In Kenya today, if you brought up the topic of buying land, everyone will warn you to beware of fraudsters. And it's not without good reason. The media has reported numerous land and real estate scams, and ironically, co-founder and chief executive of Optiven, a real estate company, George Wachiuri was not spared either.
"We set up Optiven with my brother as young men ready to supply whatever our customers asked for. And then we became brokers in land sales," said Wachiuri, and that is how the real estate arm of Optiven was founded in 2008.
Ambition and thirst for success saw the brothers put all their money into their newly formed real estate business and it wasn't long before the scammers struck. They got caught up in a bogus land deal that cost them everything.
"That year the company was conned of Ksh5 million ($46,700), nearly 10-year savings, in a land deal gone bad as we tried to acquire land in Syokimau, near Nairobi, to start us off," Wachiuri explains.
"For one year we had no business to speak of, but in 2009 we started rebuilding from the ground up. We picked ourselves up and still pursued land brokerage before we were able to buy and sell land for ourselves. After sometime, we decided to be more professional by coming up with a long-term strategy, a vision, mission and value statements to guide our operations in the new more formal setup," he says.
"Real estate is a very tricky business. It is where people lose the largest amounts of money to fraudsters especially in Nairobi. My own loss in a land buying scam drives my passion. I have undertaken to ensure that no one loses their money if they deal with us," he said. "It is said that at least three out of five people have been conned while trying to acquire land in Kenya. On a trip abroad, I heard from Kenyans that they cannot invest in land back in Kenya because most property companies are setup to con people."
Optiven has done everything to demystify that. Two decades of operations later, the company is not only poised to be listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE), but it has won numerous awards and has been recognised for its professionalism.
Joining the Nairobi Stock Exchange
This year in April, Optiven, currently employing 400 permanent employees and about 1,000 causal workers, was accepted into the NSE's Ibuka accelerator programme in preparation of commencement of the Initial Public Offering (IPO) and listing.
Ibuka is an incubation programme aimed at assisting companies to develop capital markets access capabilities as they aspire to list on the NSE. The company's current shareholding is between Wachiuri, his wife and brother.
"African entrepreneurs build businesses and when they die, the companies they founded also die or challenges emerge and the companies struggle to survive. Right now the Optiven brand is at its peak, but what will happen when I am on my deathbed? Will we let the company die with us?" he posed. "It has been unfortunate seeing major Kenyan family businesses that have failed to live on after their owners' demise. Optiven must be a company that exists beyond the founders," he said.
"As we prepare to join the NSE we have our sights trained on the African market, initially we were looking at having projects in Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi and Uganda in the very near future. One of our 10-year strategies is to operate in 20 African countries and our first bases will be in East Africa in the next three years."
"To start with, we're working on how we're going to cede some shareholding to our employees through an Employee Share Ownership Plan (ESOP), because they are the ones that have helped us grow the company to this level, we anticipate that this will take six to eight months after which we will later be able to do private equity for investors who would like to directly invest in the company, and then finally the IPO. We're hoping that in the next three years we'll be able to be listed," said Wachiuri.
"We're currently undergoing a process that is supposed to value Optiven," he said, "We want to grow Optiven to become the biggest real estate company in Africa. That is our vision and we hope this will get us there," he said.
"I'd say we're 40 percent ready for the IPO process. Every week we have meetings with the association of stock brokers and officials from the NSE, we have assignments preparing us to join the NSE in the next three years. So we have to achieve these milestones. We have started the journey but we have a lot to accomplish first," said the chief executive who prefers to be addressed as a "team leader."
With its lofty headquarters at the Barclays Bank building in Nairobi's central business district, Optiven's divisions include Optiven Real Estate, Optiven Construction, Optiven Insurance, Optiven Homes and Optiven Water.
The company's success is evident in the multiple recognitions it has received for excelling in several areas of business.
In December 2019, Optiven Group was voted the best employer brand in Africa by the London Stock Exchange Group shortly after being feted as the best employer in East Africa at an award ceremony held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in June of the same year.
The same year, it also emerged the best land agent of the year, the best value added land selling company and was given the financial inclusion award for most preferred and flexible payment and agent.
Optiven has won countless awards over the years including for Wachiuri who has on several occasions been named Africa business personality of the year.
Wachiuri says because of the personal experiences and business lessons he has picked over the years he has been in business, he has committed to several things including, philanthropy through his foundation which pays fees for needy students, running medical camps and building houses for the elderly as part of the company's social responsibility contract.
He also runs a mentorship programme for other small and medium-sized enterprises across the continent where he says he is pushing for better entrepreneurial practices. The programme -- which now happens bi-monthly on Zoom -- has attracted enrolment from companies in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria.
"My personal principle is to make sure that I am adding value to other entrepreneurs," he said, "to create jobs for African youth. But we also give back to society by offering five percent of the company's annual earnings to the foundation."
Wachiuri sees Optiven's entry into the NSE as a beacon for other SMEs to follow. "I see this step as one that will inspire others to follow in our footsteps." The company is proud that it has "ambassadors" spread across the world, and at least 30 percent of its customer base being in the diaspora.
Today all successful real estate companies in Kenya seem to work with Optiven's modus operandi. The company capitalises on serviced plots by opening up virgin lands in the city's satellite towns or neighbouring counties by transforming it with ready utility connections like electricity, water and storm water drainage as well as access roads connecting to public transport networks to support immediate residential liveability for those who want to build and occupy immediately.
Some of Optiven's housing projects include Amani Ridge in Kiambu, Victory Gardens in Kitengela, Garden of Joy in Machakos, Success Gardens in Murang'a, Peace Gardens in Nyeri, and others in Nanyuki, Thika and Murang'a.
"We realised Kenyans were buying plots but not building, so we wanted to create impact and change things and that's how we came up with the concept of value added plots.
We now go an extra mile to pave roads, install street lighting, connect water and Kenyans have really shown their appreciation for this," he says. "In most of our projects we have now incorporated tree planting for to environmental conservation and we are now switching to solar street lighting too for our gated communities."
"In some projects the focus has been on providing convenience services like commercial centres, sports and playing fields, setting up of green zones and nature and leisure parks," he added.
"We joined the green building initiative to make sure that our projects are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient. We don't want to just bring development but we also want to do it while taking care of the planet," says Wachiuri. And because of this, the Victory Gardens project, which sits on 117 acres, has received recognition as a green project for its green energy component with solar lighting, rows of trees along the streets, use of water recycling technology, adoption of renewable waste disposal methods and advocacy for residents to use green building designs.