MEET AFRICA’S FIRST GENERATION OF TECH NERDS – SHAPING AFRICA’S FUTURE

inside bus

MAY 19, 2015

While the global media landscape is summing up Africa with five distinct letters, Ebola, hundreds of aspiring African entrepreneurs travelled 14 African countries on the AMPION Venture Bus – an initiative to foster African startups, tackling and solving African day-to-day problems and creating new jobs and opportunities along the way. Read the impressions of Ampion co-founder Jan Schafft on his travels with the Venture Bus Tunisia.

It’s a wonderfully picturesque Tunisian countryside passing by outside. Were the travelers on the bus tourists, they would all be drawing their cameras right now. Instead, the lovely scenery and the picture perfect sunset remain unnoticed. The 45 people inside the bus are too busy frantically typing on their keyboards. And whenever someone would actually look up from his laptop, he’d just tap post-it notes onto the windows. This is the Venture Bus Tunisia, first of its kind in the Maghreb. What are these people working on? No less than the future of the African continent.

Healthcare crisis like Ebola, corruption, overpopulation: news reports on Africa tend to focus on the undeniable problems that exist in various countries all across the continent. But believe it or not, there are solutions for nearly all of these problems. Some are intricate; some seem rather obvious and simple. What people in the rest of the world often tend to overlook, however, is that there are African entrepreneurs out there who are willing and ready to develop these solutions. They are creative and well educated – but they lack experience, role-models to follow after and a reliable business network.

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“I have a question!” says Cheyma Ksouma, Tunisian business developer, during a coaching session at the Venture Bus opening event in Tunis. Her question is directed towards Jazem Halioui, a successful local serial entrepreneur. “I have a crazy idea…” Cheyma asks him, “How do I find investment for it?”

“Well it’s quite simple isn’t it: you need to find a crazy investor!” Jazem Halioui replies and the room fills with laughter. “I am not kidding”, Halioui adds, “they are actually out there.” The experienced business developer senses that these young entrepreneurs do not just need his advice, they need his encouragement just as much.

Tunisia is a young democracy. The Arab spring in 2010 nurtured a liberal movement. But 24 years of a repressive autocracy under Dictator Ben Ali cannot be wiped away in an instant. The concept of self-employment still does not come natural to most Tunisian citizens; they are used to avoid risks where possible and to not voice their opinion let alone public demands.

The little office at COGITE is packed for the Venture Bus opening event in Tunisia – even the windowsills are jammed up by participants and curious local spectators. There are many programmers among the AMPION Venture Bus participants. They are accompanied by designers, policy experts, big data analysts and business developers. In the upcoming six days they will form teams – and they will thoroughly observe local problems in Tunisia along their journey. Eventually, they will create startups and deliver their solutions. All of the participants are highly tech savvy.

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The Venture Bus startups focus on ICT (information and communication technology). Today, Africa is the fastest growing mobile phone market in the entire world. Research published by the World Bank suggests that each mobile phone per 100 citizens boosts the economic growth of a development country by 0.8 percent. Modern digital solutions such as cloud computing or GPS tagging enable the emerging African markets to bridge much dreaded infrastructural barriers.

Setting off to its bumpy ride, the Venture Bus is slowly turning into a beehive: small groups are vividly discussing business models; others are suggesting and dismissing technical details for product prototypes or spontaneously drawing sketches on the windows with red markers. Hamza Barkaoui, a Tunisian iOS developer, is fed-up with the increasing amounts of garbage in the streets of local villages across the country. The further the bus travels, the more determined Hamza is about working on a solution: “There has to be a way to avoid people throwing their trash away so carelessly; why can’t we incentivize proper waste disposal with free mobile credit.” Kathrin Treutinger, Research Assistant at University Innsbruck and marketing expert, spontaneously chips in: “You could call it TrashCash, that’s catchy.”

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Seeing these brilliant but also very different individuals working together so closely is astonishing: they were complete strangers just a few days ago. It’s what sets the Venture Bus apart from run-off-the-mill hackathons: there is no awkward exchange of business cards in a stale conference room. Everyone has to adjust to the new environment  and work with the little space there is – barriers of hierarchy between the successful serial entrepreneur from Silicon Valley and the 19 year old African hacker quickly fall apart.

While Hamza found a team to bring “TrashCash” on the way, Cheyma was fortunate enough to convince others to work together on her “crazy idea”: A device measuring the electro-magnetic field of autistic children and translating it into a health and mood status, thus facilitating communication between parents and their autistic children.

Media interest is in the travelling talent factory of Techies is high. After the opening event was covered by Radio BBC Afrique the participants are interviewed by the leading public TV station Alwatanya 1 while visiting Gabes and Sfax. For the Grand Final, the bus returns to Tunis. Following the daily stops for coaching, customer feedback and pitching exercises, the startups are now ready to present their business models to the jury consisting of representatives from companies and NGOs such as mobile operator Orange, AfricInvest and Merci Corps.

Hamza Barkaoui and his team that built “TrashCash” win the competition: after installing smart trash bins in public areas like universities and train stations, “TrashCash” offers free mobile credit to people disposing their waste into said bins. A simple and cheap device scans the product of the inserted garbage and opens the bin only for cans to avoid abuse. The metal of the cans is sold to local scrap yards. The choice did not come easy to the jury, however, and the other startups – ExTail, Citizen+, Infinity Funds, Yelaah, EMdetect, GeoTbibi – where also lauded for their innovative business models tackling issues like citizen engagement and healthcare. A full list including a brief summary of the business concept of all the startups developed on the Venture Buses can be found on the AMPION website.

Firas Aloui, who is working in Tunis for a US based Software Company, expresses how many of his fellow travelers feel: “We are proud of what we built on the Venture Bus. Even if the launch of a prototype is still several months away, I will keep trying and am taking up any opportunities to start my own business!” A month later, investors have already reached out to two of the seven startups created on the Venture Bus Tunisia. Africa’s first generation of Tech Nerds is ready to make a change.

Jan Schafft is co-founder of AMPION. AMPION Venture Buses toured a grand total of 14 African countries in 2014. The Venture Bus program offers African entrepreneurs access to the global startup ecosystem, while also connecting regional markets and entrepreneurial talent. In December, Jan Schafft was part of the final AMPION Venture Bus in 2014 which at the same time was a pilot project in the Maghreb. Five Venture Buses will run in 2015, applications will open this month.

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