The Opening of The Hub, Karen’s New Mall

In one of my other lives I supervised a retired senior Marks and Spencer executive who was doing research on why so few graduates of British universities chose the retail trade as a career.

This was about thirty years ago – and graduate perspectives, I imagine, have changed. Certainly, I reckon if Jonathan Yach were to talk with a group of undergrads in a careers counseling session, I feel sure he would inspire quite a few of them to try to do what he has done.

Jonathan is the Mall Manager of The Hub, the new shopping complex in Karen that opened its gates a couple of weeks ago. But The Hub is much more than a shopping mall – and that’s the point. As Jonathan says, it is a very special kind of real estate in the service of its community.

I began to write this while enjoying a fresh croissant and a glass of chilled wine at La Cascina, the small Italian restaurant with tables overlooking The Hub’s main square. This could be in Milan or Paris or even London in the summer time – but no Europeans (clearly not the Brits) could dance and do acrobatics like the slim Kenyan youngsters performing there in the square.

‘This is a happening place,’ Philippe Cauviere said when I interviewed him about a year ago when, yellow hard-hat on his head, he was overseeing the development of what has now become Kenya’s most advanced and most exciting mall. And it is certainly a happening place.

But let me review a few of the facts and figures: The Hub is 200 metres along the Dagoretti Road, from the Karen roundabout; it has six stylish buildings and open-sided walkways, with a centerpiece of a large square or piazza; behind, it has a man-made lake overlooked by restaurants; and there is parking space for 1,200 cars.

Many of the shops are already in business – for fashion, furniture, fitness and much else. Carrefour, the huge and prestigious French supermarket, will be opening very soon. As for restaurants, beside la Cascina there are some better-known names: Artcaffe, KFC, Ocean Basket, Spur, Domino’s Pizza, and Roast by Carnivore. And there are more to follow: Moroccan, Portuguese and Spanish.

Inside, especially in the piazza with its clock tower, you don’t feel you are in a shopping mall; you feel you are in a pleasant market town. In Nairobi, the Village Market is the only comparison, but it doesn’t have the open square –and so it doesn’t have the same sense of community.

As we walked round The Hub, Jonathan talked. He told me about four of the place’s guiding principles.

First, there is concern for the environment. The Hub is set well, with plenty of open spaces, the lake and the trees. ‘The frogs have arrived,’ Jonathan said. ‘Philippe is bringing the tilapia. And I want to have some geese.’

Not only that, The Hub has set up a ‘state of the art’ waste management and water purification system.

Second, there is a commitment to education. Jonathan is already thinking about succession, it seems. He has four graduate interns learning the crafts of mall management. And, as a Rotarian, he puts great store by vocational training.

Third, The Hub will celebrate diversity. There is variety in the architecture of the place, in the range of shops and restaurants – and also in the people, young and old, who will pass through the gates. There will be people from the local community – and, especially now the southern bypass is open, from the larger conurbation stretching from Ngong Town to Westlands and beyond.

Fourth, there is a determination to provide high quality service. Apart from the shops and the restaurants there is wellness centre and plenty of distractions for children. Not only that, with regard to diversity again, it will be a place where you can get keys cut, hair groomed and laptops repaired. Free Wi-Fi is available. The Hub has a dog policy; yes, you can walk your dog there, provided it is on a leash. And, in terms of cleanliness and efficiency, Jonathan is looking for five-star hotel standards.

I would add a fifth principle: entertainment. As I sat at La Cascina, as well as the dancers and the acrobats, I watched some youngsters putting on a display of skateboarding around a maze of straw bales. And I made a note to tip off some puppeteer friends of mine that The Hub piazza would make an excellent venue for their performances.

Yes, The Hub is so much more than a shopping mall. I lingered over my croissant and my wine. I prolonged my stay with two scoops of Italian ice-cream… The Hub is a place where, as well as spend money, you can happily spend time.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation

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