For many years, Mr George Kamunge, a landlord in Nairobi’s Tassia Estate, used to receive proceeds from his apartments late in the month.
“I was using an agent to manage the apartments. The rent would be wired into my bank account on the third week of the month, yet I knew that tenants were religiously paying within the first week. There was little that I could do about it,” Mr Kamunge said.
His is a narrative shared by many other landlords.
Mr Kamunge’s big break came in 2017 when he joined kenyasoko.com, a web-based platform that manages data for rental houses including rent collection, payments and any vacant houses. The platform brings together landlords, real estate property managers, real estate agents and tenants.
“Right now I automatically know how much was paid today and yesterday. I get updates on my phone whenever a tenant deposits rent,” Mr Kamunge said. “Besides, all the money comes straight to my account then I pay kenyasoko.com property managers their commission,” he added.
“In case a house falls vacant, the kenyasoko.com team actively looks for a new tenant. They advertise online. They also follow on their agents to ensure the apartments remain clean and are well-serviced,” Mr Kamunge added.
Mr Francis Wanjohi, a property agent at Frawa Agencies in Donholm is one of the agents using the kenyasoko.com platform to ease property and rent management undertakings. “Tenants use a Paybill number to pay their rent via M-Pesa,” Mr Wanjohi said. This, he added, saves time for both the tenants and the agents.
“Neither do tenants go to queue in the bank to deposit their rent, nor do I go collecting deposit slips,” he added.
He said the fact that the system updates itself automatically whenever money is deposited to the Paybill number makes it more convenient. “I know who has paid without visiting the premises to enquire.”
Mr Victor Mungai, the owner of the kenya.soko.com business is also a landlord residing in the United States.
Together with his two Kenyan friends in the US, Mr Mungai, a landlord in Nairobi, decided to develop a digital platform to ease their woes.
“Our rent proceeds were being mismanaged. It was difficult to even net 50 per cent of the total rent collection by the end of the month as agents always lied about vacant houses. We had to do something,” Mr Mungai said.
It is then that Mr Mungai and his three friends engaged a software developer to create the rent management system. “We are happy now that the system has enhanced transparency and accountability as it updates all the payments automatically and wires them straight from Paybill to the respective bank account,” he added.
The platform has three user interfaces — for tenants, landlords and property agents/managers.
“Each landlord, tenant, property manager or agent has a pin number, which they key in alongside their phone number and a password to access the platform,” explained Mr Njuguna Kinundu, the business development manager at kenyasoko.com.
Each of the users is only able to see their interface. This, he added, enhances the security of the platform.
When a tenant pays via M-Pesa or AirtelMoney, the system updates itself in real time. “They receive a notification from kenyasoko.com that their rent payment has been received,” said Mr Njuguna. They then log into the platform and key in the transaction number, which takes less than two minutes. This is done to confirm proof of payment.”
Since kenyasoko.com is a tenant-led platform, it rewards users with airtime. “Once a tenant enters their rent payment details, they get free airtime as a reward. Tenants who pay before fifth of every month are rewarded with Sh500 airtime instantly for rent payments above Sh5,000 and Sh250 airtime for rent payments below Sh5,000. This has encouraged early rent payments, loyalty and compliance,” said Mr Nick Ngatia the client-relationship manager at kenyasoko.com.
Once this confirmation is made into the system, the tenant, agent and landlord receive an e-mail notification that the system has updated rental status. “So, the landlord doesn’t need to call the agents and the agents do not have to keep on pushing the tenant,” said Mr Ngatia.
This frees property agents from banking hall queues, the monthly door-to-door collection of rental deposit slips and unnecessary movement, he noted.
Besides, the fact that the incentivised free airtime earned through early rent payments makes at least over 80 per cent of tenants to pay their rent by the fifth day of the month, it gives property managers time to reconcile their accounts.
“This means that property managers and agents earn their commission a bit earlier than when collecting rent or deposit slips physically,” Mr Njuguna added.
Further, the app allows tenants to access quick loans against their rent deposit.
“We give up to 75 per cent of their deposit,” said Mr Ngatia. The unsecured quick loan does not attract any interest. “It functions like a Sacco — the faster you pay, the higher your limit will go,” he added.
Tenants who pay their rent on time and demonstrate some financial stability can be considered for the loan, said Mr Njuguna.
Considering that normal repairs in any vacated rental house take up to 25 per cent of the rent deposit, it is safe to only loan the tenant up to 75 per cent, he adds. This too, Mr Ngatia stated, acts as an incentive to tenants to pay their rent on time so they can be considered for the loan going forward.
Besides, kenyasoko.com also advances loans to landlords who have property management contracts with them, especially for repairs, construction and addition of floors in apartments. “However, there are terms and conditions that landlords have to comply with,” he added.
The kenyasoko.com app also provides landlords and developers with advertisement of housing units via the website, on social media sites such as WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook; and through automated mobile text messages.
“Once a user logs in at kenyasoko.com, they navigate to the rentals section where they can search for the listed vacant houses within Nairobi.
If they are impressed, they can contact the agent directly to view the house at no charge,” explained Mr Njuguna.
This, Mr Njuguna added, has seen the rate of vacant houses drop drastically. “We don’t charge a viewing fee. This has seen an impetus that has increased the probability of having tenants and less vacant units,” explained Mr Ngatia.
“‘Vacant units’ are so far the biggest challenge to managing rental housing in Nairobi and in other urban areas as most agents charge a house ‘viewing fee’ to prospecting tenants. This is a deterrent since to achieve over 80 per cent to 100 per cent occupancy rate, there is need to show the houses to as many people as possible in order to increase the probability,” said Mr Ngatia.
The property managers and agents using the platform pay two per cent commission on the value of the monthly rental income. For properties that kenyasoko.com manages directly, landlords and developers pay them five per cent commission on the value of the rental income.
When kenyasoko.com opened doors in 2014, their main focus was small-time property agents and property managers with an office and about five properties. In 2016, they started expanding. Currently, more than 42 property agents and property managers are on their platform with hundreds of properties.
“Each of the properties in our database attracts between Sh120,000 and Sh1 million in a month,” shared Mr Njuguna.
To cast their nets wider, kenyasoko.com has trained their own agents on property management and the real estate market. “They have to understand how the local real estate sector operates and how to manage housing units as a business while still applying customer relationship skills in a professional manner,” he said.
With offices located at Comfort Flats in Donholm Estate, kenyasoko.com is a hit in Eastlands. It is managing properties in Tassia, Donholm, Saika, Kasarani, Dandora and Kayole estates.
“However, it is our desire to expand our reach. We are not just limited to Nairobi, we can work with any property agents and property managers from anywhere in Kenya. The platform has enormous potential,” added Mr Njuguna.
Some of the landlords that make use of the platform are Kenyans in the diaspora who have invested in real estate back home.
“These are people who got tired of fabricated stories about their rental property, especially the occupancy rate, when they came to us. A good number of their rental units would be vacant each month,” said Mr Ngatia.
In such scenarios, the kenyasoko.com platform has enhanced the level of transparency in rent collection and occupancy rates. “Once we log into our system, we are able to know who is living in that housing unit, their contacts and we can even call them and walk there to check. The system has completely sealed all the loopholes of money being embezzled,” he observed.
He cited an example of a landlady in Dandora, who travels a lot. She had entrusted her apartments to an agent who would make sure all the rent went into his account.
“But when the submission date was due, there would be delays and no signs of him remitting the money. This would result in a push and pull between her and the agent until when we took over three months ago,” Mr Njuguna shared.
As soon as we came in, we realised that the tenants used to pay at their convenience and that the agent was not submitting the money, he added. “Vacant houses were also reported every month. The landlord was contemplating selling the apartment when she approached us but we advised her against the move.”
In the first month, five of the eight vacant houses got tenants once the property was advertised on kenyasoko.com. By mid-second month, the other three were fully-occupied.
“The rental money goes directly into her account and she pays us our commission on time because tenants pay on time,” Mr Njuguna said.
Once a landlord joins the kenyasoko.com platform, they enjoy a three-month free trial. “Within the 90 days, they are able to see efficiency in rental income collection, occupancy management and tenant relations.
For this, we do not charge,” he added. In case the landlord is not satisfied, they have the free will to get out of the system, which, Mr Ngatia said, has not yet happened.
The kenyasoko.com app is accessible from mobile phone devices, computers, tablets and other Internet-aided devices.
THE WORK OF PROPERTY MANAGERS
Property managers or agents are real estate professionals who manage rental houses to ensure they are habitable.
A property manager is in charge of tenants, and their first duty is to ensure that the tenants are comfortable. “They should ensure that water and all other utility bills are paid, and that there is security and harmony by resolving any inter-tenant wars,” said Mr Njuguna Kinundu, the business development manager at kenyasoko.com.
But the business of property managers is to ensure that the housing generates the monthly income that it is supposed to net. This they do by ensuring that the business of rentals and leases is profitable.
“If it does not give back, then it is a failed project,” said Mr Njuguna. The best property manager is the one who assists the landlord or developer to realise his dream of netting that extra revenue every month.
However, there is a challenge in property management in Kenya’s real estate as the bar for entry is too low. “Currently, anyone can be a property agent and that is why we are having to deal with issues such as harassment of tenants,” said Mr Ngatia. To navigate such issues, kenyasoko.com has been training property agents on tenant relations, customer care and rent management.
Given that a majority of landlords prefer not to deal directly with tenants, property managers and agents are their sure bet.
“Most times, tenants who delay to remit rent have problems of human nature, most of which they give as excuses. This triggers the compassionate side of the landlord which, more often than not, tends to work against the rental business aspect,” Mr Njuguna says.
As a result, most landlords prefer discretion and that is why they go for property agents and managers.
Besides, few times would a landlord like to be seen around their property, either for personal, security or any other reasons.
“If they can get rent and draw income without having to go to the ground; it makes them happy. It frees their time,” said Mr Ngatia.
The platform frees them to conduct other businesses, if not to expand their territories. “They can free themselves three or two days in a week to focus on other aspects,” he adds.