There are many opportunities for entrepreneurs to toss around ideas, build networks, and test products. However, only one – the AMPION Venture Bus – places innovators on a seven-day road trip across Africa to attend pitching events and build products on the road. This ‘pressure cooker of ideas’ connects entrepreneurial talent with international mentors and investors, teaching and empowering young people to build tech startups. It is an innovative way of overcoming limited access to funding and a limited ‘ecosystem’ in Africa for getting businesses off the ground.
Running from September to December, the six 2015 buses will visit 16 countries, five major conferences and 26 tech hubs. Applications opened in May, and over 200 entrepreneurs will be chosen, with a split of 50% developers, 25% business experts and 25% designers. Each seven day trip has a different focus, ranging from financial tech to smart public safety to hardware agriculture.
AMPION provides participants with training, mentorship and funding, with the aim of empowering successful change makers. Established entrepreneurs join participants on the bus and at local events to provide advice and suggestions, and daily training sessions and workshops sharpen skills and knowledge. Individuals can arrive with or without an idea, but are restricted from working on an existing startup. Teams are formed, ideas bounced, products built, customers approached and businesses outlined.
Breaking International Boundaries
With conference ‘rooms’ in the aisles and windows transformed into sticky-note covered idea boards, the teams focus in on their startup ideas. Daily objectives, such as assessing competition and quantifying market opportunities, push development towards the final pitch. Often held at an international information technology convention, the pitch is an opportunity for the teams to present their idea to a jury of entrepreneurs, businessmen, investors and the general public.
AMPION breaks down international boundaries with a 50-50 split – half of the entrepreneurs are from the African continent, and rest are chosen from all over the world. “We try to build bridges. We’re connecting the African market to well-developed ecosystems such as Silicon Valley, London, Berlin and so on,” says co-founder Fabian-Carlos. The organization also takes pride in empowering female entrepreneurs – 50% of participants on each bus are women, in addition to a women-only bus.
The belief behind AMPION is that being on a bus and engaging locally allows for more organic, realistic businesses. Stops at local hubs, accelerators and innovation spaces build familiarity with regional marketing climates and allow international participants to visit many tech markets in a short period of time. It also enables immediate feedback on feasibility, usability and acceptance from potential customers. Networking is an important component, as the tour brings together international like-minded people and establishes close-knit networks that would not develop at a usual conference.
A commendable element of AMPION is their focus on sustainable impact, through the provision of fellowships for top innovators and the establishment of a separate research department to determine the program’s efficacy. The global fellowship provides an extensive six to twelve months of support at the early stages of their startup development. This includes seed funding, workspaces, mentoring and access to investors through roadshows, conferences and pitch competitions. With the aim of preparing the startups to enter a local accelerator program or launch their product right away, this support ensures that the teams are able to follow through on their ideas and plans. The research department is a partnership with German university RWTH Aachen and business school ESCP, with a focus on impact analysis, knowledge creation and strategic advisory.
To participate, there is a subsidized fee that ranges from $50 to $350, with the least expensive fee available for an African passport holder and student. This does not include the cost of transportation to the starting point and back home, visas, health insurance and vaccinations, and some meals. For some potential participants, these costs could be prohibitive. AMPION is negotiating possibilities for financial assistance, but as of this point, these costs are assumed solely by the participant.
There are challenges that come with such a venture. Close quarters and often sub-standard road conditions are combined with competition, time constraints and language differences. According to AMPION co-founder Jan Schafft, “you either love or hate your teammates afterwards.” Border travel requires numerous visas, and Guhl acknowledged that two organizers were suspected of human trafficking at a border stop. 2014 held particular challenges with the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, although it proved to be motivation to many of the participants. Halt!Ebola, a mobile app that uses voice technologies to connect rural communities with information on Ebola in local languages, was the winning startup of the West African bus.
AMPION is receiving increasing recognition and support for their program. The organization won the 2014 Pan-African Award for Entrepreneurship in Education and the 2015 Global Innovation Ecosystem Award. Corporate supporters include Microsoft, German software corporation SAP, South African-based telecomm company MTN, and pharmaceutical company Merck, among others. There is a move to obtain additional private partnerships.
This year, AMPION aims to facilitate the creation of 40 startups. This will be a significant increase from 2014 and 2013, which produced 28 and two lasting startups. For example, Sterio.me, an app that sends homework to your mobile phone to support teachers and students, is fully funded and employing staff in Lesotho. MobiDawa, a free app that provides targeted medication information, reminders and opportunities to provide feedback, was developed on the first bus to have a big corporate partner in 2014.
It’s an idea that’s just crazy enough to work.