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There are various initiatives through which entrepreneurs can come together to ideate, develop, test and launch a product (and company) in Africa, but none of them sound as
somehow crazy audacious as the impact driven non-profit, Ampion Venture Bus. Basically, participants are put on a bus which then travels through different countries, attending pitching events and building products as they go along.
If you consider the bad roads and restrictive nature of a bus, you would think it is not the ideal way to facilitate innovation and ensuring overall efficiency, but co-founder of Ampion Jan Schafft thinks otherwise. He tells Ventureburn that the concept of the Venture Bus brings a lot of lasting benefits to the African startup ecosystem and the budding entrepreneurs who join from all over the world — from the US, the UK and all over Europe.
“Some of our participants from last year told us they had never been outside their home country before joining our programme. For them, the programme served not only as a massive boost in terms of networking but also made them familiar with the market climate of the neighbour countries,” Schafft explains. “If they want to scale their startup to other countries in the future, they have already gained valuable expertise on the market themselves and have established networking and business ties there through the Venture Bus programme.”
He added that for high level international mentors and participants, the Venture Bus is more attractive than the regular Startup Weekend or hackathon. He explains that the participants get to know five different markets in Africa in just one week.
He describes the creation of startups on-the-road as a pressure cooker for ideas. People get creative when they travel and work with others he finds. “The spirit of the Venture Bus carries on and creates business ties across borders and continents that a run-the-mill innovation conference or bootcamp cannot provide,” he adds.
From Nairobi to Harare
This year, the Venture Bus routes include East Africa, Southern Africa and West Africa.
“In terms of the success of the bus trips themselves, the East African Venture Bus 2014 has proven particularly successful in the sense that we worked with a big corporate partner for the first time in Merck,” he said.
Merck got involved with the startups by sending out a company representative on the bus and encouraging the entrepreneurs to work on e-health innovations. One of the startups that emerged is MobiDawa, a mobile app that provides on-demand drug information to patients, which Merck is still working with.
Partnerships such as these showed Ampion how valuable and mutually beneficial it is to bring in private sector players who are interested in spurring innovation within their respective industries.
“This is why we now set focus topics with more private partners in other regions, too and are looking to find even more such corporate partners who enhance our capacity to support the startups developed on the Venture Bus in the long-term (our Fellowship Program),” Schafft says.
The initiative is not without its share of bumps in the road. The co-founder points out the difficulties faced after the media hysteria around the Ebola outbreak in West Africa last year. He elaborates:
One thing was the media hysteria surrounding Ebola, another was the Visa troubles for international participants and a third aspect is the combination of French and English speaking communities. But despite two of our Ampion organisers being suspected of human trafficking at some point at a border stop, the five startups had a great pitch at the final event.
Out of this “hysteria” and confusion however some dedicated products emerged aiming for high impact in the region. The winning team of the West African leg was behind a startup called HaltEbola — a mobile application that uses voice messages to connect people in rural areas to share information on Ebola in their local languages.
With the Ebola scare being over for the most part today, the concept of HaltEbola can still be applied for many other healthcare crises as well. This highlights the lasting impact Ampion strives for.
In 2013 there were seven startups of which two are still active, with edtech startup Sterio.me fully funded and employing staff in Lesotho. 2014 ended off with 32 total startups of which around 28 are still active today. Ampion plans to build 40 African startups this year round.
“Our goals and ambitions are a lot higher,” Schafft says. “We want our African entrepreneurs to continuously bring out successful startups in all regions of the continent. Success means that these startups will improve their communities and attract international investment.”