By Patrick Kagenda
Turning homes into offices not a solution
Bukoto Street was until recently a quiet residential in a narrow backstreet in the Kampala City suburb of Kamwokya. Today, the former colonial-style homes of civil servants and Asian business people have been converted into offices.
To walk along the street, one has to negotiate their way around a maze of signposts announcing every imaginable business from banks, TV stations, to massage parlours and insurance brokers.One of Uganda’s top banks, Equity bank, and the head office of Record TV and radio, jostle for space with top flight civil society organizations like FIDA, the local chapter of the international women lawyers’ organisation.
Bukoto Street is not alone in being invaded by offices. Other former exclusively residential areas like Kololo, Nakasero, Upper Kamwokya, Bugolobi and Ntinda had been planned as residential areas but in the last decade, it is difficult to say whether they are residential or office locations.
So why are business offices encroaching on former residential areas?
Partly, it is because Kampala today has a shortage of office space.
One of the top agencies in the country, the Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), is also located in Kamwokya. Its executive director Terry Kahuma told The Independent that UNBS failed to get convenient office space in the centre of town after a long search. The second issue that forced them to relocate to Kamwokya was to do with affordability. “We had to consider the cost and the inconveniences in the middle of town where there is noise, dust and lack of parking space,” he said, “suburbs are cheap and convenient”.
Arinaitwe Nicholas the Executive Director of AN Consult Ltd, a real estate agency, management and consultancy firm says it is difficult to tell the exact office space deficit in Kampala.
But he says demand in the office space has exceeded supply of the much needed space for offices which revolves around user demand.
“In any booming economy demand tends to be higher than the supply and that’s why people are opting for former residential areas,” he says.
Experts further estimate that of the total available space provided by the top 58 commercial properties in Uganda, less than 10 are prime and meet the international office standards. They however provide only 298,000 sq. meters of office space.This means the sector further overall has deficit backlog in the region of 100%.
Other experts in the real estate development sector say Kampala today has a deficit of over 250,000-300,000square meters’ of office space or the equivalent of20 Workers House which, with about 15,000 sq. meters of offices on 14 floors, is among the biggest and most modern office building in Kampala.
Of the eight high rise structures that were supposed to be constructed in the Central Business District (CBD) before the end of 2010, to provide office space only the Centenary Bank building with 11 floors on Kampala Road is under construction.
The others, like the two tower NSSF 12 floors headquarters on Lumumba Avenue, MTN headquarters 5 floors on Yusuf Lule Road, the Uganda National Farmers Federation building 10 floors on Lumumba Avenue, the Church House 12 floors on Kampala road, the NRM Plaza 40 floors on Nile Avenue, and the Crane Towers 60 floors in Nakasero have all ground to a halt. These structures according to the experts in the construction sector were supposed to have provided total office space of 154,000 square meters if they were to be completed in time and this would have left Kampala with a reduced deficit of 146,000 square meters of office space.
However, the other problem which contributes to the scarcity and encroachment on residential areas is the cost of construction of modern offices. Experts say, the construction of one square meter of office space costs US $1000 (Shs 2,050,000) at the current exchange rate.
The problem is compounded because under the government policy of economic liberalization, the task of constructing offices is left to the private sector. But the private sector has so far been unable to fill the gab because of the high cost and lack of financing for long-term projects. This is how individuals who have personal houses in residential areas have stepped to rent them out to desperate organisation looking for affordable office space. This explains the migrations of corporate bodies to former residential areas.
This would create the so-called intelligent building that is equipped withhigh techsensors that areautomated which carry out activity that would have been carried out by man, like opening doors, switching on air conditioners, switching on lights and closing doors. There are a few intelligent buildings in Uganda namely Workers House, Communications House, and a number of banks have also installed the equipment in Kampala Central Business District (CBD).
But Arch Enock Kibbamu of Plantek Consultants and Uganda Property Holdings, which manages all government properties, blames the absence of physical planning of Kampala. He says physical planning for Kampala was last done in the 1950s. It recommended the zoning of Kampala.
Kibbamu says although residential areas are spacious, quite and orderly which meets the requirements of an office setting, they will all come to a miserable end as they get more and more crowded.
“Residential areas were planned for residencies and all the facilities like roads, sewerage pipe size and plot sizes are all for a residential setting,” he says.
Already, the residential suburbs that have been invaded by offices are already experiencing some of the problems Kibbamu envisages. Most buildings, built in the 1960`s do not have office-style parking space, lack easy access, and do notmeet the prime standards like lifts, air conditioning, and disabled peoples facilities.
Some of these are the very problems that pushed offices out of the CBD to places where there is less congestion both in infrastructure and other ways.
Kibbamu says the solution to the scarcity of office space in the CBD needs government’s fast intervention by putting up an enabling environment. “Government should activate the physical planning by giving it full powers so as to avert the unplanned building style we are seeing where road reserves are encroached upon and some of the roads are being blocked,” he says.
He says that although, under the economic policy of economic liberalization, the construction sector has gone private, the government needs to intervene to push commercial banks to lower interest rates on mortgages so that the private sector can go to these banks and take mortgages to build sufficient office structures.
Meanwhile, Arinaitwe says government should also introduce zoning so as to have orderly building unlike now “where everything is mixed up”.