Interview with Jolanda Castagna, Managing Director of Akka Kappa
What is your evaluation and perspective on the real estate industry in Ghana?
If you have had the opportunity to visit Ghana recently, particularly within the last year, you would have noticed a significant surge in real estate activities. Despite the prevalent concerns about the economic situation, both historically and in the present, the substantial ongoing real estate projects are quite astonishing. This fact remains somewhat surprising considering Ghana’s past and current circumstances. However, it is important to recognize that numerous dynamics have been influenced by the COVID pandemic.
Considering the context of Ghana as your current location, investing here appears to offer favorable conditions and promising returns, especially given the limitations on moving capital around due to the present circumstances. Consequently, local investment seems to be a more feasible option. Shifting focus to the real estate landscape, the emergence of numerous high-rise structures is noticeable. Conversely, there is a lack of projects involving gated communities, townhouse complexes, and upscale residences designed for CEOs or diplomats. The availability of such properties is currently extremely limited.
This shortage is largely attributed to the high cost of land. Developers find it economically viable to maximize land value and space by constructing apartment buildings. Nonetheless, from my perspective, this approach could lead to a genuine predicament within the next two to three years. The apartments currently being constructed predominantly consist of studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units. Given the scarcity of townhouse initiatives and the insufficient development of three and four-bedroom apartments, a dearth of suitable housing options for families is anticipated. It is evident that a family of three or four cannot comfortably reside in a two-bedroom apartment.
We are encountering a problem concerning the legal framework and the difficulties in establishing clear property ownership in Ghana. This issue has led to numerous complexities, and it appears that a solution is not on the horizon or anticipated.
Absolutely, and that leads me to another crucial point. The resolution might not be forthcoming because this is how the legislative system operates, particularly with these sublease arrangements. Essentially, property ownership is granted for a specified duration. This setup can be less appealing to foreign investors due to the absence of outright ownership or long-term property rights. Moreover, as one moves away from the central areas of Accra, the clarity of property ownership becomes even more elusive. For instance, if you acquire land in Airport or Cantonments, it is considered government land that has been leased to an individual for a specific timeframe. This intricacy presents challenges in asserting ownership. Considering these circumstances, there is potential to explore alternative avenues that could contribute to the expansion of our business opportunities.
Shifting our attention to your organization, could you offer a summary of your Akka Kappa’s operations? How many years of experience does your company have, and what distinguishes you in terms of competitiveness within your industry?
My journey in the real estate sector began back in 2006. I became part of the esteemed Trasacco Group, a renowned luxury real estate developer in Ghana. I assumed the role of Chief Property Consultant, which was a pivotal point in my career. Throughout this period, I was involved in significant sales accomplishments, including the Villagio Primavera and Villagio Vista apartments, totaling over 260 units. Additionally, I contributed to the Trasacco Valley projects, which encompass executive luxury homes located about a 20-minute drive away from Accra. In 2012, I embarked on another significant project, the Aurora Apartments situated in Cantonments. This journey paved the way for me to amass substantial real estate experience.
Before this, I worked for five years at the British High Commission, although my role wasn’t directly related to sales. However, my tenure there laid the groundwork for my local real estate experience. Working for a developer of Trasacco’s caliber exposed me to a wide spectrum of investors and first-time homebuyers. Building and maintaining relationships with these individuals was a crucial aspect of my role, and it proved to be an invaluable experience.
After eight fruitful years, I had to step away from my role due to health reasons. Following a period of recuperation, I returned to Ghana from Italy. I discovered that my personality was not suited for an inactive role, and this led me to embark on a part-time venture – Akka Kappa. Initially, it was a modest endeavor with a handful of listings, one employee, and a focus on rentals at the port.
The journey from then to now has been marked by growth and evolution. Starting with a single service and a small team, we have expanded considerably. Our team now comprises 30 members, and we offer an extensive range of services. Our approach involves careful portfolio curation, listing properties that cater precisely to our clients’ preferences. Geographical focus is integral to our strategy; we list properties only in specific locations where we can dedicate the necessary attention to our clients. This strategic approach ensures that our clients receive the highest level of service. In essence, our growth has been fueled by a commitment to specialization and a profound understanding of our clients’ needs.
Could you please offer a comprehensive perspective on the operational facets of your company? A detailed breakdown of the industries you engage in and the range of services you provide would be highly valuable.
Our core focus lies in assisting clients with selling, buying, renting, and managing properties. We cater to diverse needs, whether it is facilitating property purchases, making investments, renting out properties, or offering property management solutions. Our services extend beyond typical property management – we provide a tailored, bespoke management service. This is especially valuable for clients who may be remote or lack the means to oversee property matters firsthand. We oversee repairs, utilities, cleaning, tenant interactions, and more, ensuring a comprehensive and hands-on approach to property management.
First and foremost, our core focus lies in property rentals. We have established strong partnerships with a range of corporate clients, including major multinational organizations in Ghana, as well as embassies and institutions like the World Bank. This enables us to deliver a highly comprehensive service tailored to their needs. Our clientele essentially falls into two categories: tenants and companies, along with property owners. You see, property owners require rental services, while tenants require assistance with relocating. We extend our support right from the beginning and throughout their entire stay in Ghana. Our key offering is what we term as “relocation management service.” This involves a thorough process. When someone plans to move to Ghana and might not be familiar with the country, we kick off with an online session. During this session, we guide them through various aspects – what to anticipate in Ghana, insights into daily life, the housing market, school locations and rankings, medical facilities, and everything else. We also equip them with our “Akwaaba handbook,” an information-packed resource to provide them with comprehensive insights. Moreover, we furnish them with a directory encompassing local businesses, so they gain a good understanding of what to expect.
Upon reaching the stage where they are probably considering accommodations, they might have arranged a hotel stay or we have assisted in booking one for them. We personally greet them at the airport and accompany them to either the chosen property or the hotel. Following that, if you are ready the next day, we provide a dedicated one-on-one onboarding session. This session delves deeply into various topics. Additionally, we organize trips for them and their family to explore different neighborhoods. This is particularly important if they are moving with family members. For instance, let’s consider schooling. If they are interested in a school located in East Legon, it is likely more practical to look for housing options in the same area. Similar considerations apply if they are considering a school in Cantonments. We take them on tours of these neighborhoods, allowing them to familiarize themselves with amenities, since the landscape is rapidly evolving. I can personally attest to the transformation of East Legon over the past 15 years – from having almost nothing to now being a self-sustained area with restaurants, schools, clinics, all within a short 15-minute drive from central Accra.
Once they have made a decision about the school and neighborhood, we transition into the house hunting phase. We collaborate closely with landlords to locate suitable houses, and we ensure the properties are prepared for them. After this, we facilitate a seamless handover. From here on, we serve as their primary point of contact. This role is especially crucial, as it relieves clients, particularly corporate organizations, from dealing with potential issues on their own. Instead, we take on the role of intermediary, addressing concerns such as difficulties with landlords or situations where a landlord might be financially strained to address specific needs like replacing an air conditioner or purchasing a new washing machine. This role plays a significant part in simplifying the assignee’s life, enhancing productivity, and ultimately reducing stress for both HR departments and general service teams. We effectively act as mediators, ensuring smoother interactions between all parties involved.
One facet of our operations encompasses property sales. If you are in the market seeking to purchase a house as an investment, our portfolio boasts over 1,300 listed properties, showcasing a substantial array. Should you not find precisely what you are seeking within our listings, we have a strategic collaboration with a select few trustworthy agents in the market. Our primary objective is to ensure thorough understanding of each property, as well as the reliability of the seller. This guarantees that buyers can make well-informed decisions when it comes to their investments.
We take our service a step further. In addition to aiding buyers in sound investment choices, we equip them with comparative market analyses. Navigating the investment landscape involves considering multiple factors, as there is a wealth of market dynamics. One cannot simply make a choice based on familiarity with a developer. Informed decisions leading to successful investments with optimal returns require a deeper understanding. Notably, the real estate landscape has shifted significantly over the last five years, with a surge in the availability of apartments for platforms like Airbnb. While this diversification is positive, it also hints at a potential future scarcity of properties suited for families. For now, however, the market offers a wide range of options, from one-bedroom to two-bedroom units, and the Airbnb market is thriving.
This is where specialized companies focusing solely on Airbnb properties come into play, enhancing the attractiveness of investment returns. Speaking of returns, our projections indicate the introduction of over 3,000 new property apartments into the market by the close of 2025. Given this influx, it is crucial for buyers to exercise prudence in their decisions. Here, our role takes center stage. We provide buyers with comprehensive comparative market analyses, along with insights into the dependability of developers. Our priority is to ensure that investors make choices aligned with their goals and the market trends.
Our unique value proposition lies in advisory services. If you are contemplating property acquisition and are familiar with one developer or have inspected one property among others, your perspective may be limited. You might be uncertain about the broader market offerings or which investment would yield the best returns – say, a studio apartment versus a one-bedroom unit. Furthermore, questions about management arise: how to optimize rental success? how to position the property effectively in the market and maintain high occupancy rates year-round? We address these queries through our advisory service, offering invaluable guidance. This aspect of our service stands as our paramount contribution to potential investors.
Our operations extend to encompass resales as well. Currently, there is a noticeable uptick in resales, particularly among younger Ghanaians. This trend is largely driven by individuals seeking ready-to-move-in apartments. There are several reasons behind this shift. For one, the daily commute from their current residences to Accra can be a hassle due to traffic congestion. Financial readiness is also a key factor, as these individuals are in a position to make such a commitment. Often, these buyers are looking for apartments that are move-in ready and tend to lean towards larger living spaces. It is worth noting that they often gravitate towards older projects, as opposed to properties currently under construction. This is where our focus on resales becomes significant.
The dynamics of the market are intriguing. Some individuals sell their current property to fund the purchase of another, while others make a move driven by a desire for a change in location. In these scenarios, we play a pivotal role by providing a comparative market analysis. We guide them through the options available – what they can buy, where they can buy, highlighting the advantages in terms of location, amenities, facilities, construction quality, and of course, pricing. Price, being a critical factor, naturally comes into play. We also factor in release periods and other relevant considerations.
So far, we have discussed the facets of sales, lettings, property management, and property investment advisory services that we offer.
We have an autonomous department that functions independently, known as the construction consultancy division. This particular department exists due to my husband’s extensive background in civil engineering and his extensive experience in the construction field spanning over 45 years. He has worked in various countries, including Nigeria and Italy, before dedicating his expertise to Ghana since 1987. He has been a key figure in the realization of numerous projects, ranging from mining crushers to thermal plants, and has also played a crucial role in notable endeavors like the iconic One Airport Square. This project, designed by renowned Italian architect Mario Cucinella, marked Ghana’s initial venture into eco-friendly or green building concepts, making it a highly intricate construction endeavor.
Another of his notable involvements includes projects such as the World Bank headquarters, the Accra Stadium, and the hockey pitch, to name a few. In 2019, he took a significant step by resigning from his role as the managing director of one of Ghana’s largest construction companies. He joined our team to establish the construction consultancy department, which specializes in providing comprehensive construction-related services.
Initially, he began with a small team consisting of just himself and an architect. However, the department’s growth has been remarkable, even outpacing the expansion of my own team. Presently, we are in a friendly race to foster development. Noteworthy achievements under his leadership include the rapid completion of the expansive Orca Deco showroom and warehouses, spanning over 20,000 square meters. This project, completed in just 10 months, serves as a testament to the efficiency of our construction consultancy team.
Furthermore, our construction consultancy division is currently involved in the design and development of two of Accra’s most impressive and spacious mansions, office buildings, multiple showrooms, and even an office space for a mining company. It is important to clarify that our construction consultancy team does not engage in physical construction. Rather, they specialize in guiding clients through the entire project development process. From the inception of the client’s idea, they assist with project briefs, design, cost estimation, material sourcing, and selection. Additionally, they handle the tender process, inviting contractors and suppliers to submit their proposals to the client.
Once the contractors and suppliers are selected and construction commences, our team takes charge of quality control and project management. Our objective is to ensure that the project is executed according to schedule, budget, and the expected quality standards. This comprehensive approach is distinctive within Ghana’s real estate services landscape.
Our company takes pride in offering a unique range of services all under one roof. Our construction consultancy division is just one example, staffed with qualified professionals including architects, civil engineers, quantity surveyors, and project managers. Similarly, our other departments boast specialized teams, each contributing to a holistic and exceptional client experience. This integrated approach defines our commitment to excellence within the realm of real estate services in Ghana.
We are interested in understanding your expansion strategies beyond Ghana. Although you have connections in Nigeria, it appears that Ghana remains your main area of concentration. Is this assessment correct?
Indeed, our growth trajectory has been remarkable, rapidly scaling from one to thirty team members and from offering a single service to an entire suite of services, even amidst the challenges posed by COVID. Looking at 2023, we perceive it as a year of solidifying our presence within Ghana. However, we are actively exploring prospects beyond our borders, and Nigeria is a key contender. Our scope extends to West Africa, as well as Dubai, considering the substantial connection between Ghana and Dubai. While we are not discussing this in great detail just yet, as we are in the process of finalizing our plans, the intention to venture in those directions is definite.
I have personally cultivated a substantial list of Nigerian clients, primarily due to the nature of services I previously provided. Notably, there has been growing interest not just from Nigeria, but also from individuals within Nigeria who are intrigued by opportunities in Ghana. This evolving landscape bolsters our confidence in the vision we hold for expansion in these directions. Rest assured, as we navigate this journey, we are optimistic about its potential success.
Could you provide some information about the current and forthcoming projects you are engaged in or personally supervising? We are keen to learn about these initiatives that are taking shape.
About a year ago, a developer approached me with a novel real estate concept, quite fresh for Ghana – a beach resort. This intriguing idea, along with the promising location and the intended high-quality construction, caught my attention. Without hesitation, I made the decision to take on this project, despite the absence of my colleague Eduardo, who usually contributes to these choices. This initiative is called Eleven Eleven. It is a remarkable investment option that is generating considerable interest. Unlike typical apartment investments in Accra, this venture involves purchasing beachfront apartments or villas that will be managed by a hotel company. This unique setup guarantees consistent and attractive returns for investors, given the absence of competing luxury beach resorts along the coastline. This project, set in a picturesque area with smaller resorts, includes features like apartments, beachfront villas, restaurants, a conference center, ballroom, spa, gym, and more. With Ghana emerging as a tourist destination, we are witnessing increasing interest and footfall, which bodes well for projects like Eleven Eleven.
Additionally, we embarked on another fascinating project eight months ago, closely following Eleven Eleven. This second venture involves beach villas situated within a resort, catering to those seeking both a weekend getaway and an investment opportunity. This approach is more personal, allowing owners to utilize and potentially rent out their beach villas within the resort. This project aligns well with Eleven Eleven and forms a comprehensive investment duo.
Shifting focus to Accra, we are discerning in our approach to marketing. Rather than promoting every project, we exercise selectivity. Our goal is to offer clients well-informed choices, catering to their preferences. For instance, our target market seeks two, three, or four-bedroom units within secure and exclusive environments. This leads us to favor boutique apartment complexes with fewer than 50 units, a trend resonating with our clientele.
Diversifying further, we are promoting a novel project that is steeped in Ghanaian culture. This venture combines construction with Ghanaian symbols, designs, and materials, creating a uniquely local experience. Our dedication to catering to various needs is also evident in our facility management service. We recently secured a contract with an oil company, managing a complex that initially served offshore workers needing quarantine during COVID. Now transformed into a full staff residence, this project highlights the demand for such managed accommodations.
As for construction consultancy, our team is actively engaged in various ventures. These include mansions, warehouses, showrooms, and office buildings, among others. The plethora of projects has necessitated team expansion. Just recently, two new additions, an architect and a civil engineer, joined our construction team. This consistent growth is essential to efficiently deliver on our project commitments.
As we conclude, it would be greatly appreciated if you could offer a glimpse into your future vision. Can you describe where you envision yourself and your company in the next three to five years? What are your aspirations and goals, both at the local and broader levels?
While I believe in staying grounded and realistic, I also acknowledge the importance of aspiring for greatness. Looking ahead, our goal is clear – to establish ourselves as the premier provider of real estate services. This achievement encompasses a multitude of elements. Building a reputation that extends beyond Ghana involves exploring opportunities beyond our borders. We have reached a commendable level of recognition, and in the next three years, we aim to solidify our position as the largest and most dependable real estate services firm across the West African region.
Our commitment to this ambition is underscored by the certifications we have acquired and the designations of sellers and buyers representatives. I am also pursuing further personal development, including learning French. This is in response to the increasing number of Francophone clients we are serving and our strategic interest in neighboring Francophone countries. We approach expansion cautiously, understanding the nuances of different regions and political landscapes. Ghana’s political stability, though exceptional, necessitates careful planning to address potential challenges.
As we venture into new territories, we are mindful of maintaining the high level of service that’s become synonymous with us. Successfully establishing ourselves in other countries requires meticulous planning that anticipates setbacks. Our aim is to ensure that our service quality remains consistent across locations.
Additionally, international partnerships are on our radar. This growing trend reflects a global interest in collaboration, and over the next three years, we foresee forging valuable partnerships that align with our mission. Finding the right partners in the region and beyond will contribute to our collective success.
Could you provide more details regarding the characteristics of the partners you are seeking? Are you interested in forming partnerships with established real estate or construction companies aiming to enter the Ghanaian or regional market?
When discussing potential partners, we are considering significant players in the real estate and construction domains – those who are aiming to establish their influence and investments within Ghana. Ghana, as a nation, is proactively marketing itself. The Ghana Investment Promotion Center stands as a testament to its exceptional efforts in showcasing the country to a global audience. This strategic push has brought foreign developers and investment funds to our doorstep more frequently. They express interest in establishing a foothold in Ghana or initiating ambitious projects here. The rationale behind this approach is having a reliable local partner who can offer the necessary support to navigate the intricacies of operating in a new environment.
However, it is important to acknowledge that these initiatives do not materialize overnight. They entail rigorous due diligence and meticulous planning. Despite the time-consuming nature of such endeavors, we offer an optimal solution. We possess the expertise, experience, and local insight to guide these ventures toward success. Looking forward, I anticipate that by the middle of the upcoming year, we will begin witnessing the initial stages of these partnerships taking shape, marking a significant step in this direction.