African tech entrepreneurship; one of the approaches they use is an innovative bus tour. “We seek to connect entrepreneurs, but most importantly, provide them with a launching pad to actually really build a start-up,” said Kuhlmann. 

Capacity4dev spoke to Kuhlmann during the European Development Days 2015 (EDDs) where she participated on the panel ‘Fighting poverty through innovative business models’. Now in their third year, AMPION handpicks experts in business, technology and engineering from applicants around the world to work in teams and develop ideas into viable businesses plans – all while traveling the continent on a bus. “Ampioneers” also gain exposure to the services that each region has to offer to budding entrepreneurs. 

“Because we’re driving we can stop each day at a new city where we visit the leading entrepreneurship centres, tech hubs, co-working spaces so our participants can get to know the local tech entrepreneurship scene,” said Kuhlmann. Mentors and facilitators accompany the buses and there are plenty of opportunities to pitch to investors and potential partners. Each tour ends at a technology-related conference or a higher education institution with ties to innovation and entrepreneurship. 

This year, six buses will visit a total of sixteen countries from Tunisia to South Africa. Their itineraries range from an all-female trip ending at Tunis’s renowned business school, ESPRIT, to a “Hardware & Agriculture” bus that winds up at AfricaCom, a digital communications and technology conference in Cape Town.

“So far there’s been a huge variety of ideas, of things that have come up in the past – it ranges from healthcare, agriculture, tourism, water sanitation,” said Kuhlmann. She gave the example of a water sanitation device that analyses water quality in boreholes in real time and sends the results to local healthcare authorities via a GPS transmitter. “Rather than having them need two months until they know that actually there’s something contaminated, then know it straight away, so they can also react more directly to improve the situation,” she explained.

The developers of this water analysis device won the South African bus in 2014, and were finalists at a Harvard-led African Business Conference Venture Competition earlier this year. Sterio.me, a mobile phone-based homework program, was also a finalist at the Harvard competition in 2014. Other past projects have included a crowdsourcing app tackling corruption and a carpooling app for Kenya, Jambocar.

Participants are given access to business expertise provided by sponsors such as SAP, Microsoft and Merck. These massive corporations benefit from working with fresh and agile entrepreneurs, while the entrepreneurs “can get strong partners that can help them with their resources and their scale and their more long-term perspective to make this a real success,” said Kuhlmann.

AMPION Founder Fabian-Carlos Guhl also emphasised the role that the private sector can play in fostering entrepreneurship via public-private partnerships (PPPs). “I’m very much convinced by PPPs … because the public sector wants to be tied in to achieve the social impact goals, and the private sector, well, they want to do business, and often this is a good combination,” he said.

During his speech at the GES, American President Barack Obama addressed the need for experience and support. He brought with him a delegation of presidential ambassadors for entrepreneurship and over 200 investors and entrepreneurs with a wealth of experience. He encouraged Conference participants to use this – albeit temporary – resource: “If you see them, don’t be shy. Pin them down. Get their advice. Pitch them your idea.”

In terms of promoting women in this wave of tech entrepreneurship sweeping the continent, President Obama announced funding for three entrepreneurship centres for women, to be located in Nairobi, Zambia and Mali. He then pledged $100 million in funding for Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women initiative which provides training and financial support to women who are moving into a business role or trying to start a company.

AMPION aims to fill 50% of the spaces on its buses with women, but Kuhlmann admitted it’s not always easy to achieve this goal. They also aim to have 50% from the region, and 50% international, but, as she said, “The number one criteria for us is if you really want to go for it.”

Guhl acknowledged the risk associated with trying to get a start-up off the ground, but he sees this aspect as one of the region’s strengths. “Entrepreneurship is about building companies with very limited resources and being creative, and I think this is something which is often naturally a given among many African entrepreneurs, so I do see a strong potential,” he said. “The drive is often higher than in the developed world because people have the desire to make an impact.”

Worldwide applications to join an AMPION bus are open on a first-come, first-serve basis. The buses run for one-week from September through to December. For more information please check out their website: www.ampion.org.

This collaborative piece was drafted by Emma Brown with support from the capacity4dev.eu Coordination Team.

 

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4 November 2019

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