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Hit the road, hack(er) ... Africa's techies hop aboard the StartupBus

Story highlights

  • Africa's first StartupBus took off from Harare, Zimbabwe, in November
  • It consisted of 35 innovators from the continent and beyond
  • Participants had to conceive, build and launch their startups during a five-day bus ride
  • At the end of the journey in Cape Town, participants had to pitch their ideas to investors

There are many places where one can launch a tech startup. Some have hatched their pioneering ideas from their family's garage; others locked inside their college dorm room; most, these days, turn to innovation hubs and accelerators.

And then there are those who jump on a bus journeying across southern Africa.

Last month, a group of innovators from Africa and beyond boarded a bus in Zimbabwean capital Harare to take part in StartupBus Africa, the continent's first hackathon on wheels.

Four days and more than 2,500 kilometers later, they'd arrived to Cape Town in South Africa, having conceived, built and started their apps from scratch.

"In the beginning they don't have anything, just an idea and on day number five they have launched the startup," says Fabian-Carlos Guhl, a co-organizer of StartupBus Africa. "So the idea is to have the full startup circle within five days."

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'Brilliant people'

    Developed by Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur Elias Bizannes, Startup Bus is an intense startup boot camp where "buspreneurs" compete to create the hottest new tech companies over a bus ride.

    The first StartupBus hit the road in America in 2010. The initiative came to Europe two years ago and last November it debuted in Africa with the aim of using innovative solutions to help develop the continent.

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    "Our overall goal is to strengthen the ecosystem of entrepreneurship in Africa," says Guhl. "We want to make entrepreneurship accessible to everybody; we are looking for the most brilliant people and the most wanting to succeed people."

    With that in mind, organizers pored over more than 250 applications to identify 35 coders, designers and business developers with a proven track record.

    Fifteen of those hailed from African countries, such South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Botswana and Kenya, while the rest came from places like Germany, Austria, Australia, France, Afghanistan, Sweden, India and the United States.

    Non-stop coding

    The 2,514-kilometer road trip kicked off in Harare on November 18, with stops in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein before terminating in Cape Town.

    Just after take-off, all participants took turns shuffling to the front of the bus to present themselves and pitch their ideas. This was followed by a three-hour team-building session, which resulted in the formation of eight groups of four or five members.

    "Ideas were bouncing all over the place," says Francis Chiwunda, one of the participants. "Buspreneurs walked up and down the bus to learn what each group was working on to see if they could join or share ideas."

    From then on, each corner of the mobile bus was transformed into a hive of entrepreneurial activity: the side windows were plastered with rows of colorful Post-it notes; the seats were occupied by sleep-deprived programmers tapping away at their sticker-covered laptops; the aisle was transformed into a conference room for intense brainstorming sessions.

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    Along the way, the buspreneurs also had the chance to stop at different innovation hubs and get feedback from local entrepreneurs, before heading to a hostel for just a few hours of sleep.

    "StartupBus Africa made me understand the true spirit of entrepreneurship; creativity, tenacity and focus," says Chiwunda. "Buspreneurs barely slept; we usually slept after 2 am and at one point 4 am -- on the last day before finals -- only to work up at 6am to take a shower and prepare for a bus ride into the unknown."

    Applicable solutions

    Chiwunda is one of the buspreneurs behind the Funerally app, a funeral event management tool. He says the app is designed to help families notify friends and relatives, as well as fundraise to reduce the logistical and financial burden that comes with organizing costly funerals.

    "We want to be the Eventbrite for funerals," he says. "Let the family focus on the memories, not the tasks."

    Other start-ups created during the road trip include Bribed, a mobile app fighting corruption, and Workforce, a tool providing employers with Android-based mobile planning software to help them connect with workers.

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    Once the bus reached its destination, the competing teams had to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges and investors. Workforce was named as the winner.

    "What was very exciting was that almost all ideas are very realistic and can be applied instantly," says Guhl.

    Looking ahead, Guhl says there are big plans for Startup Bus Africa, similar to the initiative's growth in the United States and Europe.

    "We envision scaling it," he says. "So next year there are going to be more buses in several regions of Africa," adds Guhl. "Entrepreneurship is the key to growth in Africa."

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