When Norwegian entrepreneur Oyvind Ridend lived in Mombasa, Kenya, he realised there were a number of hurdles standing in the way of startups.  Having amassed a wealth of experience in his successful entrepreneurial journey, he knew he could help in undressing these challenges that bogged down promising ideas, particularly those based on technology.

 And this is how in 2015 he birthed TechBridge Invest, a hub that nurtures innovative ideas and guides them to overcome teething challenges, find their feet and reach their potential.

It has been quite an exciting journey, a tale of ups and downs for the hub.  But overall the vision and mission of Mr Ridend, who unfortunately passed on last February, has taken shape. By the end of year 2020, TechBridge had trained 800 entrepreneurs, incubated 65 startups and invested in seven others, while creating an estimated 350 jobs during the period.

“Our founder had lived in Mombasa before. He saw how hard it was for the people here (at the Coast) to launch start-ups. Himself a very successful entrepreneur in Norway, he came back in 2015 and founded Techbridge to try to bridge the gap that was so glaring” he said.

TechBridge staff celebrate their success at their Mombasa office. Photo/Steve Mokaya

When TechBridge was founded, Swahili Box was the only hub holding the hands of innovators to navigate the rocky and slippery startup phase of enterprises. Swahili Box was, however, swamped by the high number of young entrepreneurs who needed their support and guidance. Thus, TechBridge was never short of business to do from the onset.

To start off, TechBridge partnered with Technical University of Mombasa (TUM) to harness students’ novel ideas at the institution.

“Together with TUM, we started an innovation challenge where students from various departments in the university presented innovative ideas. That was our first project,” he says.

The partnership would turn out to be a fruitful one.  In the first challenge that was held in 2016, a project known as SUNami was selected for funding. Since then, the startup, that provides affordable electricity through solar power, has grown to be a roaring success story not only in Kenya but across borders. It has spread its tentacles to Uganda and is now carrying out a pilot programme in Malawi.

“SUNami is unique in that it is a business for business; where they sell portable products that one can use to make money,” Mr Martin notes.

“For example, they have portable shaving machines. One can buy them and use them for the business of haircuts. That way, SUNami empowers its customers.”

A client being served at TechBridge offices. Photo/ Steve Mokaya

TechBridge can now look back with pride on what it has achieved.

“Some entrepreneurs who have been through our programmes are now guiding other entrepreneurs elsewhere, for instance at Swahilipot, another tech hub based in Mombasa,” he says.

“Others who tried and failed while with us have tried again and succeeded elsewhere. So you see, we have been like a stepping stone to growth.”

Some of the most promising startups that TechBridge has funded apart from SUNami are Fundis in Kenya, Marula Proteen in Uganda and Brance Technologies. There is also iShule that is in Kenya and Tanzania. 

Fundis is an online platform that assists customers in locating and hiring competent, vetted, and dependable local service professionals. Marula Proteen is an agribusiness while Brance Technologies is an AI Startup building next-generation facial recognition. iShule is an innovative cloud solution for online education for schools and colleges.

Until 2019, TechBridge Invest was funding start-ups from ideation. However, they have since changed tack and started funding those startups that have worked to some extent, and have a prototype.

“We had to transition because we were running on private investments, and we were getting the pressure of getting returns on those investments,” Mr Martin says.

“Besides, we realised that more players were coming into the game, with the aim of funding ideas, and we had to grow to create space.”

From January next year, they are planning to engage another higher gear, and start funding those businesses that have already hit the market and are now looking for money to accelerate and expand.

Staff during a training session. Mr Martin says TechBridge will continue focusing to invest on Coast-based startups. Photo/ Steve Mokaya

“About 90 per cent of the businesses that we have supported are from the Coast.. the people at the coast are lagging in terms of investments and innovations,” he says, a phenomenon he attributes to a “poor business ecosystem”. However, Mr Martin notes, “a lot has changed in the years that they have been in operation.”

With the blow that came with the demise of its main investor, TechBridge Invest had to re-strategise and restructure. He says that they used the Covid-19 break to introspect.

“We started looking for grants to fund our activities, and now we don’t entirely use our money directly as before. In addition, we now have different structures in place that allow us to own portions of those companies after investing in them,” he says.

The recent and current trends in innovation and technology, he says, have underpinned diversification in businesses.

“People are now tapping into opportunities that were unexplored before. The youth stand the greatest chance in entrepreneurship and innovation, as the world is going digital. What they need are little more innovation and support,” he says.

TechBridge Invest is also seeking to take the lead in ensuring that entrepreneurs learn and deploy latest technology to drive transformation.  It has, for instance, partnered with Andela to train its members on artificial intelligence and 5G. Besides, it helps them to buy specific components of technology that they need to run their startups.

Despite the success it as recorded in the five years of existence, TechBridge Invest still has challenges to contend with. The main impediment is the lack of funds.  For the over five years it has been in existence, the hub is yet to turn in a profit. But Mr Martin strikes a hopeful note.

“We are working towards making profits someday,” he tells Afcacia, adding that resilience has been the hallmark of the hub.

“Imagine working for all those years without any profit, while relying on other people’s money; and then we lost our founder and main investor early this year. Yet we are still going. That’s a success,” he says.