On a lazy Saturday afternoon in mid-2019, I pulled up to the gate of a commercial building in the Yaya area of Nairobi. I had an appointment with my barber, a twice monthly sacred event for those who partake in such indulgences. There were two guards at the closed gate who immediately began conferring with each other in a fairly agitated manner.
I cocked my head to one side, wondering why the usual guard wasn’t walking out to undertake the vehicle security inspection as usual. After several interminable minutes, one guard walked to my car and said “Hii gari hairuhuswi kuingia, utaweka nje.” So there was the answer, my car was not allowed entry into a building that I had been driving to for the last 17 years and I was being asked to park outside. With as much patience as I could muster, I politely asked why. The guard, nervously shifting from one foot to another, answered that pick-ups were no longer allowed to enter the building environs.
I then understood his nervousness when my barber, who had been purchasing something at the kiosk outside the gate began yelling at the guard that I was his long term customer and I should be allowed in. Turns out that the guard had been stopping anyone in a vehicle which looked like it could remotely carry cargo from parking in the building’s environs. As my barber let it rip, the owner of the salon pulled up behind me fortuitously, and also began explaining that I was a long term customer whose mode of transport, a pick-up, should not be discriminated against. Ok, she used far more colourful language but turns out that there was a back story behind this little snafu. Fifteen minutes later, several phone calls and an enraged salon owner, apoplectic barber and other rattled salon staff found me seated on the barber’s chair getting down to the business that had gotten me there in the first place.
Once he calmed down, my barber told me that the building had recently changed ownership hands. The new owner, a very wealthy entrepreneur, had ceded management of the building to his son. The previous owner had been very engaging with her tenants, ensuring that the building management ran very smoothly, so smoothly that the salon owner had even taken up extra space to put up a spa.
The building had a high tenant occupation, particularly due to its proximity to the Yaya mall and it was always a challenge to get parking due to a high visitor frequency. However, the new owner’s son had come with a big stick. A very big stick that led to some tenants opting to leave and one such tenant had called in a truck, packed up their office furniture and slunk away into oblivion, causing the owner’s son to ban any vehicle that looked like it could carry furniture, including – in the guard’s definition – my pick-up.
Fast forward to last Monday, when I went for my usual barber service at 2.00pm and I was shocked to find the parking completely empty save for two cars, a parking that had the capacity for at least 50 cars. I asked what was happening, as this was fairly unusual. One salon employee said that people were now working from home and therefore the footfall in the building had significantly reduced. But on further interrogation, the employee admitted that the tenancy in the building had significantly whittled down in the time that the new ownership had taken over. The new owner’s son was not maintaining the building well, was rude to tenants and even had to be begged to fuel the generator whenever power went out, something I had witnessed for myself during one visit.
Covid-19 will hurt many businesses, especially commercial building occupancies as companies downsize due to reduced operations and the increasing attractiveness of employees working from home. As others have opined before me, this dark season will simply accelerate the death of businesses that were already struggling before, treating customers badly or not adopting newer technologies.
Demonstratively, as in my story above, someone was handed a thriving commercial building at a time when the commercial building stock in Nairobi was at an all-time high and the oversupply was causing rental prices to drop. High handedness in treating his customers, the tenants, led a number to vote with their wallets at a time when his product has minimal uniqueness and significant competition in terms of the home work space. It is painful to watch this slow puncture of some businesses develop.
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