Creatives in the Industry: Q&A w/ Sara Berkai

Sara is on a mission to encourage kids to build. Read up on how she launched her social enterprise ‘Ambessa Play’ on Kickstarter.

20 April 2023

Tell us about yourself

My name is Sara Berkai and I founded Ambessa Play, a social enterprise that builds educational kits using a one-for-one model, where for every DIY kit bought, a refugee child out of school receives one for free.

I was part of A New Direction’s Future Startup Now (FSN) programme in 2021. For five weeks, a group of 20+ founders received business support in a programme funded by the Mayor of London.

How did the idea of Ambessa Play come about?

I was interested in the idea of the internet making quality education more accessible, however, where countries remain offline, I wondered what learning resources (books, kits, school programmes, etc) would help children in remote villages with no internet access. I have over 50 first cousins, many of them are displaced children who are brilliant and curious, as all kids are. Whilst working in various tech roles, I would volunteer; teaching kids to code or build, and during one particular workshop back home, I was asked to bring back a DIY flashlight asa more useful toy to use when learning how to build.

I went back into education to complete an MSc in Child Development at the University of Oxford, studying how kids learn. There, professors were interested in buying the DIY flashlight I prototyped, for their children – so I was curious in how a one-for-one model could begin to work.

After two years of testing with displaced kids across various countries, we have just launched our Kickstarter campaign. You can buy your child a flashlight, and a refugee child receives one for free. You can read more about our Kickstarter here.

Why did you decide to launch on Kickstarter?

Hardware is expensive and I simply do not have the funds to ask a manufacturer to make a certain amount. Furthermore, I have no idea how many people would buy and support Ambessa. Pre-product launch, I spent a lot of time talking to our potential customers and grew a newsletter of parents and people from the diaspora who would be interested in the project and product – but there was no guarantee that this would convert into sales. Kickstarter allows us to collect pre-orders and manufacture exactly how many kits people want. It's a great platform to assess demand for founders with absolutely no funding whatsoever.

How did A New Direction’s Future Startup Now programme benefit you?

The programme was co-led by Hustle Crew’s Abadesi Osunsade (who is amazing) and we covered everything from pitching to marketing. In addition, Future Startup Now awarded us our first ever grant! I used the grant mostly towards hardware tools and electronics to work on making the kit. Looking back, FSN gave me the confidence to apply to more grant initiatives. In fact, months after the programme ended, Beth Khan, who ran FSN at the time, went over my grant application for UKRI’s Innovate UK award with me and shared some advice. I ended up getting in and I’m grateful to Beth to this day for her support.

What were some of the biggest inspirations to your work or career?

I am grateful to creatives or founders who have worked in public or donated their writing to libraries so that we can learn from them. I’m constantly inspired by Octavia Butler’s writings, by Leila Janah’s book ‘Give Work’ and by impact entrepreneurs I’ve met along my journey.

I know he’s mentioned a lot but Steve Jobs’ also. I always remind my godchildren of his saying that ‘everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people use’. This is true about everything – capitalism is a design, as is your toothbrush, or the transport in your area. Everything has been designed, so you too can poke at it or create what you wish to see.

What are some key learnings that you would share based on your experience?

If you’re working on something and you have no idea how to bring it to life, don’t be afraid to ask for help through DM’s and cold messages – especially for those of us with no access to industry networks. Two years ago, I reached out to so many people on LinkedIn for advice, whether they were lawyers, designers, or other social enterprise founders. I didn’t copy & paste spam them either, but instead wrote a handful of questions I had (after doing my research and reading everything I could about their experience). Many of them have, in one way or another, gone on to support Ambessa Play since then.

If you’re interested in applying to the Innovate UK Young Innovator Award or Women in Innovation Grant Awards, reach out to me on LinkedIn here and I’ll try and help. Do the same for others also where you can.