What you need to know:
- As demand for accommodation in the city explodes, so has fraud. Some unscrupulous property owners provide misleading information on the features available by sharing photos fetched from elsewhere.
- Students end up either paying for substandard facilities or having to do without some key amenities such as internet and even proper sanitation.
- Eliminating these inconveniences is Roometo’s selling point.
BY JAMES KAHONGEH
For thousands of university students in Kenya, finding a decent place to live upon admission is a nightmarish experience.
This was true for Henry Onyango when he joined the Technical University of Kenya in 2013. Like any first year student, Henry was eager to start a life of freedom away from his parents. Having attended a day secondary school, living alone was definitely something to look forward to.
Until he joined TUK, where the frustrating reality of the acute shortage of student accommodation awaited him. With a population of 17,000 students and a bed capacity of only 500 at the time, his chance of securing a place inside the school premises was next to nil.
‘‘I had relatives in Nairobi, but I didn’t know them very well. For one month, I had to put up with a friend as I tried to figure out what to do.’’
From his woes, a business idea was conceived.
‘‘I partnered with a group of university friends who had faced the same challenge, and we founded Roometo, an online platform that connects students with accommodation facilities in the city.
“Many students don’t know their way around the city. Coupled with schoolwork to attend to, most of them are often forced to contract someone to help them find accommodation at a fee. Those who choose to search for hostels by themselves often end up taking months before finding a good one.
In many instances, brokers of the city’s accommodation facilities swindle the unsuspecting students.
‘‘They ask for a deposit only to show you an indecent and uninhabitable facility before fleeing. Sometimes they link you to a facility that is far from the school.’’
This is where Roometo comes in. ‘‘The platform gives students a variety of options. We ensure that the facilities are in secure neighbourhoods, and that they have most of the essential amenities. It must also be as close to the university as possible,’’ Henry, an electrical engineering graduate who also works at Microsoft, explains.
As demand for accommodation in the city explodes, so has fraud. Some unscrupulous property owners provide misleading information on the features available by sharing photos fetched from elsewhere. Students end up either paying for substandard facilities or having to do without some key amenities such as internet and even proper sanitation.
Eliminating these inconveniences is Roometo’s selling point. To Henry, user experience is key. ‘‘The platform is easy to navigate for both students and property owners. It is now possible to find a potential roommate through our platform.’’
But it is in providing quality information that Roometo seems to be winning.
‘‘We only sell what we have. We visit the hostels, do the assessment and take pictures ourselves.’’
The student accommodation crisis can be traced back to about 10 years ago when the government increased the number of local universities while lowering the entry cut-off points.
Says Henry: ‘‘With hardly any additional investment in accommodation in the public universities, the bulge in student population meant thousands would have to make private living arrangements.’’
Private investors such as Qwetu are among those who have invested in this area.
Yet, even with the availability of accommodation, Henry says there remains a disconnect between property owners and the students.
‘‘Most hostel facilities have no visibility. Majority of investors haven’t taken advantage of technology to make students aware of their facilities,’’ he adds.
Boosting visibility through online marketing and site maintenance, however, is an expensive undertaking.
Henry explains: ‘‘It is not practical for every accommodation facility to run its own website. It would be more practical to have them hosted under one platform through aggregators, which is what Roometo does.’’
He hopes to scale up his venture by incorporating more features and serving users beyond Nairobi.
‘‘Many students enquire about transportation, for instance. We hope to partner with someone who can ferry our students to and from the premises, at the students’ cost,’’ he says.
Today, students prefer premises that have a WiFi connection for academic and social uses, a critical consideration that he makes before engaging landlords.
His focus, however, isn’t on merely expanding, but rather on creating more value for his users.
‘‘I have learnt that when you create value, growth follows. You can’t claim to know your users fully. It is a gradual, never ending process. We are engaging with the students to better understand their needs. That, and establishing competitive prices to attract more students and property owners,’’ he says.
Through his entrepreneurship exploits, Henry won the Global Student Entrepreneur Award (GSEA) for Kenya in 2018.
‘‘Besides the cash prize, I now have access to mentorship from leading global entrepreneurs. Through the networks I’ve created at EO, Kenya, I can also get funding,’’ he says.
Henry now attends training workshops in prestigious institutions in the world, thanks to EO, Kenya.
‘‘Paying for such workshops costs anywhere between Sh1.9 million and Sh2.2 million.’’
For Henry, the entrepreneurship journey has been an important learning curve. ‘‘I have learnt that I am better at problem-solving that doing business. It is important to know on which side of the spectrum you fall, so that you can direct your energies to the right place.’’
He has also learnt that: ‘‘It is easier to create a solution for a problem you’ve experienced, because you will have the required levels of empathy and insight, which will lead you to the right solution.
‘‘Every idea you will ever think of has previously been conceived and even tried. In business, it is less about the idea and more about the execution.’’
To him, how an idea is executed is what ultimately makes a business to stand out.