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As the pandemic rages on, the chance to capitalize on the growing student demographics by leveraging on local insights to provide high quality accommodation in the right location at affordable costs remains a real opportunity for residential investors in Kenya.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put into sharp focus the expanded skill set now necessary for real estate success. To reach fruition, real estate projects now require advanced financial acumen and support as illustrated by Kenya’s innovative venture into the student housing market earlier on in the year.

Student housing has emerged as one of the strongest investment cases in East African real estate over the last two years. According to Kenya’s Ministry of Education, 919,400 students were last year enrolled at the country’s 67 universities and vocational colleges. Yet student housing provided by universities stands at approximately 200,000 units countrywide, serving just 22.6% of the student population, while 10% commute from their homes.

The underserved gap in student housing is most severe in Nairobi, which hosts majority of the country’s major universities, including Kenyatta University (KU), University of Nairobi and Jomo  Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), as well as some of its best private universities, such as United States International University and Strathmore University. Overall, the city accounts for 43.1% of the country’s total student enrolment.

For developers moving to serve this missing segment, the yields are among the strongest currently available in real estate, with student accommodation normally offering individual rooms around shared facilities, and thus generating multiple rental streams per shared unit.

The result is a yield of around 7% a year, compared with around 5% for normal residential accommodation.

This has seen multiple private investors enter into this market segment, among them Acorn Group, Questworks, Century Developments Ltd/Kuramo and the Kenya Defence Forces Old Comrades Association (Defoca), who cumulatively plan to deliver 60,800 student units in the Nairobi Metropolitan Area over the next five years.

With most of these accommodations still in the pre-development phase, the timing of the current university closures has, in some ways, been relatively fortuitous for the student housing developers, coming early in the revenue curve.

However, for the more than 2,000 completed units, the annual return is expected to take a hit as universities closed abruptly in March with reopening dates scheduled for January 2021.

Ongoing developments have also slowed down due to the supply chain disruptions and public transport restrictions.

As the sector’s most attractive segment currently, student housing has attracted some of its most modern and agile investors, among them Acorn Group, which is the country’s largest student housing developer and which currently dominates the sector’s investment plans by market share.

The group was the first in Kenya to raise funds with a certified green bond, raising KSh. 4.3bn for building up to six green-certified student properties to ensure lower operating costs, more efficient use of resources such as power and water, and a low-carbon impact for 5,000 students in Nairobi.

The bond subscription provided Acorn with a buffer, where its rapid expansion and the consequent financial stretch saw its profitability of KSh. 77.9m in 2017 converted into losses in 2018, prompting the suspension of dividend payments.

It has also now raised additional financial support from its shareholders, Acorn Investments Limited and Accord Holdco through the private equity firm Helios.

The company’s resulting resilience in a sector that continues to have excellent mid-term prospects is, thus, almost entirely borne of its parallel nature as a financial company and innovator.

Of course, student numbers may be suppressed by the fall-out from the current pandemic, as newly jobless or income-impaired parents can no longer afford fees, as the government’s funds for HELB loans may become cramped, and as the universities, too, make changes to cope with the dropped income from this academic year.

However, ultimately, the shortfall in student accommodation is so large, that the number of accommodated students is unlikely to drop to just one-third of current levels.

Resilience in student housing investments in current times has required real financial cushions and financial agility This holds true throughout the entire real estate industry.

Since real estate investments require large amounts of capital investment upfront against sales or rental yields later, and those sales and rentals rest on multiple elements of market conditions.

Moving forward, it will be critical for developers and operators to identify and prioritize the elements in student housing that are most important to students beyond physical school attendance while factoring in affordability as developers aim to provide the highest quality accommodation possible.

This is a challenge we welcome and aim discuss at 2020 annual regional investor conference, the East Africa Property Investment summit.

By Tilda Mwai, Researcher for Africa, Knight Frank

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