Akwaaba – you got the job and you are moving to Africa! In 2010, I too joined the brain gain bandwagon and moved back to Africa from Washington, DC for a new job. Africa is fast becoming a major destination for international relocation. It is home to the world’s fastest growing economies and its natural resources continue to lure in foreign direct investment. Multinational companies like Nomura and Engie are opening local offices and returnee entrepreneurs have inspired an entire generation to buy one-way tickets home.
Just last month, I moved again for work – from Tunis to Abidjan. Though my sophomore relocation was intra-African and therefore less traumatic, it reminded me of all the things I wish someone had told me the first go round. When you are coming into the continent for the first time, it can get interesting because a new address in Africa means accepting some distinct realities about the construction industry. While you may get a good briefing from your employer on setting up a local bank account or getting your work permit, they will most likely not provide much help with finding a home – even if they are paying the rent. My tips below will help to reduce the culture shock of house hunting and give you a head start to finding rental gold even before sealing your shipping container.
Tip 1: Explore picture-hanging solutions
My top recommendation is to explore unconventional methods of hanging your artwork because walls are likely to be impenetrable. Though the construction varies by country, many homes in Africa are made of cement, which makes a hammer and nail powerless. Personally, I ditched the nails, invested in the Command brand picture-hanging system, and never looked back. For items whose weight was beyond what the Command brand could hold, the art of propping things up against the wall instead of hanging them for example. Or you can find and bring a lot of these type of nails. They are magical.
Tip 2: Get excited about appliance shopping
Bring major appliances with you to your new duty station because in most cases there will be none at your new digs. Even if the property is newly built! More often than not, home seekers would be responsible for purchasing their own stove, washing machines and other accessories of daily chores. Also, central cooling and heating systems are largely reserved for office buildings. So, most homes have split air conditioners in each room that you may have to buy and have installed. Since most large appliances are imported into Africa, save on the resale mark up and come equipped from the onset.
Tip 3: Seek out an apartment for an open plan kitchen
If you love open floor plan kitchens, narrow your search to apartments built in the last 3-4 years. Although the outcome is delicious, traditional African meal preparation can get well…messy. Chopping onions, noisy blenders, peeling yam, pounding fufu, and eye-searing doses of pepper do not easily translate into an entertainment epicenter. However, the rise of millennials, women in the workforce, the arrival of food delivery apps like JumiaFood etc. have all contributed to a low maintenance African cuisine culture. While, open plan kitchens are hard to find in older real estate and villas, young Africans now embrace open floor plan kitchens and property developers have taken note. But only in apartments for the time being…
Tip 4: Think about your utilities
Whatever you do, opt for appliances that do not run on electricity – megawatts are expensive! Electricity will likely cost more in Africa than wherever you are coming from, particularly if you are moving to Africa from ‘the West’. If you slow roast that leg of lamb in an electric oven, it will cost you an arm and a leg. When considering the type of appliance to buy, always think about the cost of utilities. Always ask questions about voltage, types of outlet and the energy source most prominently used in your new host country. For instance, in Abidjan, most ovens are fueled by individual gas propane tanks and homes come equipped with gas hookups so it would make most sense to buy a gas stove. Don’t go broke cooking jollof.
Tip 5: Warm up marble floors with rugs
Bring rugs to accentuate the tile floors you will encounter in many African rentals. During my travels, I never saw a home on the continent with wall-to-wall carpeting and rarely any with hardwood. The flooring of choice remains ceramic or marble. Marble tile looks great on its own, but I feel that rugs help to demarcate spaces and are easier on the toes. However, outside of North Africa where artisans are experts in kilim and there is a thriving local rug industry, most African capitals import quality rugs from the likes of Turkey, and the rugs come at a premium. Bring your own.
Tip 6: Expect quirks in the bathroom
Bathrooms outside of those in hotels are typically not a top interior design priority in many African capitals. As a result, bathrooms on the continent can be a bit odd. Depending on how spa-like you demand your bathroom to be, as a renter you may wish to make a few upgrades to the finishes. For instance, you may encounter a shower without a glass encasement or a bathtub located such that it is impractical to hang a shower rod. If such design oversights irk you, come prepared with workarounds. One such solution to come with is specialized shower rods. In most cases, the landlord will not object to upgrades done on your own dime so give yourself a small budget.
Tip 7: Think about the weather
Try to avoid leather furniture because certain parts of the continent, specifically West Africa, are extremely humid and the humidity could invite unfriendly spores to take refuge on your couch. If you absolutely must have leather, I recommend searching for a property that has a lot of sunshine and good air circulation. In other words, lots of windows you will be willing to keep open regularly! You can also pack a dehumidifier although these are often not efficient in very large spaces. Alternatively, you can just get very familiar with this housekeeping video.
These are some of the things I learned from globetrotting for my employer. Although the act of moving leaves most people with post-traumatic stress, with these few lessons you can arrive at your new African city a savvy house hunter, ready to decorate in la couleur locale.
Illustrations: Deun Ivory
Have you recently changed cities for a job? Share your international house hunting trials and triumphs in the comments!