Entrepreneurial Students in Nigerian Universities — Squatters, Landlords and Estate Agents

I recall my first sojourn on campus in a Nigerian University up north. Unlike most of the new friends I met at registration, I had an older sibling at the University. What this simply meant was that I had a rather soft landing settling into the student accommodation provided by the university. Not everyone was fortunate and that is the basis for this story.

Although the phrase “squatter” or “squatting” has a negative connotation, i.e., unlawful occupation of unused premises, it was used rather differently in the context of this narration. Yes, it might be in breach of University regulation as accommodation is allocated to named individuals who more often than not, sub-let these to others with a huge markup ranging between 50-500% of the accommodation fees. So for students, this is big business!

Let me give you an illustration. Upon registration at the start of term, students may apply for on-campus accommodation, which is usually heavily subsidised. Depending on the area or dimension of the room, it could be allocated to sharing between 2, 3, 4 or more students. That is the legal position. However, students do not have a choice in terms of whom the room sharing allocation is made.

Scenario 1 Swapping

Therefore, the practice of swapping emerged, where friends trade their bed spaces in order to move in with friends. Another form could be that a financially buoyant student may decide to buy-out roommates in order to become a sole occupant. This affords the student the opportunity to furnish the room to taste and possibly even have a live-in girlfriend (who may also sell her bed space in the girls’ hostel as she moves in with her man).

Scenario 2 Squatting

This practice can take place irrespective of whether all room mates are friends or not. The profit margin here ranges from zero to marginal as a squatter usually has a host. So for the sake of argument, if it was a room of 3 students, you have an additional squatter bringing the number to 4. However, if each legal resident brings in a squatter each, that number would quickly double to six. Squatters may be liable to paying board to the “landlords” or “landlady’s,” considering that the practice is not restricted to male students alone.

Scenario 3 Informal Estate Agents

This category of students invest in buying and selling of bed spaces. This is irrespective of whether it is for their personal use or simply personal gain. Sometimes they can buy-out occupants of up to 5 rooms, which can range from anything between 10 and 15 bed spaces across University Halls of residence.

Sometimes their entrepreneurial flair also extends beyond campus, as the source out off-campus accommodation for rent to students. Again, the price points reflect the level of privacy required by the client, as well as other status symbols found in the wider society of which the universities are often a microcosm of.

A Selection of Articles on the Subject Matter

A 2018 article on PulseNG, provided a shortlist “5 top hostels in University of Lagos,” mentioning household names at the University of Lagos such as King Jaja Hostel (for men) and Queen Moremi Hall (for women). Their equivalents up north, and at the Ahmadu Bello University in particular, are Umar Suleiman Hall and Queen Amina Hall respectively. This is a subject for later discussion.

Besides the rankings above, there’s also the issue of accommodation lottery in Nigerian Universities, as captured in a March 2019 article in the Sun News Online. Excerpts of the article read:

Recently, in first and second generation universities across Nigeria, year one students and final year students used to have automatic accommodation while the regular year two and year three students faced the lottery of balloting. This seemed a good arrangement because the fresh students, considered very young and naïve, needed the accommodation to settle down in school and face their studies in their new environment. It was also considered appropriate to give final year students accommodation so that they can settle down, write their projects and prepare adequately for their final exams.

In most of the federal institutions, these days, year one students and final year students are no longer given automatic accommodation. This exposes the young, fresh students to danger and harm since they have to commute from very far distances to their lectures on a daily basis.

In my September 2020 article, independently published (without knowledge of both articles above) at the peak of the pandemic, I opined that “in any consideration of the student experience there is a need to introduce, or at least acknowledge, that it would be incomplete without addressing the housing needs of students.”

Taken from the UK perspective and the role of quality accommodation in completing the student experience, I also pointed out that “universities need to be more proactive in either providing affordable housing for students or partnering with property owners and assisting students with signing contracts for accommodation.”

Only two months later, another article, “Nigeria: Businessman taps into demand for student accommodation,” confirmed my concerns. In that piece, it was reported that “UK-born Abayomi Onasanya believes students are like seeds that can grow into trees, given the right environment. This provided him with a fertile business idea: to build affordable student accommodation and each development would be named after trees.” We would return to these trees shortly — Pine, Sycamore and Cedar.

The article also highlights that good, clean, affordable housing could improve the student experience — something I observed in my article on the UK situation (with especially international students as a focus) — and, thereby, “benefitting businesses and the country in turn.” The article sums it up thus:

“I realised the students travel miles to get to university and the accommodation is often overcrowded and lacking in basic amenities; sometimes it’s just a shack. The students had so many challenges that distracted them from their studies and achieving their full potential.”

Talking about the opportunity recognition, in entrepreneurship parlance, the founder points out: “Competition is good. The accommodation shortage is so dire, we are only just beginning to scratch the surface. From our research, there is a gap of about 1.8 million student beds in Nigeria alone.”

Consequently, the idea for Student Accommod8 was to develop and operate purpose-built student housing. It buys land, obtains design and planning permissions, runs a tender process for contractors, and builds and furnishes the apartments before renting to students.

Branding and Naming Conventions — Bringing back the Trees

The first development, Pine House, was branded — like a Marriot or Hilton hotel — and processes and procedures were devised that would be uniform across each development. Onasanya took a derelict building near the University of Lagos and turned it into a 43-bed high-end student residence. All rooms are en suite, which is unusual for student housing, with communal kitchens, lounges, a cafeteria and a mini-mart, as well as laundry rooms and a manager’s office.

This was important because, as we began to scale the business, standard operating manuals and rules and regulations would make it easier for everybody including management…”

It took 18 months from conceptualisation to opening the first residence in October 2016. By the end of the year, it had reached 100% occupancy.

Next in line was Sycamore House in Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State; and Cedar House in Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos State — both of which were rolled out following the success of the “Pine” experiment. In terms of capacity, “These are bigger residences with 384 and 140 beds respectively, on land acquired in conjunction with the university.”

Recalling the “Kings” and “Queens” of student accommodation previously mentioned, our focus firm, Student Accommod8, reportedly experimented with higher-end, mid-level and basic, more affordable accommodation. These are evidently three market segments in the marketing parlance.

Quality Accommodation and the next phase

Universities provide competition with residences often housing anything between 2,000 to 3,000 students at affordable rates. However, these buildings are often badly maintained with no water or sewerage, and “they are [only] able to compete because they charge very little, but they are not an ideal place to live…”

As a point of differentiation (POD in branding terms) from university accommodation, his “establishments are managed in a structured way with strict rules, visiting hours, spot checks and CCTV cameras.”

There’s one stark reality on the sector which calls for more players:

“The accommodation shortage is so dire, we are only just beginning to scratch the surface (…) there is a gap of about 1.8 million student beds in Nigeria alone.”

Looking forward to your comments as I know most students in Nigerian universities, past and present, have experienced at least one of the above scenarios.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Nnamdi O. Madichie

Nnamdi O. Madichie

Nnamdi O. Madichie, PhD. Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (FCIM); Research Fellow Bloomsbury Institute London .