Watamu is best known as a sleepy cove with perfect white sand, a secluded bay and a marine park full of exotic sea creatures. A few resorts and restaurants stand along the shore facing the striking Indian Ocean. Arabuko Sokoke Forest enfolds the town, while Mida Creek, an inlet fringed with mangroves, ﬂows along its south. The atmospheric Gede Ruins relax gently into the embrace of the forest, the last remaining evidence of the town's history as a port on the ancient trade routes
Enter Palm Exotjca. The team plans to build a 61-ﬂoor exclusive development offering, according to its website, 'chic residential suites, premium commercial space, eclectic restaurants and a vibrant casino'. The ﬁve-star amenities also include a shopping mall, business centre, theatre, cinema, nightclub, ﬁtness centre, wellness spa, children's play area and four swimming pools. The building, which at 370m will be the tallest in Africa, will be 'an impressive address'. Pictures of the building rising from Watamu's idyllic shores look impressive if incongruous.
But the plan raises questions. Watamu has a population of around 14,000; its economy depends predominantly on tourism and ﬁshing. Tourism here is low impact and high quality. Resorts are rarely full, and those that offer similar apartments have sold only a few. Beachfront houses and plots, on sale for months, remain unsold – and this new construction isn't on the beach. Who is to stay at Palm Exotjca?
We rang the only contact number on the website – a number in New York – but the call rang out unanswered.
Chairman Dr Giuseppe Moscarino – a veterinarian from Rome whose passions are art, architecture and Africa's extraordinary beauty – has over 20 years of management and investment experience. Managing Director Oliver Nepomuceno manages commercial and investment businesses around the world, oversees portfolio management for private clients, and heads several companies, joint ventures and public companies. Architect Lorenzo Pagnini – with a passion for forms – holds an MA in architecture and urban planning, and has over 18 years of architectural experience.
The team plans to pump 500 million dollars into the economy and to provide local employment – but who the investors are has yet to be announced.
That 61-storey skyscraper developed on a small plot in Watamu must not be built. If they want to build such a skyscraper, they should do it in Nairobi or Mombasa, not on the beach of Watamu.
- Najib Balala, Minister of Tourism.
The project was to start in September 2018 but there was no sign of construction until last week when drilling rigs arrived, presumably for test drills to see when they'll hit bedrock; for so tall a building, the foundations will need to be around 90m deep in solid ground. Watamu, so close to the sea, has a huge depth wet sand between the surface coral and the lower bedrock.
A building taller than the Pinnacle in Nairobi – taller than the Shard in London – does Watamu need this?
I'm concerned about the viability of the project. There are lots of properties for sale in Watamu that aren't selling; who will buy an apartment in a tower block some distance from the beach when no one is buying beautiful beachfront properties. There's just not the demand in Watamu. Unless a jet ﬂies into Malindi every week, how are they to ﬁll the rooms?
Financially the project doesn't seem feasible. The cost of building this structure is enormous; how can they get a return on this investment? We don't want a start-up that for economic reasons isn't ﬁnished: a partially completed skyscraper. And if the building is abandoned half built – who will pay for the demolition, and how would demolition of such a building affect Watamu, the marine park, and beyond?
A building so tall needs deep foundations in solid bedrock. Such a structure has never before been built in Kenya. Five civil engineering companies in the world are qualiﬁed to take this on; none of them is listed in the plans.
I'm also concerned about the strain on our resources and the environmental impact. Consider the amount of water and electricity that will be needed for the construction, and afterwards the operation, of such a building. We already have problems with power ﬂuctuation – how will 60 ﬂoors of lights and lifts affect that? Our water gets switched off regularly because of an ongoing dispute over unpaid bills between the Coastal Water Board and Kenya Power. How is our road network going to cope with the increased trafﬁc needed to build something so big, and how are they to dispose of the waste the project will create?
This project shows a major ﬂaw in the planning system. How can the Kiliﬁ Government approve this project without consulting the local community? The Palm Exotjca team had two public meetings at which they promised locals employment and revenue. The Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) was released on 31st May 2019 and the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) gave 30 days to submit comments. However, the full ESIA report wasn't made public until 15th June, leaving only 15 days to evaluate a complex environmental assessment for a 500 million USD project.
Nine completely independent projects are buried in the ESIA, each requiring an individual ESIA and planning permission, and each needing to be completed before the main project, including environment, water, electricity, roads, waste management and housing for the workforce.
To make the concrete, 80,000m3 of water is needed. We currently get 2,500m3 a day in Watamu South which Malindi Water and Sewage Company (MAWASCO) struggles to provide. If they install a desalination plant, they'll need to produce 300m3 of water per day which, by reverse osmosis, requires 740m3 of water, since the system is only 40% effective. That will produce 500m3 of super saline brine per day which will go back into the water table.
Kenya Power and Lighting Corporation (KPLC) says they'll upgrade the Kakuyuni sub-station with a 23 MVA transformer and 25km of overhead line. This will cost 160 million Ksh which Palm Exotjca has to pay before they can start building. That's just for the electricity required to build. More will be required to operate the structure once it opens.
To build the Shard, a similar sized building in London, 20 tonnes of premixed cement was poured every three minutes for 38 hours continuously to form the foundation slab in a single piece, and aircon was needed to keep it cold throughout the process. How is this possible in Watamu?