By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 14 February 2020 for Rotary Timeline)
The 2020 Rotary District 9212 Conference (DISCON 2020 for short) will primarily take place in the new Sarit Expo Centre which just opened last year in Nairobi’s up-market suburb of Westlands.
Technically speaking, the Expo Centre is part of the third phase of Sarit Centre, which itself was the very first enclosed shopping mall in all of East Africa.
The first phase of the Centre was completed in 1983. But the idea evolved out of a business partnership between two friends, V.S. Shah and Maneklal Rughani, both of whom ran family businesses, including bookstores upcountry. The Rughani businesses originally were in Karatina while the Shah’s were in Murang’a.
In 1965 the two joined forces and started the Textbook Centre on Kijabi Street in Nairobi. At the time, the Shah family lived on two plots in Westlands which would eventually be replaced by [the original] Sarit Centre.
It was in 1973 when a close family friend came to visit the Shahs and advised them to “never sell this land. Instead, you should buy the adjacent plots because this land is blessed,” the visitor said.
Shah took him seriously. Together with Rughani they followed their friend’s advice up until they owned five acres in Westlands. They had already begun thinking about building a giant shopping centre. But in 1976, Rughani traveled to London and saw the magnificent Brent Cross Shopping Mall. That was something of an epiphany for him because now that he had seen London’s first enclosed shopping centre, it was now clear what the two families would do with those five acres.
“It took some time after that before construction began in 1981 since they needed to do our research and planning,” says Nitin Shah, Chief Executive Officer of the Sarit Centre. “They did market studies, developed the architectural design and all the other planning that was required,” he adds.
The process was temporarily waylaid in 1982 due to the coup attempt on the Kenya Government. But by 1983, what Nitin now calls Phase One of the Centre was fully built, all 200,000 square feet of it.
Starting out with only two retail stores, the Textbook Centre and Uchumi’s Super Market, it wasn’t until 1986 when all the space was filled with retail stores.
“Most of the first tenants were start-ups, such as Healthy U and Hotpoint,” adds Nitin who says the concept of a shopping mall was initially new, but once the public got used to it, Sarit became a popular venue and business began to boom.
By 1994, Nitin explains that the demand for more retail space at Sarit had grown. It was around that time that he had gone to Singapore and seen shopping centres that were extremely innovative.
“I came back with a proposal that Phase two needed to include a cinema, a food court, a gym and exhibition hall that would allow us to accommodate both local and international exhibitions in that space,” he says, noting that these were new ideas at the time.
Phase two quickly attracted international franchises like Woolworths and Mr Price. Plus their original brands bought into the new wing and expanded their businesses significantly.
For instance, Uchumi grew from 10,000 to 50,000 square feet. Textbook Centre expanded from 3,000 to 10,000 square feet. And even a specialty store like Healthy U grew from 1,000 to 3,000 square feet. Plus, the food court featured nine different food franchises. In addition, Phase two was more entertainment- and activity-oriented. At the same time, the number of visitors moving about the Centre easily doubled.
Meanwhile, the families continued to plan and consider the possibilities of expanding Sarit even further. They had gradually bought still more adjacent land over the years until they lastly owned 12 acres.
The decision to embark on Phase Three was made in 2012. But it posed a challenge: how best to utilize that land? How to develop a clear vision and a master plan for the future of Sarit?
It was a that point that the families called in expert advice from abroad to help them devise that master plan.
“What we want Phase three to become is ‘a city within a city,” says Nitin who adds that construction didn’t start right away.
“It began in February of 2017,” adds Atul Shah, the Centre’s financial manager. “The construction is ongoing,” continues Nitin who is thrilled that already, a number of new international retail firms have come on board Phase three, including L.C. Wakiki, Clark Shoes and Sketchers as well as others like Carrefour from France which came in to replace Uchumi which has had its share of financial woes.
In total, as of now, Sarit houses over 500,000 square feet of space occupied by a diversity of retail shops, offices, medical facilities and other utilities. Over 25,000 visitors come to the Centre every day. And the families have even constructed a nine-level parking ‘silo’ that can hold no less than 900 cars.
Phase three will also include a new gym facility, cinemas, bowling alleys and even a children’s playground. And while not all the businesses have moved in as yet, the Sarit Expo Centre itself has already become a popular venue for international exhibitions as well as private functions and banquets like the one the DISCON 2020 will be hosting on the final night of the conference.