A Trybe grows in Cambodia

Nadia Wong, head of makerspace Trybe, stands in front of a 3-D printer at their office in Phnom Penh.
Nadia Wong, head of makerspace Trybe, stands in front of a 3-D printer at their office in Phnom Penh. Jonathan Greig

Technology has invaded almost every aspect of our lives, from how we order food from restaurants to how we travel to and from work. But an overreliance on Western technology and applications has left many in the developing world eager to forge their own path and create systems as well as machines to address localised issues.

Universities across the country are trying to educate students and satisfy the need for technology that addresses problems specific to Cambodia, but a lack of funding and guidance makes it difficult to be an inventor or developer.

To address this very issue, Nadia Wong, formerly a corporate lawyer from Hong Kong, decided to create Trybe, a co-working makerspace for Cambodia’s young inventors.

“Every part of our life touches on tech, and given the youth of the population, tech excites everyone. Are we going to stay stuck in this place where our tech usage is dictated by what is given to us by more developed countries?” she said.

“I heard one member [of Trybe] complain the other day that everyone wants to do ‘the next Uber of tuk tuks’. Why don’t we take a step back from just associating with one successful thing overseas and look at how we can develop our own. If we in Cambodia want to develop our own tech, we have to think a bit deeper and try to understand our own community and the needs of those around us instead of just labeling things the ‘Uber of x’.”

Ms. Wong serves on the steering committee of the University of Puthisastra, and said the idea for Trybe sprung from her conversations with startups, entrepreneurs and students.

“One thing we all had in common was that we were struggling, whether it was with registering a company or figuring out financing or figuring out accounting systems. We’re all at different stages of the struggle, so it’s good to have an environment where we meet and talk and help each other with these things,” she said.

“Its great to provide a place of sharing that normalizes the struggle.”

When she moved to Cambodia from Hong Kong four and a half years ago, she was eager to work with students and wanted to support innovation as well as entrepreneurship. The idea for Trybe began to percolate about a year ago, and in February it officially opened. Trybe serves as a community of inventors, designers, students and entrepreneurs.

Trybe has helped a number of startup companies get off the ground, providing them with a working space, guidance, training sessions and experts eager to help young inventors. It has about 25 members and is home to five companies, including a 3-D printing service, a robotics startup and an open source system integration computer software company.

In addition to giving young inventors a space to ply their trade, Trybe runs a variety of challenges for students focusing on a number of different sectors. One of the challenges they are starting this month is “Invent for Agriculture”, a ten-week product development course for students that will feature lectures from experts, woodwork and metalwork courses, and mentorship from a famous Hong Kong inventor.

Trybe will bring them to two farms and have them think about problems that need to be addressed. They will work through the innovation and development process before creating a cardboard prototype of their design.

Trybe is eager to expand STEM courses throughout Cambodian schools and is looking into ways to create a low-cost engineering kit that schools outside of Phnom Penh can use. They are also considering expanding the idea of makerspaces to the provinces in an effort to not only create communities of inventors, builders and repairers, but also to give children a place to learn skills and test products.

Ms. Wong has placed Trybe at the intersection of technology, agriculture and education, and believes Cambodia’s young people are more than ready to take up the challenge of addressing the country’s problems through innovation.

“There is so much potential for technology in agriculture. We have an abundance of land here and really good soil, so people haven’t been pushed to innovate,” she said. “But there is so much opportunity to innovate and bring technology to agriculture.

That’s a sector of Cambodia that a lot of young people can step in to.”