Building by app: ‘Mjengo’ goes digital

When Vincent Otachi was looking for people to hire for his new company at the beginning of the year, he did not know where to get qualified workers. He had just resigned from his job with a Nairobi-based engineering firm as a workshop manager to start a construction company.

“I searched for new employees at the National Youth Service, but I only got people who did not have experience. I posted job vacancies on Facebook but ended up with jokers. It was quite hard to get the right people,” Otachi says.

One day in March, while browsing the Internet, he came across a mobile application that promised to solve his problem. He only needed to download the app onto his phone. It promised to give him access to the kind of workers he was looking for.

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Today, Otachi says he is a happy employer, thanks to iBuild, the app through which he met his four employees: a machine operator-cum-driver, a mixer machine operator, a hoist machine operator and a poker machine operator.

“I got all of them through the app,” Otachi, 25, who pursued information technology in college, says.

He is one of the more than 5,000 Kenyans who have used the app to search for construction jobs, contractors, building materials and other construction-related services.

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Launched in January, the app is the brainchild of global building and construction solutions firm, iBuild.

It is a virtual marketplace that allows potential homeowners to directly engage with qualified and certified contractors, fundis (artisans or masons), building material suppliers, and professionals like architects. It is designed to bring all the actors and services in the construction sector under one virtual roof.

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If you are a mason, for instance, you no longer need to walk from one site to another looking for work. All you need is download the app and you will be able to see job openings.

If you are building a house and need a contractor, you only need to post your request on the platform and contractors will respond with bids. You will also see their profiles, including the work they have done before and whether or not they are registered by the National Construction Authority.

“You end up getting the right contractor and competitive bids,” says Aggrey Wangwe, iBuild’s Kenya Market Director. This, says Wangwe, reduces transaction costs and makes housing affordable.

Wangwe says one of the biggest hurdles to individuals building a house on a budget is that the main actors in the housing value chain — homeowners, contractors, and construction site workers — have been operating independently.

“The problem with affordable housing as things are currently is that the value chains are not connected. Housing is a process and we need to look at the full ­cycle to make it easier. Affordable housing should not only be cheaper but also decent. It can’t be decent without employing the right professionals. How do you reduce the cost of construction? By getting the best quotes…. How are we doing that? By allowing you to do competitive bidding,” he says.

When the mobile app was launched in January, it focused only on providing a platform for small-scale builders or homeowners, contractors and site workers. But users are now asking for more, prompting iBuild to introduce a section for building materials. They are also planning to introduce other services.

The app also allows one to search for the closest suppliers and what they are charging.

The firm’s audit of the first three months of iBuild’d operation showed that in the 90 days, the app had seen a rapid adoption rate among core users. Homeowners made up 43 per cent of total iBuild users; workers like masons came in second at 33 per cent and contractors made up 24 per cent of the user base.

The report says hundreds of suppliers have pre-registered over 3,000 products on the platform.

Among the homeowners who have benefited from the platform is Carol Agumbo, who is putting up a three-bedroom bungalow in Tuala, a township neighbouring Ongata Rongai. She first heard about iBuild from her contractor early last year during its piloting phase.

By then, she had already finished doing the foundation and started walling. To get the right fundis and plumbers, Agumbo’s contractor turned to iBuild. The construction is over and the roofing done. She is now planning to lay tiles and doing other interior finishing. She says she will use the app to buy finishing materials.

“The good thing about the app is that hakuna kazi ya kurudiarudia (you don’t have to repeat the job) because you get to work with people who know their job. It cuts out people who are not serious with work,” she says.

The platform has also helped her manage the work. On the app, work is divided into milestones. You create a project (state the work), look at the quotations, agree on the price, commit the money (from M-Pesa to iBuild wallet), get photos of the work done so far, validate and rate the work, and then release the money from the wallet if satisfied.

Wangwe says they will soon start piloting professionals’ module that will bring on board architects to provide building plans and basic estimates. “When we started, we assumed we were dealing with people who knew what they wanted. We have realised that many people don’t have plans,” he says, adding that they are also in talks with a potential lender for possible inclusion.

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