Robi Axiata to keep supporting local startups

Robi Axiata Ltd is keen to remain a catalyst for local startups through its digital entrepreneurship programme, r-ventures, as the second-largest operator is optimistic about Bangladeshi talents to solve real-life problems, its chief executive officer said.

"Through r-ventures, we are facilitating local startups with immense pride and excitement. I think there is a lot of potential in Bangladesh, and some unicorn will come out of this market within a few years," Rajeev Sethi told The Daily Star during an interview recently.

"There are really enabling people, especially youth in Bangladesh, to make a Smart Bangladesh. Smart Bangladesh will have smart solutions made locally. And r-venture fits here very well."

R-ventures was launched by Robi in 2018 with a view to building digital entrepreneurship among its employees. Later, it was expanded to startups. The initiative provides management advisory, mentorship, investor network access and funds for early-stage startups.

"The good part of r-ventures is that it identifies potential startups and gives them a solid platform beyond financial resources," said Sethi.

The grand finale of the initiative's third edition, dubbed r-ventures 3.0, is scheduled to be held on March 5, where 11 teams will compete for the top spots.

"The core philosophy of Axiata Group and Robi has been that we positively impact society and invest in young people who have an idea but do not have the possible means, both financially and otherwise, to scale up their idea," Sethi said.

"This is the area where we thought it worth investing. This is how the idea came, and this has been super successful. We started small, and now we started r-ventures 3.0. It has been a huge learning for us as well as pride as we have been able to contribute to startups and ecosystems in Bangladesh."

R-ventures has been making a significant impact in the startup landscape and the operator has registered the r-ventures private equity fund under the Bangladesh Securities and Exchange Commission (BSEC).

And Sethi believes the operator has greatly enhanced the chances of deserving startups to get the funding they need to take their ventures to the next level.

"R-ventures has also helped channel the vitality of the capital market into the startup community through the private equity fund."

R-ventures has funded startups such as Shuttle, a mass-transit startup, and AirBringr, a crowd-shipping platform that connects local shoppers with international travellers for cross-border shopping and shipping, and they have already seen some success.

"Startups such as Shuttle and Airbringr have become big now. We started small and supported them to grow. They are attracting both local and foreign investors," Sethi added.

The CEO believes that the role of Robi Axiata is that of a catalyst, and it can't be done alone.

"Several other players need to invest and help these startups."

Robi invested more than Tk 11.5 crore in 13 startups through r-ventures 1.0 and 2.0 and has committed Tk 2.5 crore for r-ventures 3.0.

Robi is fortunate to have an experienced partner like SBK Tech Ventures to guide startups in the right direction, he added.

SBK Tech Ventures is the fund manager and general partner of r-ventures. It specialises in early-stage digital startups in emerging markets such as Bangladesh and has received an alternate investment fund licence from the BSEC.

SBK, founded by Sonia Bashir Kabir, an impact investor, has also committed to matching the amount that r-ventures would invest in the start-ups, thus raising the fund that would be available for the entrepreneurs to Tk 5 crore.

The Robi CEO described r-ventures portfolio performance as stellar as the multiple on invested capital of the collective portfolio is almost four-fold.

RedDot Digital, a wholly-owned ICT-focused subsidiary of Robi Axiata, is acting as the sponsor for the r-ventures fund.

"RedDot's expertise will be invaluable in evaluating and supporting startups with a digital backbone," said Sethi.

According to Sethi, there are more opportunities for local startups and fewer challenges.

"However, in many cases, an idea that is good and works well gets ten copycats, which doesn't really work."

He said usually, a specific field or area is dominated by one or two startups. For example, ride-hailing is dominated by one or two players.

Sethi believes that the challenge is identifying the right problem.

"In my mind, Bangladesh provides a large set of opportunities in different fields, and that's what we are seeing in r-ventures 3.0."

He thinks the future of startups in Bangladesh is bright as a few factors will turn Bangladesh into a hotspot for start-ups in the years to come.

He pointed to the size of the country's population and the rapid growth in data usage as major factors.

Last year, almost 60 per cent of early-stage startups were funded by investors in Bangladesh.

He said that most of the people involved in the successful startups in Bangladesh are local, have lived their lives here and know about the challenges local people face.

"The good idea comes once you have lived that life and you are deeply connected with those people who are your target audience."

He believes that formal idea generation through third parties doesn't work.

"You have to be embedded in that culture and society. If you are able to do that and understand the problem very well, the solution that will emerge will be excellent."

"But if you import an idea from other countries and try to implement it here, it will most likely fail to scale up to the desired level and will not add value to customers. So, for a startup that wants to solve a real-life problem, it has to be made for Bangladesh, by a Bangladeshi."

"We are extremely encouraged to see that kind of ideas at r-ventures 3.0." 


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