MAINA MWANGI : Driving Real Estate Growth

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Maina Mwangi, 49, is the executive director at Knight Frank Kenya, an independent real estate consultancy. He talks to EDNA GICOVI about his humble upbringing, prolific career in the Kenyan real estate industry and raising a family.

“I am a village boy,” says the soft-spoken and easy going Maina Mwangi, executive director at Knight Frank Kenya, as we get started on this interview. The fifth of 14 children, Maina was born in Cherangany in Trans Nzoia County. His polygamous peasant farmer father was also a mason. Maina’s mother was the second wife. He says despite theirs being a polygamous home, the family was so close-knit that one could not easily tell any difference between children of the two mothers.

“My father kept us all together and treated us all the same regardless of who our mother was. Although my mother was the younger wife, we didn’t have any extra privileges,” he says. Life was quite difficult when he was growing up as basic needs including food and clothing were barely enough for the large family. His father passed away in 1994. “Mum is a very strong-willed woman,” he says adding that she has influenced their family and she continues to hold the family together since the death of his father.

Like most people who grew up in farming villages, Maina and his siblings provided labour for the farm, including herding cattle. He recalls going out to herd cattle with other boys when he was as young as four years, and even falling asleep in the bush severally. On one such instance, he was carried home by one of the bigger boys late in the evening after his family had searched for him tirelessly. The second time he was not as lucky and ended up spending an entire night in the bush.

“We often woke up at about 3 a.m to milk the cows and in the evenings after school we would go back to the fields,” he says. Maina attended Kapsara Primary School. He had to run two kilometres to school every morning, despite the fact that he and his peers never wore shoes. Tardiness was never tolerated at his school and he remembers being thoroughly caned for being late on his second day at school. In spite of this, he found school enjoyable and even sat for his Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) examination twice.

Upset that he hadn’t performed as well as he had expected in 1979, he took the exam again the following year. He did fairly well and was admitted to Baringo High School. “That’s when real life started for me. Having come from the village, I was very proud to be wearing proper uniform, shoes and socks,” he says with a grin.

He sat for his ‘O’ levels in 1984 and excelled, making his parents very proud. He was enrolled at St.Charles Lwanga in Kitui for his ‘A’ levels and was excited to step into Nairobi for the very first time on his way to Kitui. Maina was however at a loss on what career to pursue after completing and excelling in his ‘A’ levels.

“Law and commerce were popular choices at the time and I thought of pursuing the latter, since it was one of the few careers I knew of. There was very little career guidance and we were just handed papers with different courses to make our choices from,” he says.

Law was his first choice and land economics his second, even though he had no clue what it entailed. It just sounded interesting to him. He didn’t make the cut for law but was admitted into the land economics class at the University of Nairobi in 1987.

Despite not knowing what he was getting himself into, Maina enjoyed studying land economics and doesn’t regret choosing it. During his college days, he used part of his boom (college allowance) to educate his siblings. He graduated in 1990. He continued to support his siblings even after getting employment.

“I get a lot of satisfaction when I see most of my siblings on their feet. I was the first in my family to attend university and my parents did everything possible to put me through school, difficult as it was,” he says.

Maina was bent on finding meaningful work after completing his college education. He was determined not to live in the kind of poverty he had experienced while growing up, and knew that if he returned to the village, he would minimise his chances of finding a good job, so he decided to stay in Nairobi. He didn’t know anybody in the city apart from his late aunt who lived in Bahati Estate and she agreed to accommodate him as he searched for a job, something he is very grateful for.

Traversing the real estate field…

His first job was with Twinset Homes, an estate agency, where he worked as a property manager. After working in Nairobi for about six months, he was posted to Mombasa to do property sales and letting. “Being fresh from school, I didn’t have much experience and was very ambitious. I found Mombasa to be a difficult market and life too slow. I returned to Nairobi after two months of working there,” he says.

He continued to work for the company for another six months before getting a job with the government in the office of the president as an assistant valuer. He worked with the government for six months before moving to Metro Valuers, a private valuation firm, in 1992.

So excited was he about reporting at this new job that he went to work on January 1, forgetting it was a public holiday. He worked for this company for about two years, gaining valuable experience in valuation and property management. He then moved to a new job at Pan Africa Insurance Company as a management trainee. “The job was well-paying and had good benefits, which was very important for me at the time since I was already a family man,” he says. He left this company in 1996, having risen to the position of assistant property manager.

“By that time I was rooted in the industry and had decided that I wanted to stay in property management. I still do valuations but property management is my main area of focus,” he says.

From Pan Africa Insurance, he joined Chartered Properties, which was the property management arm of the Insurance Company of East Africa (ICEA), owned by First Chartered Securities (FCS). He worked as a property manager in charge of a few commercial buildings including the ICEA Building, City House and some high-end residential properties in Nairobi’s city centre. He immensely enjoyed his work at the company.

In 1998, part of Chartered Properties was sold to Knight Frank, an independent global real estate consultancy firm, and Maina was among those who crossed over to work at Knight Frank. “Knight Frank was looking for an opportunity to get into the Kenyan market and FCS was looking for a professional firm to manage their properties. It was a very good opportunity for both companies. I’m very proud to have been part of the pioneers of Knight Frank Kenya,” he says.

In 2000, Knight Frank moved their offices from the ICEA Building to Lion Place in Westlands, where they are located to this day. Since joining Knight Frank, Maina has steadily risen up the ranks from property manager to senior property manager to portfolio manager in charge of commercial properties to head of property management. He is currently the executive director of the firm.

“I still handle property management, which is our biggest line of business. My experience here has been very satisfying and we’ve grown from strength to strength to become the biggest real estate consultancy firm in Kenya. It has been very enjoyable working with a company and watching it grow to become a leading real estate consultancy. I’m very proud to be associated with Knight Frank,” he says.

Maina is driven by the desire to achieve the best for his clients and the need to maintain high levels of integrity and hopes to continue being in the real estate market and see Knight Frank continue to grow. He has also seen the property market in Kenya grow in leaps and bounds in the 22 years he has been in the real estate industry.

“I’ve seen the market grow tremendously, from the time when most offices were located in Nairobi’s city centre and when we had very few shopping malls. Now we have shopping centres almost everywhere and offices in many parts of the city,” he says.

On the way forward for those looking to invest in real estate in Kenya, Maina says that people should seek professional opinion, invest rationally and also look for other ways of investing in real estate other than brick and mortar.

“The Capital Markets Authority is looking at Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), where one can invest in securities that are traded in form of stock on the stock exchange and invest in real estate directly, either through properties or mortgages. This way one can invest by owning a piece of real estate without really owning brick and mortar,” he says, adding that another area that should be looked into is low-income housing.

“This area has been ignored for quite some time and should probably be driven by the county and local governments. Because land is very expensive, it is unlikely that any investor would want to get into that category of housing because it’s not very profitable,” he says.

 The family front…

Maina married Susan Njoki in 1992 and they have three boys, Blaise, 20, Dennis, 15, and Richard, 12. He doesn’t think his wife feels outnumbered, being the only female in their household. “She is a very strong lady and keeps us on a short leash. She’s able to manage all of us,” he says with a light touch.

Family life has been interesting and also challenging for him. He is thankful that they haven’t had major challenges with the boys and says that he and his wife have always taught their children to be friends with them. “This way, they can always approach us without fear whenever they have any issues,” he adds.

He, however, remembers how being a first time parent was a difficult test for him. “When we had our first child, the parenting experience was new so the late nights and early mornings were not easy. As a child, he was often ill and this worried my wife and I but also gave me the motivation to work hard. He’s grown up to be a strong and healthy boy who is even bigger than me now,” Maina says fondly of his son.

Maina takes time spent together as a family seriously. He and his wife always ensure that they have dinner as a family when the children are home. He only works on weekends when it’s absolutely necessary, and tries his best to get home by 6 p.m. He goes straight home from work to spend quality time with his family. In addition, the family attends church services together on Sundays and Maina is the Development Commitee Chairman of AIC Church, Riverview. Weekends are key family time at his household. “You have to spend quality time with your family. If you don’t do it, somebody else will, and may teach them all the wrong things,” he says.

Maina and Susan have been married for 20 years. “Susan is a very supportive wife to me and we’ve been very happy together,” he says adding that in marriage, when starting out, the two parties are strangers and have to learn one another. Over time he and his wife have discovered themselves and are quite content. He greatly appreciates the role Susan plays in taking care of the family.

“Many people have said this and I find it true – marriage is not a bed of roses. If you can differ with your brothers and sisters whom you have grown up with, then you can’t expect it not to happen with your spouse,” says Maina. He emphasises the need for patience with one another in marriage, a lesson both he and his wife have learnt.

Bringing up a family is a worthy challenge according to Maina. He says that one has to strive to give his family the best adding that if in a position to, one should also help his siblings and ensure that they can stand on their feet. “Equip them, not necessarily materially but see to it that they get education and good opportunities, if you can. You cannot claim to help others without helping your family first,” he says in conclusion.

Published on May 2013

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