Alexandria Procter, UCT alumnus and founder of Digsconnect, took a look at the student accommodation issue and decided it was time for a fresh approach. She felt that a system needed to be built and implemented by the people who understand the situation intimately – students who had themselves struggled to find suitable accommodation.
Procter, who describes herself as an “accidental entrepreneur”, had planned on pursuing a career in science or writing. But it was during her Students’ Representative Council (SRC) tenure in 2014 that she was first confronted with the accommodation crisis and conceptualised a solution.
However, she only started developing a basic version of the Digsconnect platform in November last year. Since then, there have been several redesigns of the site with a developer and, if all goes according to plan, it will officially be launched this week.
“At the end of last year I had a free weekend and I thought: ‘Might as well knock something together,’ ” says Procter. “The journey from there turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”
Procter completed her BSc in biology and philosophy at UCT, graduating at the end of 2015. She had planned to start her honours in biology this year, but pulled out just before the first semester and began to focus fully on Digsconnect.
“The department has been incredibly supportive and I don’t think I would’ve made the leap if it wasn’t for some great advice given to me by one of the lecturers there,” she says.
Rethinking student accommodation
Digsconnect is a platform for off-campus student accommodation that allows registered students to create accounts and post their profiles as potential digs mates. This helps them to pair up with other students at their institution to rent out a place, or to fill an empty room at a digs.
“I thought about the biggest pain points of being a student and designed solutions for them ... I’ve got an idea in my head that I think will help people, but it’s only by their feedback that I’ll know when I’ve hit the mark.”
Any student who is registered at any tertiary education institution in Cape Town can use Digsconnect.
“Our operations are based in Cape Town, which is why we’re limiting our scope to the city. We need to make sure it’s perfect here, where we reckon it’s needed most, before we spread to other places.
“There is no go-to place to find student accommodation and find other students at your university to rent with, especially if you’re a first-year student coming from out of town,” she says. “Now it’ll be easier to form lift clubs, to connect with classmates and study groups, to walk together and make campuses safer.”
Security and safety were top priority while designing the site.
“Everyone has a friend that’s been scammed by fake landlords, or moved into a place that wasn’t accurately represented,” says Procter.
Students verify their Digsconnect accounts by using their university issued email addresses and link to their social media, creating a reliable community.
“We personally verify every landlord, offer to have professional photographs of their property taken free of charge and, via the tech on our site, guide them through the entire process of securing a tenant.
“A user can verify another user, and multiple verifications by users shows authenticity. This works two ways though, as landlords can also see which students have been ‘backed’,” she says.
The site is free to use for all students and was designed specifically for mobile use, so students who don’t have access to computers and interact online via their phones will be able to navigate it easily.
Disgconnect also allows students receiving financial aid to pay their rent directly via the site using sBux.
Tenacity is the name of the game
Procter’s idea has evolved over the years. She initially thought she could finish the site in six weeks and then make it a weekend project while she was doing her honours.
“I had no idea what I was in for when I started this. It’s turned into a six-month marathon that I’ve been running at a sprint,” she says.
“I was essentially homeless and sleeping on a friend’s couch for the first three months of building this, trying and failing more times than I can count to recruit a backend developer, cold-calling landlords and getting shut down,” says Procter.
She advises entrepreneurs to have the courage of their convictions and stick to their decisions.
“Honestly, tenacity is the name of the game. It’s about learning from the mistakes and trying again. And again. At the end of the day you’ve just got to believe in your product, believe in its worth and value and know that it’s something worth doing,” she says.
“Every day I see another reason why Digsconnect is valuable and how it can add substantial value to people’s lives. It’s tough, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
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