There are approximately 200 co-working spaces across Africa, according to Disrupt Africa’s best count. However, there are as many different models as there are spaces. Many forget that a co-working space is also a business, and finding the right model to make such a business a success is challenging.
Here, Disrupt Africa speaks to someone who knows all about building a profitable co-working space in Africa. Hannah Clifford, general manager of Kenya’s biggest co-working space, Nairobi Garage.
Disrupt Africa: When did you start running Nairobi Garage?
Hannah Clifford: In mid-2012
Overall, what’s it like to run a co-working space?
It’s very full on, especially if you have a large space like us, which translates to 30+ businesses on a daily basis. That is roughly 150 people that you have to interact with, find time for and have a relationship with. Of course not all need your time, but often you end up being the go-to person for many people, which makes it hard to get everything else you need to get done in order to run the business. And it is a business, so of course there are many of the usual business management, staff management and sales/marketing tasks that need to get done. But it is fun. We have fun, everyday.
Was Nairobi Garage profitable when you started, and is it now?
No it was not profitable when I started – though I started six months after we opened, so that is not really a surprise. Now we are profitable.
What have been the biggest challenges in running the space?
I would say getting reliable suppliers. Though I think this is a general business problem, but it’s also a particularly Kenyan problem when it comes to the proportion and gravity of bad suppliers out there.
And landlords – who can also be considered under the suppliers problem. There are so many terrible landlords.
And that is really one of our major value propositions: you don’t have to deal with any of that when it comes to your workplace and other related services.
How do you solve these challenges?
By relentlessly pushing people to deliver on what they promise. And constantly searching the market for better suppliers.
What have been the critical factors to making the space a success?
Filling up the space is first and foremost. After that, having great events – it’s not always for everyone, but for many, it is a big plus to be in a place with direct access to free business events.
What is most rewarding about running the space?
Seeing young companies grow and go on to great things. And working around the best people in Kenya… Literally the best and brightest, doing the coolest things and being on top of their game. That is a great environment to work in.
How developed and accepted is the concept of co-working in Kenya?
It’s pretty new and not really understood by the vast majority of Kenyans. Of course our target market is not the vast majority, but those in new economy businesses and digital entrepreneurship. Among that crowd it’s pretty well understood, but of course more so if you actually spend time in a co-working space, like Nairobi Garage.
Who is co-working best suited to?
Co-working is best suited to anyone whose major work is based on a laptop. That doesn’t mean you need to be a techie or be running a mobile or web-based company; but co-working doesn’t suit a company or individual that is going to come with masses of paper files or stock they need to shift. Any lean kind of business model or entrepreneur will fit in well in a co-working space.
To what extent do you think co-working is the future of work spaces in Kenya and Africa? Why?
I think it is the future. Because rents and services in Kenya are getting more expensive by the year. Also if Kenya and Africa want to be competitive with the rest of the world, then they need to look at new ways to reduce the costs of running of their operations and be more connected with one another – two things that co-working spaces do very well.