Jess Cleland. Picture: Supplied
Jess Cleland. Picture: Supplied

Trekking 3,000km across West Africa on a mountain bike is not an activity that features on many bucket lists. But it’s the type of challenge Jess Cleland thrives on.

The arduous journey from Senegal to Ghana, which took almost six weeks in 2018 and helped raise funds for Joburg-based Paws R Us, combined her love of cycling, adventure travel and supporting animal rescue charities. It also provided her with insight into the continent’s burgeoning real estate markets, which will stand her in good stead as the new COO of Broll Property Group’s African operations.

Cleland, who trained as a mechanical engineer in Australia and holds a master’s in property and an MBA, will oversee the group’s business in 12 countries (excluding SA). These are Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini and Mauritius, where Cleland is based. She also heads Broll’s valuations and property intel divisions, and, at 40, is one of the group’s youngest executives.

Her key responsibility is to execute Broll’s five-year growth strategy and to entrench its position as the leading pan-African professional real estate services provider.

Clients include listed and unlisted property funds, developers and private equity investors. Broll’s ambit of services ranges from leasing, rental collection and facilities management to valuations, risk management and advising investors, landlords, tenants and business owners across various sectors on how to align their strategic real estate needs with their business objectives.

Cleland, who is from Tasmania and has Canadian roots, came to SA about 15 years ago to take up a position as research director at IPD (now MSCI) in Joburg after working for the firm’s Melbourne and London offices. "I thought relocating to Joburg would be fun for a short stint. Nearly 15 years later I’m still running around Africa."

Jess Cleland. Picture: Supplied
Jess Cleland. Picture: Supplied

Cleland joined Broll in 2013, originally as divisional director of strategy & consulting, and later became group MD for East Africa and the Indian Ocean. She says while Covid has been a game-changer for the African property services sector, the continent shouldn’t be seen as a homogeneous market. "The recovery in commercial property demand and values is playing out differently across individual African markets."

In Mozambique, for instance, there has been a noticeable increase in new developments in the corporate office and expat rental housing markets in anticipation of a recovery in the country’s oil and gas sector. In addition, the rapid expansion of Mozambique’s tech industry is boosting demand for office space suitable for smaller start-ups. Business confidence is also on the rebound in Ghana, on the back of a robust vaccination rollout. This should translate into stronger uptake of office space in that market in the next 12 months.

The retail property sector, particularly in Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria, remains active. Cleland says Broll has leased more than 700,000m² of shopping centre space across Africa in the past five years alone. But she believes alternative real estate sectors with "genuine need" such as education, health care, affordable housing and student accommodation offer the biggest growth opportunities.

"There’s also plenty of potential for Broll to help develop software and proptech solutions to streamline property and facilities management processes. Many landlords across Africa are still running their building operations manually, which is inefficient and adds unnecessary layers of costs."

Asked about her transition from mechanical engineering to property, Cleland says: "I don’t have an innate love of bricks and mortar. But real estate can make a huge contribution to improve the lives of people and it’s exciting to be part of that process — especially in the underdeveloped African context."

Cleland concedes that the old "Africa’s not for sissies" adage still rings true. "Real estate markets across the continent remain very sensitive to political uncertainty. And industry players have had to become more realistic in their total return expectations than was the case a decade ago when investors first started to build shopping centres across the continent."

She adds: "Africa is not a place where things happen easily. But easy tends to be boring and that’s why working on this continent is so rewarding."

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