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Business idea tapped from a rare incident

It was from the two toilets that remained standing after fire razed down a house that two buddies came up with the business idea

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By Caroline  Theuri             

Picture this. A fire starts at a city slum. A house is razed down. But two toilets remain standing, unscathed. This is an incident that happened four years ago at Mukuru kwa Njenga, an informal settlement located in the Eastern parts of Nairobi. An investigation into the incident would later reveal that the toilet remained intact because of a fireproof material used during construction.

Two friends, who were very keen to know why the toilets survived the raging fire, would later be inspired to start a construction startup called Kwangu Kwako.

According to Winnie Gitau, one of the founders, they wanted to create houses where anyone could live, the main reason they came up with the name Kwangu Kwako, Swahili words for “your place, my place” or “where you live, I can also live.”

In 2016, the startup started creating their own fireproof slabs made of concrete since majority of the slabs in the market at the time were suited for the sanitation industry.

“We had a test site in Athi River, from where we created a sample of our own pre-cast slabs made of concrete that is fireproof. These were used to create the affordable houses, with the assistance of a team of engineers from Engineers Without Borders,” says Ms Gitau, during the morning interview at the startup’s office located at Sameer Africa, Mombasa road, in Nairobi.

To assess what they had created, Kwangu Kwako invited landlords of the constructed buildings created from the pre-cast slabs, to get their feedback. They were receptive. And since then, Gitau says, quite a number of landlords have become their clients.

The aim of Kwangu Kwako, she explains, is to build affordable houses, which made from their unique materials. The other goal for the startup, Gitau adds, is for the houses to be affordable to Kenyans in the lower income segment; the houses being safe and of high quality.

It can take Kwangu Kwako up to two months or eight weeks to build the affordable houses with pre-fabricated fireproof slabs. The process starts with putting down the foundation, which may take two weeks to dry, followed by the abstract.

It then takes two to three days to build the affordable housing unit. For the firm, it normally takes two months to build 14 units of houses, Gitau reveals, stating that the they only operate during a construction project.

“The pre-cast slabs made of fireproof concrete will be put on a truck and taken to a building site for the houses. The affordable houses will then be constructed by labour hired from the community. Normally, we will have two of our staff members on site,” she says.

The technology used by Kwangu Kwako to make the pre-cast fireproof concrete slabs is specifically for the firm and not imported or outsourced, Gitau explains.

News of fire burning down informal settlements in Nairobi has become common. This leads to destruction of property and loss of lives. Such calamities, according to local media reports, are caused by poor urban planning, an inadequate supply of water to put out fire breakouts and the inability of the county government to respond to fire alarms immediately.

Such fire outbreaks are not confined to Kenya alone. Last year, the American state of California had a wildfire that resulted in the loss of property worth a billion dollars.

And governments have been working round the clock to tame the incidences, with firms such as Kwangu Kwako playing an instrumental role. The startup currently has seven employees, with landlords within Nairobi suburbs of Athi River, Kangemi and Kibra as its customers.

Ms Gitau says that the criteria for choosing land to construct the startup is one that is on a flat surface, though it mainly depends on the kind of space that a customer needs.

The business, however, suffers the challenge of landlords who hire it to construct for them houses but lack title deeds for their land. Without such a document, the landlords are left unable to access loans necessary for the properties.

According to the National Council for Law Reporting (NCLR), either people lack title deeds for land that they would use to build their own property, the resource is too expensive, that it takes too much time to acquire a title deed, or that there is double registration whereby two people have been registered for the same land, which then leads to a dispute.

The startup tries to lessen this problem for the landlords in two ways, says Ms Gitau: either by introducing them to Kwangu Kwako’s financial partners, who then loan the money to landlords so that they can buy land to build the houses. Afterwards, the landlords can pay it back from the collected rent.

“Alternatively, the landlords who have allotment letters without the title deeds, can still contract Kwangu Kwako to build the affordable houses,” says Ms Gitau.

Affordable housing remains a desired, but, elusive dream for many Kenyans due to the high costs. This is despite the demand for new houses from Kenyans living in cities, states a recent Home Ownership Survey.

And to tame this challenge, the survey adds, banks provide mortgage to the home seekers. But even then, this solution is limited by the income brackets of most Kenyans, as those who can afford them are either wealthy or in the middle class.

Currently, Kenya has a shortage of two million housing units; with almost 60 percent of people living in cities across the country residing in informal settlements, states a 2018 report by World Bank.

Efforts by startups and enterprises such as Kwangu Kwako are trying to bridge this. So far, the firm has sold 34 housing units.

“We’re happy as a company when we hear a client who lived in a semi-permanent house move into a permanent house say ‘this is my first permanent home’. This is becomes our greatest milestone,” Gitau says.

She advises budding entrepreneurs to do what they feel they have to do and talk to established entrepreneurs in their field to understand the field better.

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