Hotel rooms are great, but sometimes frequent travellers crave that extra comfort of a home away from home. The early adopters of this concept found themselves in Nairobi for long periods at a time. They became slightly weary of repetitive check-ins and check-outs, revolving doors and drab hotel food, sometimes for up to three months in a year. Craving the convenience of private spaces, the slow and steady trickle for furnished apartments soon turned into a flood.
What was initially the province of a handful of players such as Mimosa, The Hamptons and Blackrose, has today exploded into a million shilling industry. Because of the numerous flats springing up every other month in the leafy suburbs and which remain unoccupied sometimes for up to one year, one has an edge in the form of offering a furnished flat especially geared to the expatriate segment. Today, others are going even further and offering serviced apartments, which means you have a worker who comes in to clean and wash.
For an insight into this booming industry, BDLife went out in search of the people, mostly women, who have turned this cottage industry into a lucrative venture.
In the quiet, leafy suburb of Muthaiga, we meet Rosanna Moi, a businesswoman who deals mostly with oil and minerals. In-between prospecting for oil boxes and rare gems, she has cut an enviable reputation as the ‘to-go-to’ interior designer for those with refined taste.
“I studied architecture for one year in Italy when I was younger, then fell in love and moved to Kenya and never quite completed my course. Even though I have my primary business now, my passion has always been to create beautiful homes,” says Mara as her friends like to call her. “I began doing up friends houses for fun and now it has turned into a lucrative side business that I truly enjoy doing.”
Mara breaks down what she thinks are the basic building blocks of interior design: “To make a room, you basically start with two things. The first is rugs or covering for the floors and the second is art or pictures for the walls. If you get these two right, then the rest is pretty standard for modern living. Everyone has to have a TV, a sofa, a dining area and so on but how you choose to cover the floors and the walls are what gives the house a theme and therefore an edge,” she adds.
Nairobi is a very cosmopolitan city and the younger, hip generation of those who come to work here from elsewhere do not want to stay in hotels, at least not for long periods and the hunt for the ultimate, secure, furnished apartment is now very much part of the deal.
Simone Bazos from New York and Sarah Rowe from Wisconsin are both doing a semester abroad from their respective universities. They normally live with a host family for the duration of their semester. From time to time though, they like to get-together with the other people in their programme for a proper catch-up and comparison of living conditions. For this, it is easier when you have your own living arrangements and they choose The Hamptons for short stays.
“It is definitely a home away from home, it is like having your mum there take care of you and yet you still have some privacy ,” they explain. “The only downside is when you have pests harassing your life….like we had this one guy who was staying at the same place, he must have spotted us at the swimming pool and worked out where we were staying. He would call us every night to go out for drink with him, but we turned him down.”
Simone and Sarah are part of a growing list of clientele who are fuelling the furnished apartment boom. “I got into interior design via the backdoor,” says Emma Too, the former beauty queen turned landscaper. “I had clients who wanted me to do their gardens and before long, they were asking me to do their interiors as well. Coming from a fashion background, it was not difficult to make the transition.”
Emma, who takes care of up to 15 clients at a time, now gets request for soft and hard furnishings which she sources locally.
“Most of my stuff is made by fundis, I rarely buy furniture from shops. I do custom-made beds for people who like queen-sized beds, soft and hard furnishings depending on what the client is looking for. I generally present three versions; a classic, a modern and an African themed interior,” Emma explains.
Once the look has been decided upon, Emma gets down to business and sources for all the furnishing that she requires, puts the look together and invites her client to have a look. “I’m normally very flexible and work according to my clients wishes, if they think something is not working or does not fit, I change it,” she explains.
With more and more business people relocating their businesses to Nairobi and servicing a huge expat community, the industry seems to be on the runway, about to take off.
Most expats end up buying the properties they live in and when their diplomatic or professional tour comes to an end, they are faced with two options, to sell the properties or keep them and rent them out. To attract better rental incomes, it makes sense to furnish the properties.
We meet Minaywa Laboso, a former business executive-turned-interior designer who is the talk of town,
“I’m doing up a flat at Sandalwood apartments on Lenana road for a lady who lives in Tunisia. She used to work here for the UN and bought the flat to live in, then her career took her to Tunis and she did not want to sell the apartment, as she feels she will eventually settle here.
“I have not met her but we communicate via email. I send pictures of what the place looks like and she sends back responses and we work it out that way.
“If things get confused we can always Skype and I can literally walk her though the house. In this one, I double up almost as her agent here as I ensure she gets the right tenants and when they move out, I move in to see that all the fixtures and furnishings are in good order ready for the next tenant,” says Mina as her friends refer to her.
“What is important in this industry is to listen to your client and try and find a style that is closest to their own personal one since whatever you furnish will be their home for a while,” she adds.
Mara Moi concurs with her, “It is important to understand the needs of the client. Sometimes it means you have to meet, other times they will just look at your work and like your style because it is modern and functional and doesn’t need too much tweaking. But in this industry, the sky is the limit as it is growing fast,”