Rwanda: Founder of electric motorcycle company discusses his journey so far

An Ampersand electric motorcycle.


Trends watch
– Rwanda is looking at replacing petrol-powered motorcycle taxis with electric models.

Josh Whale is the CEO of Ampersand, a Rwanda-based company which builds electric motorcycles and charging systems for motorcycle taxi drivers. Ampersand’s battery swapping system allows motorcycle taxi drivers to simply replace depleted batteries with fully-charged ones at an Ampersand swap station. The company also takes care of servicing, repairs and spare parts while providing asset financing options for drivers.

1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.

The Coronavirus pandemic has been a huge challenge for us. We went from having a $2 million term sheet in front of us in late March, to no term sheet and a lockdown with our e-moto drivers unable to work. Fortunately, we had been running on a cautious, shoestring budget for a long time. We’re also fortunate to have a great CFO, Andy Williams. Andy must have run nearly a hundred different contingency scenarios – looking at possible funding opportunities, cost reductions and tranching – to enable us to make rapid, well-informed decisions and maintain close oversight of our cashflow and runway while financially supporting our drivers during the lockdown and not losing any staff. Now we’re back on the road and have secured additional grant funding, so we’re making it through this tough time.

2. What entrepreneurial achievement are you most proud of?

I’m most proud that we’ve successfully launched Africa’s first electric taxi motorcycle fleet, and first network of moto charging stations. Our team has a real shot at putting Africa on track to achieving a clean and sustainable transport future. Last year, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame announced that all motorbike taxis in the country will become electric in the near future, adding incredible momentum to our efforts and to the country’s transition to electric mobility. I’m also proud that we’ve added to the proof that Africa can be a leader in tech revolutions, rather than a follower. Our e-motorbikes have now been running six days a week for over a year, clocking up well over 500,000km and our battery stations have performed over 12,000 swaps.

Ampersand motorcycles and batteries are assembled on site in Rwanda.

3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.

We’ve grown quickly from around 12 staff at the start of 2019 to 43 staff now. I’m leading the largest team I’ve ever managed in my professional career. Especially now, with the Coronavirus and the unchartered territory we’re in, it’s not always easy at the top. And I don’t have decades of experience running companies that I can draw on to navigate us through this. Fortunately, I have an incredibly capable team that is proud of what we’re doing and committed to reaching our goals, and funders and other supporters lending support.

4. What popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?

I think our experience doesn’t fit well with the “fail fast” idea. That’s the idea that suggests you should go all in, throw everything at an idea and then give up if the business doesn’t take off within a year. The “never give up” motto has been more helpful for us over the years. I founded Ampersand in 2014 but it wasn’t until 2018 that we were able to get our first prototypes on the road in Africa and our commercial launch was in May 2019. Sure, electric vehicles aren’t exactly the simplest tech, and being something of a ‘sector creator’ presents extra hurdles. So it’s been a long journey to get to this point. But it’s been well worth it and I’m glad we didn’t give up in the early days.

Josh Whale

5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you started?

I was fortunate to start my entrepreneurial journey in a great accelerator programme, Startupbootcamp. In a previous life I was a lawyer, so it was fantastic to be inducted into the world of entrepreneurship with lots of great support and mentorship. That got a lot of the common misconceptions about starting a business out of the way quickly.

In hindsight, I think I took too much upon myself in the early days. I think we would have benefited from taking the leap and growing my team earlier. For all the sceptics, there are plenty of fellow dreamers out there, especially when it comes to something like climate change. I’ve been greatly encouraged by the number of people out there who care deeply about climate change and our mission, and are willing to take a bet that we’re onto something big.

Further reading

[August 2020] Entrepreneur wants Nigerians to drink locally-grown coffee instead of imports
[August 2020] The journey so far: Mdingase Tewete, managing director, Kombeza Foods (Malawi)
[August 2020] How Kenya’s Flora Mutahi built a tea company from the ground up
[July 2020] Entrepreneur sees opportunity for childcare-related e-commerce and information
[July 2020] Nigeria: Former Diamond Bank CEO introduces new digital banking platform