Pan-African entrepreneurship initiative Ampion is developing tech entrepreneurs by taking them on a unique bus journey. Every year the Ampion Venture Bus brings together change makers and tech experts to turn business ideas into real projects.
Entrepreneurs get on the bus with an idea, and by the end of the five to seven day journey will have interacted with their target users, refined their idea, launched it, and pitched it to investors. On the bus they interact with other entrepreneurs and receive advice from mentors. The buses stop at innovation hubs and the end of each trip coincides with major regional tech events where the ‘Ampioneers’ pitch to investors.
“There are already many start-up initiatives across the continent, but most of them focus on the big cities. In Nairobi, for example, you might have a start-up event every other week,” says Fabian-Carlos Guhl, CEO of Ampion. “But we drive to rural areas, go to places where we are often the first organisation ever to organise an entrepreneurship event.”
At the end of the trip the best start-ups join the Ampion Fellowship, an incubation programme that comes with funding, office space and one-on-one mentoring. Selected fellows also travel to Germany to meet investors and further refine their business model.
“Travelling on the bus helps the teams to work closely together. In agriculture for example, we go to farms, talk to farmers and see what challenges they face – and then our local and international teams try to develop solutions that suit them.”
More than 30 start-ups have come out of the accelerator programme with solutions to challenges in healthcare, citizen engagement, education, public transport, sanitation and tourism. Examples include Zimbabwe’s Funeral.ly that enables users to coordinate and manage funerals, and Kenya’s MobiDawa, which reminds patients when to take medicine, how to take it, and possible side effects.
“We want to identify start-ups that have potential to change the face of Africa, and ideally also globally. We want to foster technology that can disrupt an entire industry and generate profit, but also make social sense,” says Guhl. “We look for brilliant people… we look at their ideas, the quality of their education, their past entrepreneurial projects and their motivation. We certainly won’t accept someone who says ‘I don’t care about sustainability, I just want to get rich as soon as possible’.”
However, organising the Ampion Venture Bus trips is no easy feat.
“We have a lot of logistical challenges,” says Guhl.
The buses need to be equipped with satellite internet connectivity and enough batteries to charge laptops and phones. Covering the distance of about three to five countries per bus is also challenging. Typically the bus travels for between three and four hours a day.
“We try not to spend too much time driving. We stop at innovation hubs and use their facilities to work and meet the local community. We only accept 40 participants per bus yet we receive thousands of applications. So for people who don’t make it to the bus, we invite them to daily events where we stop,” Guhl explains.
Additionally, “border crossing is often very difficult” due to visa restrictions.
“West Africa is a challenge for international participants… it’s also hard for Africans from Cameroon, for example, that go to Nigeria,” he says. “There are many different laws and rules and it’s very hard to keep up to date with all of them. For example, we had someone from Belgium on our programme in East Africa last year, and he struggled to get into Rwanda.”
Despite the difficulties, Guhl says the trips enable entrepreneurs to build ideas by incorporating feedback from target users and gauging the acceptability of their solutions. International mentors and experts also find the bus journeys exciting and time-efficient, offering them an opportunity to visit multiple countries and tech hubs, and interact with tech communities in just a week.