In 2019, when Brian Namanya visited Nairobi, Kenya, for a conference, his excitement to explore the city was met with uncertainty as it was his first time there.
Faced with the dilemma of not knowing where to start, he considered hiring travel agents for a tour but found the cost prohibitive. Consequently, he opted to stay at the hotel, missing out on the opportunity to experience the city.
According to globalpressjournal.com, This predicament highlights a common challenge faced by travelers unfamiliar with a destination and the potential barriers to exploration when traditional tour options are financially out of reach.
This got him thinking. What if there was a platform where you could book walking tours with a local who knew the city well? Namanya says that’s when the idea came to him to build Tubayo, an online travel marketplace where travelers can book accommodations and experiences within East Africa. To date, the platform has about 77,000 users.
With just an internet connection, he could reach 27 million of Uganda’s 47 million residents. It’s why he named the platform Tubayo, which means ‘’we are everywhere” in Runyankole, a local Ugandan language.
“All [it] required was building software. It was an easy entry point for a youth like me because it didn’t require a lot of capital,” Namanya says. The internet could also give him access to a global market.
To make this dream a reality, Namanya needed to put together a team to develop the technology he needed. He couldn’t afford to do that at the time, so he decided to build his platform on social media. Soon after his trip to Nairobi in 2019, Namanya set up Tubayo on Instagram to showcase the beauty of Uganda and sell travel experiences.
But the number of those who bought his experiences or booked accommodations the first few months “was disappointing.” He turned to his Instagram followers, asking them to help promote his work. He also marketed through word of mouth, and things started picking up.
Then, Mastercard recognized his dedication, awarding him a 15,000-United States-dollar grant that allowed him to hire developers. He launched the app in 2020.
Anyone can showcase products or offer experiences like city tours, wildlife excursions or even fitness classes on Tubayo. All they have to do, Namanya says, is create a package and upload it to the platform.
Users have the flexibility to pay in local currencies or use smartphone money apps like M-Pesa, options not offered by international travel platforms. This feature particularly appeals to local travelers.
“These are familiar things to them which [give] us the edge over the global players who work strictly with dollars and cards to make transactions,” Namanya says.
Mugisha Boris Nahabwe, chief of operations at Tubayo, says it’s up to hosts to decide how much they want to charge for an experience or accommodation. The online platform, however, takes a 12% commission, which Namanya says is competitive compared to other global apps.
But Collins Mbulakyalo, an accommodation host on Tubayo from Kampala, says the platform charges hosts more than 12%. He says he pays a 20% commission for each booking, compared to travel apps such as Airbnb’s 3% and Booking.com’s 15%. The high commission, he says, is the only downside of the platform.
Mbulakyalo remains committed to the platform because it is local and has given him good business. In a good week, Mbulakyalo, who joined the platform in 2022, says he gets two to three bookings.
Solomon Semukete is a player for Uganda’s national archery team who also hosts experiences on Tubayo. He says he started hosting archery experiences toward the end of 2020 after a friend encouraged him. In a day, Semukete gets seven to 10 clients, mostly Ugandans. “The peak was 15 in a day,” he says.
He charges 51,000 Ugandan shillings (13.43 dollars) per person for a two-hour session, then pays Tubayo a commission of 12,800 shillings (3.37 dollars) per person, which is 25% commission and above what the founder cited.
“Not bad for all the work they do,” he says.
The platform was named Best Startup for 2022 by the Chamber of Young Entrepreneurs Uganda and was named the 2023 Tech Influencer of the Year by Pulse Influencer Awards.
As of November 2023, Tubayo had eight permanent employees, Nahabwe says.
Once a month, Tubayo also hosts a market day in Kampala and Nairobi where over 200 businesses set up shop for handcrafted items, creating job opportunities.
Despite these achievements, the company still faces challenges. For example, Nahabwe says they lack the capacity to inspect every accommodation and experience offered on their platform to ensure they are up to standard. This would be too costly, he says. “We have to trust that people are doing what they say they are doing,” he says.
In the future, Namanya wants to grow Tubayo beyond the Ugandan market.
“We want to be sure in the local market we have taken the biggest share; then we go to the region, we use the same approach, and then we take on the continent. Then soon we shall be playing at the global level,” he says.
He hopes that African communities and governments can invest more in tourism. The opportunities are there, he says.
“The Nile is all bare. This is the longest river in Africa. We could make good use of it. Tourists only see the views. We could put up hotels, create activities that travelers can enjoy,” Namanya says. “There is room for so much.”