Freelance workers constitute a growing slice of the labour force. Used to independent and flexible work, they have always been the number one customers of coworking spaces. Up until the pandemic: COVID-19 has revolutionized the work environment by introducing remote working for regular employees and other types of workers who used to commute to an office or institutional workplace.
Working from home is not an option for everybody. Some like it, some don’t – some can’t: children, chores, remote working spouses may interfere with our productivity. This is where ToffeeTribe comes to the rescue: a new startup based in Nairobi, Kenya, is repurposing fancy restaurants spaces to accommodate flexible workers who need a quiet place to work and don’t mind bottomless coffee and a discount on their meals.
Nginda Nganga and Karambu Mathai are two entrepreneur friends who started ToffeeTribe in January 2020, not long before the first COVID-19 lockdown. The concept of ToffeeTribe is unique in the African continent, and despite the difficulties posed by the pandemic the community has been growing slowly but steadily, and Nganga and Mathai plan to expand to other cities in Kenya. But how does it work?
ToffeeTribe is not your usual coworking space. A coworking space is designed to be only that, a coworking space. With ToffeeTribe, any fancy restaurant in town that meets certain criteria can be repurposed to accommodate flexible workers for the day, providing internet connection, menu discounts, and a number of other perks including bottomless coffee and community connections. But there is definitely more: ToffeeTribe members can go and work in any location that joined the startup project, allowing for a change of scenery which has proven to have a positive impact on your mental well-being and creativity.
The win-win for both restaurants and workers is that restaurants increase their steady clientele and stay busier on slow days and hours; workers, on the other hand, benefit from a drop-in work space where they can get their work done or connect with fellow ToffeeTribe members.
ToffeeTribe counts four locations in Nairobi, and more are expected to join soon. ToffeeTribe works with restaurants better than coffee shops, because coffee shops do not offer a quiet working environment, which the Tribe members seek. In order to become a member, it is necessary to register on the website (https://www.toffeetribe.com) and choose a plan: daily, weekly, or monthly. Via the ToffeeTribe app, members can check available spots in all the locations, and reserve a seat or just show up at the location. There is a check-in procedure which is instantly taken care of by a tablet using a QR code that is unique for that location. And voilà, you are set for the day, enjoying the restaurant with your favourite décor, bottomless coffee, and most importantly other Tribe members to network with.
Building a community
It is important to understand that ToffeeTribe is much more than creating workspaces in restaurants, which it may seem at first glance. Besides the careful selection of the locations performed by Nganga and Mathai, which includes high-profile restaurants rather than Starbucks-like cafés, the biggest added value of the Tribe membership is the community. Each ToffeeTribe member is automatically subscribed to a Slack group and a WhatsApp group, where information on who’s hiring and funding opportunities is always circulated. Nganga and Mathai organize a bi-monthly event called Toffee4Breakfast where members get to meet in one location (rotating), enjoy breakfast, and network.
The community includes about 300 members to date, of which 60 to 80 active members (checking in one of the locations daily or weekly). Who are the members? Freelance workers from designers to developers, students, the expat community, and digital nomads.
The startup and COVID
Nganga and Mathai launched ToffeeTribe in January 2020. It wasn’t hard to get the first members onboard, thanks to a wise pre-launch campaign on social media and a landing page where people could learn about the new opportunity was coming to them. So, a small community started forming even before the official inauguration of the startup.
Little did Nganga and Mathai know that a few short weeks later the country would shut down for COVID-19. Many businesses including restaurants had to shut their doors. This may have slowed down the growth of ToffeeTribe, but it didn’t kill it because of the most important keyword in the startup name: Tribe, the community. Here is where it is clear that ToffeeTribe is not only a coworking solution, it is a lively community that interacts on Slack and social media, meets online and discusses business regardless of location. This made the ToffeeTribe project resilient to COVID.
Of course, as soon as it was possible to meet in person again, restaurants opened up and Toffee members re-took possession of their beloved restaurant shared space.
Boosting the world’s economy
To join ToffeeTribe there is no membership fee, you only pay for the desired plan (daily, weekly, monthly) which has a very reasonable pricing. Founders Nganga and Mathai share part of the revenue from the plan payments with the restaurants, which in addition benefit from an increased clientele for the meals. Nganga and Mathai believe in a steady long-term growth: the aim is to establish themselves as the go-to place for anything remote work related. After all, remote and flexible work has been a reality across the world, very common in large metropolis like Los Angeles and Tokyo, and COVID only increased this trend. Remote and flexible work is the future, and this takes nothing away from the importance of connecting with other people and networking. It is just not necessary to see the same colleagues at the same workplace anymore.
By supporting the growing flexible and independent workforce, Nganga and Mathai are giving their contribution to boosting the economy of their city, their country, even of their continent – and ultimately of the world, shaping a borderless community-based future.