Allan Otieno, an architect and director at Dimensions Architects and Interior designers Ltd, has made several trips to China to shop for finishes, both for his clients and his house.
According to Otieno, shopping in China is a worthwhile experience that doesn’t just offer a wide range of products but also saves him considerable amounts of money.
“By getting finishes from China, one can save upto 30 per cent of the total construction cost delivered to the site,” says Otieno. This, he adds, includes all travel, accommodation and freight charges.
The Embassy of China in Kenya acknowledges that more and more Kenyan builders are looking to China when it comes to shopping for building materials and finishes.
“We welcome trade and investment between our two countries,” said Mao Yinzong, the embassy spokesman. Although the embassy says there are many Kenyans travelling for business to China, the figures were not immediately available.
China has become a major stopping point for developers looking for variety and also wishing to save on building and furnishing costs.
“There are all kinds of product ranges depending on the quality one wants. You actually get to choose the quality that suits your pocket,” said Joram Kiarie, chief executive S&L, a mortgage subsidiary of KCB.
The Chinese sell products according to classes or grades – the first letter or number (A or 1) representing the highest quality. The sellers are honest and are quick to point this out.
Joram travelled to China in 2009 and 2010 as part of a team of 100 developers. He says they were amazed at how much the country had to offer. “It was an eye opener in many ways,” said Jorame.
They were mostly stunned by the high population of the Chinese, the size of the city, building materials and technology and architectural building designs.
The group had a chance to attend the largest expo in China – the Canton Fair (China Import and Export Fair) in Guangzhou, a biannual event which attracts millions of people from around the world.
This year’s event will be held in three phases from April 15 to May 5. The event was first held in 1957 and is on its 115 edition.
Since then, Joram says developers in his team have made repeat visits to China. Each time to buy finishes for. S&L has a developers’ club which comprises of professionals in real estate such as developers and interior designers among others.
The club has 450 members at present and continues to register more clients. KCB organises annual trips for members to various countries to assess development, building architectural designs and also material and machinery offered in those markets.
Though Joram feels the ideal situation would be to live up to the mantra of Buy Kenya, Build Kenya, he acknowledges that the country has a long way to go in the building sector.
“We are not there yet in terms of manufacturing levels. Importing machinery is a good start. When locals use the machines to produce goods, we will ultimately stop importing,” Joram added.
But as much as the country’s inefficiencies in manufacturing is one of the reasons leading Kenyans East, the changing consumer behaviour and needs is another motivation.
“A lot of clients are becoming enlightened about the fact that they should not settle for less than the best when it comes to their homes. They want beautiful homes and are willing to pay premium prices for it,” Otieno added.
This is what causes developers to take a tour around the world for the best products. China is currently the best option for many as it has a wide range of choice.
Those that have gone to China, say the range of product sold locally is nothing compared those in China. For them, we are in fact buying the lower end of the products available.
Most people are apparently buying rejects bought at China’s Africa market on auction. Those low quality goods are sold in Kenya at the highest margins yet they are not durable.
The rising cost of construction, desire for exposure and taste for fine things in life developed by the growing middle class have also informed the trend.
“The cost of construction in Kenya is unbelievably high. About 70 per cent of construction cost goes to finishes. So what do you do? You decide to build the shell then go where everyone else is going. You go to China to look for finishes,” said Otieno.
Otieno has taken many of his clients to buy finishes in China. Kenyans buy everything that has to do with a house from ceramic tiles, fitted kitchen, upholstery, furniture and wooden flooring and much more. Runda Park is one of the developments fitted with finishes from China.
But how does one get started? A trip to China for finishes starts with the construction team. The team leader – an architect together with the quantity surveyor and others (depending on the size of the project) comes up with a list of materials needed, projected budget and factors in errors of margin.
Next, you get in touch with a reliable contact in China. This is the person who will pick you from the airport, check you into a hotel, give you the itinerary on places to visit and ensure the goods arrive in Kenya safely.
Carol Liu is one of the contacts Kenyans use. She speaks fluent English. As soon as you contact her, she asks of what you want done. Most contacts tag along a translator. This is the person one walks around with. Otieno also insists on travelling with a technical person.
“You need someone technical to interpret to you what the manufacturer is saying. The person translating may not be technical enough to understand some things,” Otieno stated.
It may cost you less to have your architect or quantity surveyor accompany you.
A reasonable trip to China should last two weeks, he says. The first week shoppers spend walking in and out of factories and malls – looking around and collecting brochures and samples. The second week one goes back to the stores with their minds made up to place an order for production.
A 50 per cent down payment is required for production of your materials to start. The balance is paid after delivery. The contact person ensures goods are ready when they should be and that they are they done according to specification. This person also takes care of freighting the goods.
There is hardly any set rule on who should shop for finishes abroad. Anyone building a house, however small can travel to China. In any case, it will still cost 30 per cent less for materials; delivered on site.
Adventurous shoppers are free to make trips on impulse. But it’s hectic because the malls are huge and located far apart. It’s much easier to use someone who is familiar with the malls and factories.
Online platforms such as IKEA and taobao.com also give easier option of ordering online if one is ready to take the risk.