On an electric motorbike through 20 African countries from Morocco to Cape Town, Dulcie Mativo and Thomas Jakel, founders of Africa X Project interviewed 100 Changemakers and social innovators that transform their communities with their projects and ideas, social businesses and initiatives. Their aim is to reach and impact young people both on the continent and internationally. Ayiba’s Precious Obiabunmo had a chat with the founders about their intriguing experiences on the travelling expedition.
What brought the idea of the AfricaX project?
Dulcie was born and raised in Kenya, but had never traveled the continent before. The narrative growing up had always been that somehow things were ‘better’ abroad, in the U.S. or Europe. When she actually did her Master’s studies in Germany, she saw things from a new perspective. She saw how much innovation was happening in Africa. She met other Africans in the diaspora that were going back to launch businesses and initiatives and this drove her curiosity to discover the continent for herself and redefine what being African meant for her.
For Thomas, it was the inspiration that he got from mentoring startup founders in West Africa. The narrative for young people on the continent and the narrative about Africa as portrayed in the media was mostly one-sided.
From our respective experiences, the idea was born to interview a hundred changemakers and innovators on the continent and share stories about an innovative, inspiring Africa and its youth, both to the young people on the continent, as well as to those in the diaspora. This all merged with the idea to do a tour of Africa with an electric motorbike. It was our own way of saying: You know what, let’s see if this is possible. What better way to connect with innovators, than to try something new and different oneself and to push the limits of the mind.
What challenges did you have traveling across Africa?
The biggest challenge for us was that we tried to do too many things at the same time. While we did the video interviews with the changemakers, we were always trying to figure out where we could recharge the electric motorbike. We also tried to do as many countries as possible, so that we could interview as many entrepreneurs as possible, which meant we needed more and more visas. It was a lot.
How did you resolve the challenges?
I guess they resolved themselves with the time. Our support van broke down in Cameroon and we had to leave it behind, give away most of our stuff, and continue the other half of the trip with just the motorbike.
Also, we learned that people were super helpful and always gave us advice and support to charge the motorbike somewhere. One time we plugged into the generators that were powering telco towers in rural Angola. We could have never known about this beforehand, but people were always ready to help us out and support our wild trip.
Regarding the visas, somehow we made it through. Dulcie has a Kenyan passport and was able to get some of the visas en route, for Thomas it took a bit more preparation in advance.
Dulcie shared in one of her travel essays where both of you ended up sleeping in the van at Senegal because of bugs and mosquitoes. What other scary or uncomfortable experience did the both of you have?
You know, with all the ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘scary’ experiences we had, we are glad that we had them. Anything you ever experienced is there to grow you and expand your mind.
That said, we remember crossing from Nigeria into Cameroon with the van and the motorbike. The roads were rocky and with the rain, the mud was as slippery as soap. In the end, the van broke down. We had to put it on the back of a truck and then get it to the next bigger city. We stayed in the drivers cabin of our van for two days, as the towing truck moved with us in the back through the Cameroonian jungle. It was an interesting experience.
In the end, the van couldn’t be fixed so we gifted most of our stuff to people we met, and then continued with just the electric motorbike.
Based on the interviews, what do you think the African governments can do to make entrepreneurship less daunting?
That is a great question. You know, I think it is not just the government that can do its part. I think it is society at large that could contribute to innovation and entrepreneurial thinking.
I recall that many of the founders said that their parents or friends thought they were mad when they said they would start a business. Some of the founders avoided telling their friends and family altogether that they were starting their own business.
I think as a society at large, we could celebrate entrepreneurs more and encourage entrepreneurial risk taking. That is also what we are trying to do with AfricaX.
For example, when Satta Wahab started her business, her mom actually helped her with sourcing materials and packaging. It is a great way to show young people that we trust them.
The government could integrate changemaking education into the curriculum. And this doesn’t have to be theoretical. Imagine what would happen if every year young people across a country were invited to participate in changemaking competitions. They would be asked to form teams, come up with ideas of how they can deliver a service or product that would benefit their community and then would be asked to launch it and share the results.
If we start celebrating contribution to society through changemaking, it is likely that we would see much more of it. But if we only celebrate commercial success without practicing changemaking behavior, it is likely that we get to see more of individualistic and egocentric behavior aimed at personal enrichment.
Fortunately this is not wishful thinking. The Ashoka fellow Ali Raza Khan, has already implemented youth-led changemaking competitions on a large scale in Pakistan. His results show, that when young people are trusted, they turn into entrepreneurs and changemakers adding benefit to society in no time. He has thus far challenged over twenty thousand young people to become changemakers and over ninety percent of those participating in his competitions were able to launch successful projects.
The interview session with Oduwa Agboneni was my favorite. I love how she reinvented the male-dominated autocare industry. So far, who was your favorite changemaker, and why?
Wow, that is a tough question. We think in the moment that we sat down with the change maker we interviewed, that one was our favorite. For us, all the stories without exception were fascinating and grasped our full attention. There is Sobel Ngom, who reached millions of young people in Sub-saharan Africa with a youth TV program, called voix des jeunes. Satta Wahab, who is selling products for African natural hair. She is such a great example of how anyone can start a business even with little capital and how one can use business to inspire and create positive impact. There is also Momarr Taal, who is such a gifted storyteller and visionary. And Desmond Koney, who makes it possible for anyone to become a farmer from the comfort of their home through crowd farming with Complete Farmer.
Now we are just naming all of them. In all honesty, the answer to this question for us is just that we are grateful to all of these amazing people for having shared their story with us and that all of them have inspired us in one way or another.
What lessons did you learn while traveling across Africa? What advice for anyone embarking on a traveling expedition?
The biggest lesson is that you can’t prepare for everything. Yes, do your research, but limit it to the most essential questions. Then just do it. The way will teach you and show you everything you need to know. It so happens that we always met just the right people at just the right time to keep us out of trouble and to help us out. We don’t think that this is a coincidence. If you keep an open mind and follow the simple directions life gives you, things will work in your favor. The van breaks down? Perfect. You get stuck in the jungle? Perfect. Someone can or can’t do an interview? Perfect. It always works out. Maybe differently than you expected it to, but it always does, in our experience.
If you could move to any of the African countries, which would it be and why?
We enjoyed Dakar, Monrovia, Accra, Libreville, and Brazzaville. Dakar and Accra because there is a lot of movement and culture. Monrovia, Libreville, and Brazzaville because they are chill.
In one of your videos, you said you were a couple on expedition. How has the experience been?
Yes, it must have been this AfricaX teaser video that we released at the beginning of the tour when we were still in Senegal. Wow, we think it really brought us closer together. But it also brought us closer to ourselves. If you do a trip like this as a couple, it really helps if you practice patience, open and honest communication, are empathic, a deep listener and are open to criticism. This experience has really deepened our trust and respect for each other. With that said, it was not always easy. But it was always worth it.
Will there be another traveling expedition by AfricaX?
Most likely not in the near future. At the moment we are editing and releasing the interviews bit by bit. You can check them out on our AfricaX blog and podcast, youtube channel and instagram. We are also writing a book about the trip and thinking about how to create a documentary from the material we have gathered.
However, it would be great to collect more inspiring stories from Eastern Africa at some point. So there is a slight chance that we might do a sequel if we find the right partners to do it with. We are open to see what the future brings.
Dulcie Mativo: From Kenya, she worked as the social media, content and operations coordinator for AfricaX during the trip. As a young African changemaker, she brought an inspiring perspective to the expedition as well as a burning desire to help young people on the continent discover their potential. She is passionate about personal development, especially as it relates to mental health.
Thomas is the co-founder of Berlin based company Strandschicht, that is helping SME’s through virtual personal assistant services, as. well as the co-founder of EcoToiletten, a company building eco-friendly sanitation solutions like waterless, odorless public toilets. He also works as a speaker, coach and author. In the past years he has mentored West African and German startups and Youth projects. His mission is to help young people discover the changemaker within and make a difference through entrepreneurship.