Africa is home to some of the fastest growing cities and in terms of financial potential and growth, it has never been more important than it is today. The continent is at the start of a technological renaissance, turning the focus on the startup community and confirming the importance of an ecosystem that is both locally relevant and globally recognised.
Studies suggest that that 7 of 10 of the world’s fastest growing internet populations are in Africa. This is only the beginning of a trend that is not only reshaping economies, but also the workplace, the way companies are organised, and how people work.
Today we meet with Rupert Dean, Director of Services and Governance at Sunbird Group to learn more about East Africa’s Flexible Workspace and Startup Ecosystem.
Through their subsidiary company ESBC, Sunbird Group offers a range of flexible office solutions and related business services to meet the growing needs of companies setting up or expanding their businesses into the East African region.
ESBC was launched in 2006 and joined the eOffice Global Network in 2014. They are now the oldest and most established workplace provider in the East African region. With six locations across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, they have helped over 200 companies grow and prosper. They are currently looking to expand throughout Sub-Sahara Africa.
What differentiates you from other serviced offices in the East Africa Region?
ESBC was the first serviced office in Kenya and we have a deep understanding of the East Africa market with serviced offices in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Through our knowledge of the local markets and our understanding of local client requirement we aim is to create an environment which provides the greatest impact on workers to help drive the growth of our clients in the region. That means creating an environment and a culture where employees want to go, where they can network and where they want to stay and which subsequently results in higher productivity.
We know every single one of our clients. We have grown with them since ESBC began and seen clients grow from 1 – 40 people and we have seen clients have to downsize but no matter what the circumstances we are not impersonal enough or too big to find a solution which suits our clients. We will even open a new site just for a client anywhere they want!
As part of the Sunbird Group (which provides a wider range of property and support services) we can evolve with each of our clients and provide a much wider range of services (from fleet management to storage to serviced apartments) which means that we are just one part of a much larger outsourcing capability to our clients to mean they can focus on their core business.
The flexible office market is changing. Would you say you’re primarily private office spaces?
The flexible office market is certainly growing. People don’t want to be stuck in conventional leases with huge capital outlay. They don’t want to sit in a stale and uninspiring environment.
The main difference is that the flexible office market throughout the world and including East Africa now demands variation. This is due to the variation of our clients from blue-chip multi-nationals, to freelancers, to entrepreneurs to SME’s. They all have a different view on what they require as well as a variation in budget.
Certainly, the growth of the SME’s, technology improvement, the growing ease of business throughout East Africa and the arrival of the rise of the millennial generation has led to the growth of coworking (from hot-desking to open plan dedicated desks) in spaces with extremely advanced fit-outs.
Whilst the majority of our space is serviced offices, we have adjusted to this demand for variation and have recently opened a new floor in our flagship store at Westlands in Nairobi which is dedicated to flexible working with the best views in town! We are reviewing all of our existing sites to make changes to incorporate this variation of product and introduce the concept of coworking.
What type of members does ESBC attract?
ESBC continues to focus on all types of members and sectors.
However, there are a large number of blue-chip multi-national clients coming into the market and we are currently working with a large number of them on their pan Africa flexible office requirements. Those clients tend to become anchor clients in new sites we have chosen with them. This allows a bespoke turnkey solution for the client anywhere they want to go but also means we are growing at a rapid rate.
Our job is to take the pain away for these clients who constantly face the challenge to find suitable premises for their staff and which allow immediate growth as their business evolves and without having to make huge capex investment or deal in complicated procurement processes.
A large push will be to continue to evolve our product beyond the blue-chip multi-national. It is to encourage the ‘collaboration’ generation. To provide something a little different in the market which means that employers will want to go there because it attracts the very best employees.
What is the startup climate in the countries you are currently present?
East Africa is incredibly technologically advanced. The rapid growth of companies such as Mpesa, Safaricom, M-Kopa and Uber are testament to this. Combined with the growth of highly productive and flexible workspaces this access to technology has provided a huge growth in the SME market which, in turn, sees the increase in coworking environments and the evolution of the African workspace.
Do each of your locations feature the same design theme or do each feature its own unique design concept?
We have the same design theme from our international design guidelines but our look and feel, accessories and artwork will alter slightly to capture the essence of the local market.
We are constantly adjusting our design guidelines as we receive feedback from clients on what works and what doesn’t.
Where we are working with a large blue chip multi-national client who will become an anchor client in a new building we will also work with their design and branding requirements.
What would you say ESBC’s biggest strength is?
It is slightly obvious to say but we still pride ourselves on our client service. Our staff are perhaps ‘old school’ in that we still have uniform and stand up when clients walk into the room. However, this is true to our East African heritage and we think first impressions are everything to provide clients confidence that they are in the most professional environment possible and that they can always ask for anything.
What is the biggest lessons you’ve learned from managing spaces in different countries and with different marketplaces?
Every country is unique. It is crucial to understand particular governance in each country and be realistic in how long you think things will take. It always takes longer than you think so be transparent to anchor clients and landlords alike. If you understand local governance, can be flexible in your structuring, are patient and run a disciplined process then you may just get there!
What are your expansion plans for the near future?
We are looking to expand with multi-national clients in a select number of countries in Sub-Sahara Africa, including Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zambia, Rwanda and Nigeria. As long as we have an anchor tenant to go into a new market and there is a strong local demand for flexible office solutions then we will certainly look at it.