Kenya and the Fragile Building ‘Terrorism’


If someone would review the number of buildings that have collapsed in Kenya within the last few years, he or she would conclude that Kenya is within a strong earthquake radius. Surprisingly, Kenya has no serious earthquake history. In fact, no earthquake has been recorded in the last few years, and if any, none could cause any building to collapse. According to expert surveys’, the scariest thing is that, thousands of buildings across the country would collapse in case of an earthquake.

Although every society has its own problems, and Kenya is not an exception, yet the very recent challenges of buildings collapsing in various locations have been giving the various arms of government and the people of Kenya sleepless nights in view of the enormous loss of huge investments in housing, properties and human life. The major challenge on the issue of building collapse is that individuals differ radically from one another on the professional to blame as the major cause of the collapse of a building.

Over the last six years within Nairobi and other major towns, a number of buildings — some under construction and others completed — have collapsed. The collapse of buildings under construction has exposed the ills that bedevil the building sector. The frequent collapse of structures in Kenya leading to injuries and deaths is a matter of great concern. These construction site accidents which are avoidable have claimed the lives of innocent Kenyans, robbing families of their breadwinners and loved ones, causing irreparable damage to the injured workers and people who eke out a living trading around the construction sites…

Kenya’s real estate industry has been growing with an amazing pace for the last 7 years. Developers and contractors have been making a fortune building houses for the Kenyan population. All over the country we can see big, fancy, amazing 3d signs advertising unique, comfortable, safe luxury apartments and houses for sale. In reality though, the average property delivered by the developers and the contractors is far below any basic quality standards. It doesn’t require someone to be an engineer or a market professional to realize when you stand in front of a building that is under construction that everything is happening very fast, without procedures and standards. Most of the personnel have no experience at all. Contractors hire workers using only one criterion; the cheapest qualify!!! There is no training involved, no safety control and no quality control.

The materials used to build also are chosen with the same criteria. Keep the cost as low as possible, maximize the profits. Contractors who steal cement and use less steel are to blame for most of the building structural weaknesses. Architects and engineers also add to the exposure by failing to verify the quality of the works. Poor design, cost cutting and lack of quality controls are factors that may lead to structurally unsound buildings.

This business model has three main effects.

At first there are no minimum safety standards at the building sites, that is causing the injury and death of hundreds in the building sites. People who are risking their lives in order to make a few KES per day , working for 10 hours, without taking breaks, without using any safety equipment. The only thing that someone can see are the plastic “safety” helmets that everyone is wearing, but even those are the cheap made in China for 100 kes per piece that will not protect you in case of an accident.

Secondly, the low quality materials combined with the use of only low quality workers, is producing very low quality buildings. That has several consequences for those who decide to buy or let a house, apartment or even an office space. Every year several buildings are collapsing all over Kenya, not because Kenya is suffering from strong earthquakes or terrorism attacks. The reason is that Kenyans have to live daily with the terror that any building could collapse any time, for no reason, just because of the way it has been constructed. That is the real terrorism that Kenya has to face. The Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK) recently published a report  claiming that more than 65 per cent of buildings in Nairobi’s densely populated low-income neighborhoods are not fit for human habitation. Even the buildings in high end areas which are sold for crazy money also do not provide quality standards. No one dares to say something about it to stop this disease that is causing the death of so many people around the country.

Last but not least, the third effect is maybe the one that will sound more interesting for most of those who are involved with the real estate industry. Low quality equals to guaranteed low prices and low income created by your investment. For buyers, the fraudulent and shoddy work has a cost implication, as reworking newly built homes often result in contractors and developers adjusting their prices to maintain and ultimately pass the additional costs to end users. The market in Kenya was mainly operated with off plan sales. Investors convinced by the developers have been buying off plan apartments or houses, speculating that they will be able to rent them and cover the initial investment plus producing a monthly income. In most of the cases, investors do not really care about the quality provided as they are not planning to stay there with their families. But when the moment comes to rent and they ask large amount of monies for rental, the interested party to rent is pushing for prices to go down or even decides to choose another place due to the low standards. On top of that a low quality construction will require a lot of money to maintain it, as problems will appear very often.

Before you invest in any real estate project you should know that all markets fluctuate, and sometimes prices go down. A bad quality product will lose in value faster than a good quality product. I will use an example from the Kenyan car industry. A used car, driven locally usually sells for half the price of an identical car driven abroad. Why? Simply because the one driven here has suffered a lot and has not been properly maintained. The same rule applies for the properties. Another issue that lots of investors do not know is that every landlord has liabilities against the tenants. According to the Kenyan law, The Landlord is under an obligation to provide a safe premise to tenants under Occupier’s liability Act Chapter 34 Laws of Kenya Section 5.That means in case of any accident, the landlord has all the responsibility. It also means that, when you buy a property, you have to make sure that what you get is what you paid for.

Officials from the National Construction Authority are travelling around the country and inspecting building projects. The NCA says it has forced 500 such projects to suspend work since August. Some of the closures were for safety reasons, others due to poor quality building materials.

Buildings are going up so quickly across Kenya that inspectors cannot examine all of the construction projects. I want to believe that when they do find illegality, they order the work stopped or even require the building destroyed.

I happen to be a very realistic person, therefore, I cannot forget the fact that corruption has its own role in this industry. If 500 projects have been suspended since August, it means that the number of the actual building projects who had issues are thousands. It is not a secret that obtaining a planning permission in most of the cases does not include as much checking of the actual plans submitted as required. It has to do with negotiating the “price” of getting the planning permission granted according to the developer’s convenience. After the planning permission is granted, things are easy. Buildings are coming up with an amazing pace. This makes it impossible for the NCA to constantly check each and every building site.

The key question is, ‘what are the Kenyans really expecting to happen in order to start taking some action and protect their interest and their lives?’ How many people have to die, how many kids have to get injured, how many workers have to become disabled, how much money they should lose to activate them….

Always, people like to blame the government and the authorities. This is the easy way to make you feel better. The truth is, everybody has his own responsibility for what is happening.

Every time we take a bribe, every engineer who is signing or approving plans without keeping the standards, every developer who is saving in quality and safety, every worker who does not care about the job he is doing, every contractor who cheats in materials, every investor who is buying and doesn’t care to follow up with the quality provided, every buyer who is not taking to court a bad developer, any tenant who doesn’t stand up for his rights, everyone who compensates with low standards of living, we are all part of the problem.

The big picture is that this is part of a non-sustainable and unhealthy real estate market.It is a market where people do not see anything in the long term and try to maximize returns only in the short term.

Today we have a market that is ready to sacrifice, from the life time savings of a family up to the life of a kid or a worker, as long as someone is making money. If tomorrow we will have a recession, and the property market collapses, Kenyans will be left with nothing but lost dreams, financial losses, bad quality buildings, poor infrastructure and without any basic standards that could give hope for a quick recession. Only then that they will realize it’s too late to do anything.

Kenyans deserve to make Kenya a leading country in the region and in the world. In order to achieve this, they should start from building a healthy environment in the heart of the economy which today happens to be the Real Estate. Providing not luxury, but at least safe and decent standards of living and working. Minimizing and isolating those who only care for their own profitability at any cost and do not care about the common interest and the country’s future.

Also, the Architectural Association of Kenya, the Board of Registration of Architects and the Quantity Surveyors of Kenya need to lobby county governments to reform the buildings approval processes. They also need to sensitize the public on the importance of using the right channels in the building sector.

At the end of the day, “Knowledge is Key. “

By Kosta Kioleoglou  REValuer,
Chief Strategist (CSO) for the East African Region
Director of Engineering – Property Appraisal & Valuations
Civil Engineer Msc – DBM
Taylor Scott International.

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