Property investor Nkandu Chitah’s entrepreneurial journey

Nkandu Chitah tells us about the challenges of starting out in the real-estate industry and how to stay on the path when the road to entrepreneurial success gets bumpy

Zambian-born entrepreneur Nkandu Chitah says he’s always been intrigued by people who accumulate wealth having started with practically nothing.

Curiosity drove him to study affluent individuals, and he learnt that wealth could be found in the property business. “This sparked my interest in property investing,” he says

He describes himself as a cautious optimist, and says he focuses on issues that offer him growth and positivity.

In 2007, Chitah made his first property investment, managing an acquired property. Immediate cash flow was his priority at the time, so he targeted big flats in areas close to universities. It enabled him to rent each room out, which yielded a higher rental income than if he had rented out the whole place to a single tenant.

“In hindsight, it was a great strategy, but because I didn’t know any better, I didn’t have proper systems in place,” he says. “The tenant turnover was high, for various reasons, and as a result, I was constantly searching for tenants.”

He struggled with systemising issues of water and electricity bill collections, and his rental collection profits were being used to pay these bills. “I also battled with maintenance of the properties, and a simple mishap like a burst geyser would typically lead to a loss of tenants, which meant a loss of income, and more work to not only get the geyser fixed but to also screen new potential tenants before finding the right fit.”

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He says that during this time he learnt a great deal about property. The process of identifying a good property, and negotiating with the bank and the bond originator was in itself a challenge.

Chitah’s entrepreneurial journey started as an engineering student at Witwatersrand University. When he arrived at Wits, his focus was only on acquiring a degree that would help him get his dream job; he never imagined that one day he’d become an investor and own multiple properties.

“As a self-sponsored student in a foreign country, I had to pay my way through school and it was this desperate need to survive that planted the entrepreneurial seed,” he explains. “As a student, I got involved in many business ventures, from buying and selling laptops and cellphones on campus for a profit to selling second-hand shoes in Joburg’s CBD, to exporting goods to Zambia and Malawi.”

He graduated as an electrical engineer and secured a job, hoping to climb the corporate ladder in pursuit of success. Yet he felt under-utilised.

“This ‘re-triggered’ my entrepreneurial spirit, and I started to look for business opportunities I could pursue while still employed. I tried many business ventures, most of which failed, but I was able to create a sustainable, profitable business with one venture.”

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Chitah attributes his success to having the right business partner. He’s since expanded his business interests to kitchen design and installations, engineering design and consultancy, back-up power systems solutions and mineral resources.

The biggest challenge he faces in business, however, has been cash flow.

“Cash flow is the lifeline of any business. You could have an order book filled with projects, but that counts for little – clients could pay you late, assuming they actually do pay. I learnt this lesson the hard way, and this has influenced how I structure working arrangements with clients. I try to minimise the risk of losing capital, even if it may come at the cost of lower profits.”

He says he has an eye for good deals and that his passion for property investment has pushed him out of his comfort zone.

“My early business experiences taught me the power of leveraging off the right partners,” he recalls. “When I came across a property that ticked all the boxes, albeit, in Cape Town, I was fortunate to find the right partners on the ground. They helped me to purchase and maintain the property, and to top it all, an acquisition outside Gauteng, where I received our rentals – hassle-free.”