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Insurance firms that have invested billions of shillings in the property market are counting losses owing to the low returns from the sector and lack of tenants to take up the huge empty spaces.

Most commercial buildings across the region - including the two tallest - are owned by insurance firms.

The property slump over the years, worsened by the effects of Covid-19 pandemic is leaving behind a trail of losses.

In a previous interview with The Standard, Jubilee Insurance Chairman Nizar Juma castigated the obsession with “big buildings” by his rivals.

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“All these big buildings, they win awards for them but are 90 per cent empty. We want investments which are paying,” said Juma.

UAP Holdings however describes its towering buildings spread across East African capital cities as the firm’s “pillars of stability.”

After all, its 163-metre tall UAP Old Mutual Towers in Nairobi’s Upper Hill is one of the tallest buildings in the region, only second to the 200-metre high Britam Towers.

“From defining skylines to standing as key landmarks as well as offering scenic views from their topmost floors, these buildings speak to our long term commitment to the region and its prospects,” said the firm in pride laced advertisements.

But last month, UAP Holdings saw its loss after tax for the year ending 2019 widen to Sh3.4 billion, from Sh518 million the previous year.

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The loss was attributed to their property business which posted a loss of Sh4.8 billion, with the company last year issuing a profit warning.

Announcing the results, Group Chief Executive Arthur Oginga said the firm’s loss was mainly due to one-off fair value write-downs on the group’s investment property portfolio.

This was as a result of the softening of the markets in Kenya and Uganda and the prevailing operating environment challenges in South Sudan.

 “The property market across East Africa has been softening with rental yields declining,” said Mr Oginga in a virtual briefing to investors.

“It’s therefore unsurprising that when we received the valuations done by independent valuers, there’s been a significant drop in the value of our properties and as a consequence, we’ve reported a significant impairment of our assets,” he added.

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Mr Oginga was however optimistic that despite the disappointing results, it was “a story of two parts” as its core business was still returning a profit.

It more than doubled, posting a profit before tax of Sh1.7 billion compared to 800 million in 2018.

The UAP Old Mutual boss told investors that he expected the property market to turn around in the next few years. “This is obviously a non-cash item and we expect to recoup those losses as the property market turns around in coming years,” he said.

The firm also owns UAP Equatoria Tower in Juba, Nakawa Business Park in Kampala, Old Mutual Building along Kimathi Street Nairobi, Old Mutual Building Upper Hill in Nairobi, Telkom Plaza on Ralph Bunche Road and Equity Centre Upper Hill Nairobi.

Last year, financial services firm Britam made an announcement that it was changing tack on its property business with Group Managing Director Benson Wairegi saying it had been performing poorly in the past.

Mr Wairegi said Britam plans to extend its property offerings to third party clients through their asset management company, and further revealed that they would dispose of some property in their portfolio.

He reiterated the message while announcing a pre-tax profit of Sh4.6 billion for the full year 2019, posted last month.

“We have reviewed our property strategy to extend our property offerings to third party clients. We will offer property management, development management and property asset management, through our Asset Management Company," said Wairegi.

"To enhance shareholder returns, our focus will be on property development through own funds or joint ventures. Therefore, our property investment looks to develop, dispose and rent out our property portfolio based on specific business cases,” he added.

The country is currently swimming in an oversupply of office space and the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation and rental yields will stagnate or fall.

A recent market report projected that the oversupply of office space would hit 5.8 million square metres this year, as more mega-structures come up.

Statistics released last month by property management firm Knight Frank show that office space absorption in the first quarter of this year, fell 68 per cent compared to the fourth quarter of 2019.

The report dubbed, 'Covid-19: Kenya Property Market Outlook' noted that before the pandemic “a good level of enquiries” from both international and local corporates was witnessed with transactions underway.

However, corporates have since paused making major decisions with a “significant” slowdown in the absorption of office space expected.

“This has already been manifested in the form of fewer office inquiries and postponement of key business decisions, causing a delay on imminent lease start dates,” said Knight Frank.

The report adds that prime rents remained unchanged at Sh130 per square foot monthly owing to oversupply.

“The stagnation of prime rents over the period was mainly attributed to the oversupply of commercial space in some locations and an unfavourable economic climate,” noted the report in part.

According to the report, cash flow for the property owners will be heavily affected owing to negotiations with tenants for flexible payment plans as others downsize.

“If this pandemic continues, in the mid to long-term, employers may take necessary measures to minimise overheads by downsizing or foregoing their office spaces,” it said.

The property slump has also affected companies whose core business is in the real estate sector or deal in residential property.

Other major companies affected by turmoil in the sector include listed real estate developer Home Afrika, which has continued to sink into losses amounting to Sh849 million in 2019 compared to Sh346 million loss in 2018.

Home Afrika Managing Director Dan Awendo attributed the loss to the depressed valuation of land and housing assets.

“There has been significant depression of valuations of the real estate asset class in Kenya in the recent past, with some companies even recording more than Sh3 billion loss owing to impairment in their property investment portfolio,” said Awendo.

“In our case, the depressed valuation contributed up to Sh391 million of our loss for the year,” he added.  

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