Columnists

Covid is disrupting rural, urban plans

crowd
jenny

Summary

  • Indeed, at one recent industry conference, speakers came together to discuss how to ‘retool’ office buildings that may never now function as offices.
  • Many are looking at changing them to warehousing, but that can conflict with zoning, and needs better truck access, loading bays, and some different structural features.
  • All that rural-urban migration we planned for. Whereas now, we may be looking at more to serve every rural place and far less city, instead.

Sat on a homestead in a village by Lake Victoria, a visitor has come who is back home from Nairobi, for a year now, after nearly 20 years living in the capital.

As we discuss when and if he might ever return to urban life, the conversation moves to just how many people are ‘back’, multiplied by thousands of villages countrywide.

For it was quickly said that Covid would change everything, but as we see some of the biggest changes, they have happened like a silent river flow, increasing, happening ever more, yet with little focus on their long-term implications.

But their impact is real and the people and institutions they are affecting are considerable.

First off, it may be easy to forget when stuck in yet one more traffic jam in Nairobi, but it is now a far smaller city than it was at the beginning of 2020. So many people have left.

They lost jobs, couldn’t continue the costs of renting, closed businesses, laid off staff, either moved to provincial homes that were cheaper, or went back to family holdings upcountry.

Their own pace of life changed and is, at least, sustainable at some level. But the exodus has left city landlords empty-handed, apartment blocks sometimes eerily uninhabited, talk in the corridors about who has left now, as the tenants gradually but steadily ‘give up’ and vacate.

Many of the landlords built or bought the properties they were renting out from savings or retirement annuities. But some borrowed, and now the debts are harder to cover.

Given time, some may have to restructure their borrowing, they may try to sell, but it’s hard to sell a rental apartment in a city where many of the tenants have gone.

We will see some defaults, some bad debts. Banks will be left with those apartments, and if they force them to sale they will fetch rock-bottom prices and knock the property market out too.

And then there is the matter of commercial buildings. Malls are emptier. I haven’t been in a Nairobi mall since February this year, but when I did, the visitors had changed. Out at Village Market, the expats just weren’t there as they used to be. And that’s spending power.

The UK last month cut its aid budget by over a quarter, but it’s only one of many countries and institutions, charities and NGOs reviewing operations, staffing and funds, as Covid stymies revenues.

But perhaps the biggest hit is offices. I closed the Nairobi offices my staff had stopped using a full nine months earlier, and have since met so many business owners who have let their offices go.

We have all become used to Zoom meetings. The offices that are still open are emptier, part-time affairs. Yet, for many, the move to home working has been a plus. Who really needs to sit commuting for one to two hours each way, twice a day, versus having those hours to work and live and play?

Yet, ultimately, the closure of offices and reduced office time must mean fewer matatu and bus passengers. But a bigger hit is on our office market. It’s a harsh place to have been the company that was just completing an office building in Nairobi in early 2020.

Indeed, at one recent industry conference, speakers came together to discuss how to ‘retool’ office buildings that may never now function as offices.

Many are looking at changing them to warehousing, but that can conflict with zoning, and needs better truck access, loading bays, and some different structural features.

Over time, maybe some will be converted into apartments, but for so long as we don’t need to be in offices all together working again, the need to live in expensive Nairobi is also hugely diminished.

The truth is, as I sit here in this village fully online, working on international contracts as the chickens cluck, that Covid may have ended the need to live in the city for most of us. Which changes the future.

All that rural-urban migration we planned for. Whereas now, we may be looking at more to serve every rural place and far less city, instead.