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The rental industry is broken: can Ekaya fix it?

For startups, getting one’s foot in the target market’s door is everything. For people looking to rent, the story’s much the same.

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Ekaya describes itself as an Airbnb for long-term renting. It’s a trust-based marketplace where you can list, find and rent a place from your phone and on the web. Landlords, on the other hand, have a platform to advertise, vett tenants, collect rental and manage risk. But apart from that, the South African-based startup has a lot of other features that make it unique and really exciting.

At face value, Ekaya has a killer discovery experience. Currently in private beta, the user interface works smoothly while clever filter sliders help the searching process. The map interface is pretty, useful and seems to do the job.

But the real magic happens behind the scenes

Instead of tenants having to pay fat initial deposits, Ekaya also offers an insurance scheme that’s meant to make the experience for the landlord and the renter more efficient. Tenants pay a smaller monthly fee instead that can be used to cover damages.

If Ekaya’s model has its way, there won’t be too many insurance claims. “Ekaya is all about the trust factor. We try and match good tenants and landlords instead of the usual spray-‘n-pray approach,” says CEO Justin Melville.

Each tenant has a profile (kind of like a “rental graph”) which can source reviews from previous landlords to create a legitimate record to make the scanning process less of a hassle.

Speaking from personal experience, renting’s a bitch. From looking for a flat to having to deal with lease complications, deposits — the process is time consuming and too often unreliable. Melville obviously agrees and says, “Renting is still a horribly opaque experience that has had little innovation in the last decade.”

The main challenge in this market, Melville notes, is the noise. “Would-be tenants get lost in the noise and landlords get buried by it.”

“The majority of South Africans don’t understand tech, but they do understand renting,” argues Ekaya. As much as 30% of South Africans rent. Of those, the average tenant does so for roughly 10 years, moving from flat to flat. That’s a massive chunk of the market.

There is a lot of room (get the pun?) for growth in terms of future uses of the valuable user data and financial flexibility. Ekaya claims to be the first service to offer organisations the ability to not only service, but map, this huge and fragmented market.

Though currently in stealth mode, Ekaya says it will also be doing some interesting things with financial services and payments in the short future.

It’s all about the product

The founders all have a strong background in the tech and startup space in Cape Town. Melville was creative director at HealthQ and, a few years back, founded Airborne — a startup that had the ambitious idea of reshaping the music industry.

Ruark Ferreira is CXO and previous co-founder of Airborne while Rudolf Vavruch has experience as a software engineer and worked for Ogilvy Interactions and Viamedia.

After Airborne closed its doors, the team started Showhouse, which is an app that gives potential house buyers a map of available real estate spots on show. The app navigates, checks people in and is currently being used by some agencies in Cape Town’s Northern suburbs.

After joining local seed fund accelerator, 88mph, Ekaya’s foundation product was born in a matter of weeks.

The product is still being polished but basically works like this:

“Our passion and skills in building great software intersects with a clear and valuable commercial opportunity to create Ekaya,” says Melville. By sharing the same DNA of Airborne and other product-focused backgrounds, Ekaya hopes its experience and flexibility will make it unique and drive Ekaya to success.

Instead of trying to cram a product into a saturated industry and hoping people would latch on, Ekaya can naturally ride the trends we see globally. It’s fulfilling a need rather than a want.

“This isn’t really one of those ‘big idea’ startups,” explains Melville. “What we see is a clear opportunity to solve a problem that affects one in three people.” If macroeconomic trends are anything to go by, the demand in the rental market is high which means more people rent, for longer.

Ekaya was chosen as one of the seven startups to go through 88mph’s 2014 programme where it received US$75 000 investment from business investor and mentor Mark Heerden.

More recently, it secured R300 000 (around US$30 000) after pitching at Net Prophet’s SparkUp event. Other than that, the company is looking to raise a Series A Round.

Getting traction is critical

It’s not getting into the space without competition however. Freemium classifieds site Gumtree, though not without its faults, has created a rather big name for itself in South Africa and sees over 30 000 new ads posted per day, many of which are rental-related.

Potential competitor, Africa Internet Holding-backed startup, Lamudi, has also been expanding fast across the African continent, and has recently launched an app.

The gap Ekaya hopes to get into — that between tenants and landlords — is filled by rental agents. But rather than trying to replace your day-to-day rental agent, the service could be leveraged and serve as an amplification of their services.

Given its transparency, Ekaya can offer agencies an API, for instance, that might see them increase their productivity. It’s sort of like what Uber is for taxis.

Talking challenges, Ekaya says it’s walked into a regulatory nightmare. “We have to navigate a labyrinth of governmental and industry regulatory structures in addition to the challenges of building a compelling consumer technology project,” Melville adds.

Ekaya will, over the course of 2014, look for high value landlords in the South African real estate market and drive rental campaigns both on- and offline.

In the next six months the startup is going to try and expand its market share. “Perhaps our greatest, material challenge is gaining market share at a rapid rate. These kind of plays are fuelled by growth,” Melville notes.

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