In the last week of March and the early days of our new normal, the Africa4Future team was faced with a critical question: How do we run a successful accelerator program that achieves our objectives in spite of the huge uncertainty and a global pandemic?
The past three (3) months was focused on designing the third edition of the Africa4Future accelerator; Africa’s first aerospace accelerator focused on remote sensing for precision agriculture and infrastructure development for this season.
This included announcing the call for applications, holding information sessions to promote the program in 4 cities, receiving applications from 28 African countries and conducting interviews for the top 30 of 212 applications received.
To answer the critical question, all partners had a conversation that explored multiple options. In its original format, the program was designed to be a hybrid of virtual and physical activities, with the physical engagements holding in four cities in Africa & Europe as well as participating in major technology events such as VivaTech and the Africa-France summit.
The multiple options we explored included:
- Postponing the program until events became more certain but risk reduced motivation and engagement from the startups.
- Holding the physical events only on the African continent as most countries were yet to institute full lockdowns on international travel at this point.
- Running a fully virtual program that provided the same experience and achieved similar objectives. A fully virtual program will also allow us to involve more experts than originally planned, increase participation from the startups’ team, reach more people with our events while keeping everyone safe.
Postponing the program was not a viable option due to implementation timelines and a version with physical events was out of our control. We could, however, control running a fully virtual program, stay on track with our timelines and redesign our approach to achieve desired results.
We decided to proceed with this option and to prepare for this new model, the team re-designed the entire program and created two different plans; one plan was based on a scenario in which the world did not return to pre-COVID times for the foreseeable future and another optimistic plan for a scenario in which restrictions on international travels were lifted before the end of the program in early July.
These two plans were to ensure that we were flexible and prepared through the program. However, with international travel restrictions still present in most countries, the first plan became our default plan throughout the project’s lifespan.
Running a virtual accelerator
With a fully virtual program agreed upon and set in motion, we informed the 11 startups accepted into the program of the new changes and efforts we were making to ensure the experience was similar, if not superior to the original program planned.
The accelerator kicked off on April 20 with a virtual kick-off week and below is a visual illustration of key changes that were made to key components of the accelerator relative to our original plan.
“We are very excited to have entered into a successful public-private partnership with Airbus for the second time. Joining forces with the private sector enables both parties to leverage on competencies to benefit tech startups to achieve stellar results and have a positive impact all over the African continent.”
Jan Schwaab — Head of Digital Transformation in Africa, GIZ
In addition to the changes above, here are some key approaches we implemented to make the virtual program successful:
- Practical learning sessions for capacity development: Creating virtual learning sessions that were valuable to founders, practical and engaging was a key priority for us. To achieve this, we held weekly sessions on a defined day and at a defined time. To optimize for engagement, we kept the sessions to a maximum of two hours and made the sessions practical. Feedback from the founders showed that this approach was very effective while allowing the founders to continue running their businesses.
- Communications and Transparency: With the global business environment changing rapidly and organizational changes such as partial unemployment and furloughing, it was critical to communicate clearly with the startups throughout the program when a program element, human personnel or any other planned activity was impacted by the pandemic. We found that this built trust with the founders and made it easy to navigate some tough situations.
- Frequent engagement with founders: To ensure that we were always in touch with all the founders and their specific challenges in the program or their business in general, we held weekly conversations that were pivotal.
- Bonding activities: Without the advantage of the natural relationships and connections that are built during physical programs, we decided to dedicate time out every month to have non-work related conversations and virtual fun. This was a favourite part of the program as it gave the founders an opportunity to detach themselves from all the pressures of the new normal.
- Internet support: With most of the founders and team members interacting with the program working from home, we made provisions for small stipends to support the internet bills of the startups. The goal was to ensure aid in their transition to working from home effectively.
“It was amazing to see an improvement this year on all success metrics of #Africa4Future, although the focus of the program is narrower and the pandemic impacted the program delivery.”
Rey Buckman — Impact Venture & #Africa4Future Lead at Airbus BizLab
The Accelerator Experience
In the new program format, the first month of the accelerator largely focused on reviews of each company’s product and how they were integrating remote sensing technology into their products. This was supported by one-on-one interactions with Airbus experts across multiple divisions and in-depth reviews by the CcHUB Design Lab.
In the second month, as alignment with Airbus technology and in particular with UP42 continued, we prepared for our major virtual showcase which was very successful with over 640 corporate executives and investors in attendance and resulted in more than 40 concrete meetings for the startups. You can view the pitches of the startups here.
The third month of the program was mostly focused on the startups for their presentation of their proposed Proof of Concept (PoC) to Airbus and GIZ leadership on July 6th. The buildup to this day was very intense with the founders putting in their very best to completing their demos and putting a strong presentation together.
The high level of commitment to the program by Airbus and GIZ was reflected in the members of the jury present for the PoC presentation. They included:
- Grazia Vittadini — Chief Technology Officer, Airbus
- Dirk Hoke — CEO, Airbus Defence and Space
- Christian Lindener — Global Head of Airbus BizLab, Airbus
- Francois Lombard — Head of Intelligence, Airbus Defence & Space
- Jan Schwaab — Head Digital Transformation in Africa, GIZ
- Bosun Tijani — Founder & CEO, CcHUB
We are glad to announce that nine (9) of the startups in the program found an alignment of their solutions with Airbus technology and five (5) of them were selected to proceed to the post-acceleration phase where they’ll receive support with executing their PoC and achieving their core business objectives.
“I was impressed to see how the startups are deploying Airbus technology to tackle problems in agriculture in Africa from different angles. Supporting the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Africa will be of the utmost importance as the economies will continue to grow significantly in the coming years.”
Dirk Hoke — CEO, Airbus Defence & Space
Below are short summaries of the PoCs that the startups will be implementing over the next 9 months;
- Crop2Cash (Nigeria): Develop a credit scoring model based on historical time-series data of farm performance that will make it easier for financial institutions to provide finance to smallholder farmers. The product will be tested with 1,000 farmers and involve multiple stakeholders.
- XY Analytics (South Africa): Deploy and test their pasture management solution with 100 farmers in Namibia and covering 160, 000 hectares.
- AgriEdge (Morocco): Improve and deploy their Optimized Fertilization Monitoring product for fertilizer recommendations and yield prediction for smallholder farmers, using high-resolution images from UP42.
- DmmHehe(Rwanda): Develop a national postharvest supply chain solution with the government of Rwanda using geospatial data to forecast supply and match it with demand and logistics services.
- Rural Farmers Hub (Nigeria): Develop Village Chief™️, a big data analytics dashboard, that helps farm organisations, industries, corporates and government make key agribusiness decisions.
What’s next for the startups
Over the next 9 months, CcHUB will support the startups to achieve their PoC objectives and core business growth objectives with support from Airbus BizLab and GIZ.
We are excited about the potential of the different products as well as the potential impact they will have on their customers and the agriculture sector on the continent over the next few years.
Thanks to Kelvin Umechukwu.
Francis Sani manages acceleration programs at CcHUB Nigeria. This article was originally published on Medium.