Bissessor speaks about pushing the boundaries and making her mark in property and the male-dominated development industry in Africa. She also talks about her roles as COO of Gateway Real Estate Africa, and as head of ESG at London-listed Grit Real Estate Income Group.
You can also listen to this podcast on iono.fm here.
Welcome to The Property Pod, South Africa’s premier property investor podcast. On this weekly show, we gain insider insights from leading executives, directors, analysts, developers and entrepreneurs in the property sector.
We are profiling leading women in the property industry in August, which is Women’s Month in South Africa. On this latest podcast, we chatted in-studio with Shevira Bissessor, chief operating officer of Gateway Real Estate Africa, or Grea, which is a subsidiary of London-listed Grit Real Estate Income (Group).
Shevira is also head of ESG at Grit, which recently achieved a major green building and sustainability breakthrough with its new office development in Grand Baie in Mauritius, dubbed The Precinct, which has become the first commercial development in Africa to achieve EcoDistrict certification.
The Precinct is also home to Grit’s global headquarters. Some Moneyweb listeners and readers may remember that Grit was once listed on the JSE and has strong South African links, despite its focus being on the rest of Africa, and that’s outside South Africa in terms of property investment.
Shevira hails from South Africa and last year was named the top woman in real estate at the Africa Property Investment Awards.
Highlights of her interview appear below. You can also listen to the full podcast above or download it from iono.fm, Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
You’re here at Moneyweb’s studio in Houghton for this in-studio interview. Thanks for coming in. Are you based in Mauritius or still based [in] South Africa?
“I’ve actually got the best of both worlds. I’m based in South Africa, but I get to travel into Mauritius every six weeks for a week or two …”
“It’s always work, work, work, but I try to put in some pleasure there sometimes.”
Shevira, you have been with Grit and Grea for about four years now. How has it been in the role and what did you do before that?
“Reflecting on the last four years, I actually started with Grea when I was six months pregnant. Shortly thereafter Covid struck, so it was very challenging trying to learn a new business without being able to travel, and having to work remotely.”
“But I was able to learn the business very quickly and develop some processes and strategies, so that we [were] able to deliver our property developments across Africa amid Covid. [That was] a very exciting challenge, but I managed to get through it.”
“Before joining Grea, I was the market sector director at Aecom, where I spent 16 years …”
“I joined as the COO of Grea and as part of the Grit 2.0 strategy. And when we became a subsidiary of Grit, that’s when I took on the role of head of ESG for the [Grit] group as well.”
Can you share a little bit of your background? Where did you grow up and what did you study? Certainly, it has positioned you somewhat in terms of your executive role today at Grea and Grit.
“I’m a Durban girl from Reservoir Hills. I come from a family of five siblings. I’m actually a twin as well. I grew up working at my dad’s glass and aluminium business since I was eight years old. I took a natural liking to buildings and numbers, and that’s when my sister Jenny and my dad, having worked with professionals within the industry, suggested that I study quantity surveying. That’s when I expanded my tertiary [education] into doing a BSc in property development.”
“I then did my honours in quantity surveying. I think my learnings [were] at my dad’s business which entailed a lot of customer focus, winning new business, cash flow and stock management, as well as the importance of relationships. I’ve watched my dad over the years build relationships, win new work, always putting the client first. And that assisted me in climbing the corporate ladder at Aecom.”
“I think when I joined Aecom, which was Davis Langdon before it became Aecom, I was very hungry to learn and take on every opportunity I could.”
“I had the pleasure of working with Greg Pearson at Aecom. Funnily enough, Bronwyn Knight was my client, whom I managed for many years. And when Greg and Bronwyn founded Grea and were actually looking [for] and cherry-picking the top talent across all the different industries within South Africa, that’s when they approached me to take on the position of COO. I was actually very honoured and excited and grabbed the opportunity.”
The top woman in real estate in Africa, that award must have been something for you. You mentioned Bronwyn Knight. It’s not surprising. Bronwyn was a founder of Grit. In fact, we interviewed her on the Property Pod back in 2021. Share some of your thoughts on your accolade.
“Yes, I think it was something indeed. The night I received the award I actually had the opportunity to reflect on the last 20 years of my career, a career in a male-dominated industry. And that’s when I realised the culmination of hard work, dedication, experience, and commitment that it’s taken me to get to this point in life.”
“I was very humbled and honoured by the award, and it actually put things into perspective – that hard work and dedication do definitely pay off.”
Talking about women in the industry, it is Women’s Month. How do you push the boundaries and make your mark as a woman in property and the development industry in Africa, which I suppose is even more male-dominated than perhaps in South Africa?
“Firstly, I’m very passionate about property. I can also be very assertive when I need to be, and I’m strong-minded and I never give up until I’ve achieved something.”
“I’ll give you two examples. I was told by a male colleague back in the early days of my career that going to Rwanda at the time was not safe for me. That didn’t stop me. It motivated me, actually. I’m a go-getter and I do what it takes to get things done, whether it’s jumping on a plane or off a plane, whichever that might be. I’ve actually done that in Dubai – skydived …”
“I’m fearless. I make sure that I do what it takes and get it done.”
“Another example is I actually sat around a boardroom table where I was the only female, and my voice was not heard. I think at that point I was a bit frustrated, standing up and basically raising my voice until everybody heard me.”
Women need to be heard
“I think as women we need to do those things at times to be heard so that we can get our point across. I think I gained a lot of respect from the men in that boardroom thereafter, and nobody spoke over me again. Whatever I tried to get through at that point was actually done. So I’m grateful for those events in my life.”
“As a woman in a male-dominated industry, I find myself having to go further and put in more effort.”
“As an example, I lecture at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business at the Property Development Programming Collaboration with Sapoa [South African Property Owners Association]. I’ve been doing it since 2015, because I’m passionate about feasibility studies. But that’s the extra mile. It’s not only because of being a woman that I need to do this, but it’s because I’m also passionate about the subject of feasibility studies.”
Tell us about the recent EcoDistrict certification of The Precinct in Mauritius. What does it mean or entail? I gather you played a key role in this, considering your stint at Aecom and your current positions as COO at Grea and head of ESG at Grit.
“Yes, I think the EcoDistrict certification at The Precinct is actually the first commercial EcoDistrict certification in Africa, which we are very proud of. It’s been a great achievement for us, and it’s been my brainchild for a year and a bit.”
“I’ve worked a lot with our development manager on the project, Avisha [Phunwasi] at the time, and Solid Green, our green consultant. With this type of achievement, it’s basically one of the ways we are setting global benchmarks in Africa and going beyond buildings. It’s about creating that sustainability legacy around environmental and social, and obviously the monetary aspect as well.”
“But a little bit about the EcoDistrict certification. It’s based on three main pillars – equity, resilience, and climate change.”
“It’s based not just on a single building, but on the district itself, which we call The Precinct, which is made up of those three buildings. The EcoDistrict goes further into health and wellbeing, and basically we’ve introduced paddle courts, a healthy living lifestyle within the cafeterias in the building. It’s also about connectivity to the neighbouring properties and infrastructure.”
“The Precinct is also designed and organised in keeping with sustainable development principles, and this is basically to limit environmental impact, promote social cohesiveness, and also develop The Precinct economically. So it’s really an exciting certification for us …”
Gateway Real Estate Africa is now a subsidiary of Grit. How big is the group besides The Precinct? Can you share some of the other major developments and flagship properties in Africa?
“Grit, the group, is quite large. We are listed on the London and Mauritian stock exchanges. We have approximately 150 employees and own 59 assets across 12 countries in seven asset classes. We now have the expertise to capture the entire property value chain from cradle to grave.”
“That’s the most exciting part, where Grea is a subsidiary of Grit. And as Grea, we’ve delivered projects across all sectors.”
“To name a few across those sectors – the state-of-the-art Curepipe Artemis 68-bed hospital in Mauritius [and] we are also breaking ground soon on another new hospital in Mauritius, which is a 123-bed hospital focused on oncology.”
“That will be the first private oncology hospital on the island, and that’s really exciting for us. It’s an impact project because we are able to bring that specialised healthcare service to the island, whereas before this development a lot of the cancer patients would have to travel to South Africa or to India to get that care. But now we are bringing that sort of healthcare facility to the island, which we are very excited about.”
“We’ve developed a data centre, which is a five megawatt data centre, in Nigeria. We actually developed that within nine months, which is not normal, especially in Africa. We delivered it in half the time that it’s normally done.”
“We’ve done Rosalyn Grove, which is diplomatic housing in Kenya for the American Embassy. That’s a really high-end residential development made up of apartments and villas. And we’ve done the same in Ethiopia, and we’ve got a pipeline of projects with OBO [Overseas Buildings Operations], or the embassy, of the US there. We’ve also done projects in Uganda, a shopping centre, and in Morocco a mall.”
“That’s just to name a few. We’ve a huge pipeline of projects within various sectors and asset classes …”
“We’ve got a lot of focus in Kenya. We are working a lot with Rendeavour in Tatu City, which is very similar to Waterfall City from a concept and size perspective.
“So we’ve got a strong pipeline there, and we are very excited about that. That’s just one of the ways we are developing the rest of Africa. And we are very, very excited about that pipeline in there.”
Shevira, what can we expect from you in the industry over the next five to 10 years? Will you still be at Grit?
“Yes, I love working for Grit. I love working for Grea and I’ve got a huge focus with Bronwyn on growing women. And personally I am a RICS [Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors South Africa] assessor. And I basically love to grow and mentor women and ensure that the next generation of talented women grow to the top of their fields.
“For me it’s about also setting global benchmarks in the property sector for Africa with Grit and Grea, and creating more impact investment opportunities for our investors.”