Lost above Nairobi’s trees

I had not been to the Global Trade Centre (GTC), but it had come to me on several occasions in social media photos as the shiny modernity that took over Nairobi’s pride replacing Kenyatta International Convention Centre as the icon of the city skyline.

I remember especially one iconic photo taken by a talented photojournalist that headlined the World Bank 2021 Kenya Economic Update where ‘I love NBO’ was sticking up defiantly like the City’s solar compass, cradled by the Nairobi Expressway as if both pieces of slab had come together in a set.

I had passed beneath the monstrosity a couple of times and understood why Simba Corp- owners of Villa Rosa Kempinski had been litigious against its neighbors AVIC International, the Chinese firm behind GTC Towers. The projectiles simply dwarfed Nairobi beneath it. I had also seen promotional videos of GTC that glimmered in gloss editing and emotional music with not so many Kenyan models.

So when an old colleague asked me to come for the launch of its latest addition, hotel manager Pan Pacific serviced suites, that would take over two tower wings of the Avic properties, I obliged, partly because I wanted to see it from inside.

It would make a good tale at the village mama pima. A 184 meter behemoth, 42 floors up sitting on 7.5 acres that will host thousands through its five star hotels, luxury serviced apartments, residencies, offices and shoppers straddling three floors of consumerist retail of anything you can imagine that can be bought.

The last time I was at the mama Pima, kwaDiana, I had impressed upon them the virtues of the double decker road that flies over the city for 30 kilometers that you can do in minutes.

They marvel at such stories of Nairobi of roads as wide as football pitches with cars as many as in a movie screen and not the reality that even fewer can afford such luxurious amenities. Whenever you see traffic at the Expressway entry points, someone’s account is short and they have to embarrassingly stare at the red display of their insufficient account balance, as angrier richer cars road rage around the poor offender.

Nairobi is full of contrasts, to see things, you have to be immersed in the angry mess. While the Expressway rides shiny in social media photos, beneath it the old road is a crumpled, chipped and potholed highway; marked like child’s doodle that confuses drivers, clogged in traffic along sections built with disregard to pedestrians or pubic transport.

You have to join the hooting as cars try to decide whether to drive on incomplete sections of the road or round concrete blocks on white elephant road projects abandoned by the Chinese contractors.

It is easy to get to GTC but immediately I realized I had no idea how to get in, I missed the first gate, and the second was locked, so I had to find a way to turn back. When I got to the first gate I was directed to go round the building by very friendly security and found my way into Pan Pacific.

Now here I was getting lost in the city, I have been here a decade and still regard the city with the same suspicious fear I had taking advise on how not to get lost in Nairobi.

Read also: GTC: Nairobi’s hub for trade, culture, and arts nears completion

When we are preparing to come to the city, we are usually filled with dread about Nairobbery and its expanse. Househelps who never left their employers’ apartments fill us with dreadful tales about how the city is a maze of identical buildings and five million people milling around like a swarm of endless movement that can sweep you into confusion. If you ask for direction you are either robbed or lost even further.

But in reality we discover Nairobi is tame most of the times, just like the International hotel chains which for decades had feared coming into Africa. All of a sudden locations that housed decript buildings and mechanics are turning into swanky brands like Radisson, Diar Group, Accor, Marriott International, Hilton, and Hyatt feeding off business travel, conferences, team building, short breaks, outdoor events, and weddings.

Over the years, Nairobi positioned itself strategically in the region borrowing heavily to build new grade infrastructure to facilitate the comfort of a few thousand travelers; fronting a liberal foreign exchange market, friendly licensing and tax incentives as well as a large pool of unemployed labour and relative political stability.

But as the country struggles to see the return on giving away taxes and building low return infrastructure projects against maturing debt repayments, the government has turned into an unpredictable tax collector, with informal controls on currency and fiscal missteps that is choking domestic demand.

There are fears the recent government taxes could drive away high networth people with some 100 dollar millionaires said to have already flown off from the newly enacted tax measures.

All of a sudden businesses are finding themselves lost in Nairobi having come at the wrong plot of the Africa Rising story.

But businesses are still hopeful with Pan Pacific Hotels Group, the global hospitality company, headquartered in Singapore, that owns and manages over 50  hotels, resorts, and serviced suites in more than 30 cities across Asia Pacific, North America,  and Europe chosing Nairobi for its first African footprint.

PanPacific had this warm brown reception, friendly personnel who were getting into the rhythm of new business. I met my colleague and joined the rest of the journalists as we were ushered into these huge lifts and heaved up to sixth floor. Here is where the modesty of the reception gave way to the elegance of GTC in a boastful way.

Set just above Nairobi trees that surrounded us like grass covering dwarf buildings, the sixth floor sets out the entire structure on a platform of manicured grass, play area, jogging track and half Olympic size swimming pool. Here Nairobi’s future tallest trees are growing into concrete like suspended gardens that makes you forget your elevation and distorts your bearings.

The outdoor infinity pool offers a picturesque view of sunset sky while the pool bar offers a range of delicious cocktails, mocktails, and light snacks to choose from. Fitness enthusiasts can enjoy a complete workout in a fully equipped gym or relieve aches and pains in the sauna or dip at the jacuzzi to relax.

The piece of real estate was impressive, solid workmanship and clean finishing. The staff was hospitable as we went through the motion of getting acquitted with a new place, sip from new wine glasses and marvel at a snooker table with polished billiard balls.

Over the years, I have cut down on going to events, as senior journalists you leave that to the rookies as something you did on your way into the profession. But here I was in the company of young journalists and senior ones like me who have also gone on to set up their online outlets; that signing in next to all these digital media houses like Maudhui House felt profound, like the ground is shifting.

At the briefing Pan Pacific said this was their first location in Africa although they boasted a range of premium locations across the world under three brands, Pan Pacific, Park Royal and Park Royal collection.

Pan Pacific said they wanted to enter the market with an introductory price of $200 (Kes28,000) just below their normal $230 (Kes32,200) which in average was just above the range of the five star hotels in Nairobi that had rooms ranging about $190 (Kes26,600) a night.   

In Nairobi they had 175 units of luxury units with one to four bedroom options built more like houses than as hotels complete with wall separation across the bedrooms. Perched above the idea of the city and its troubles, the rooms open out to broad balconies overseeing the anxious dart of night lights flashing through black patches of Nairobi’s ghouls.

The spacious units come ready for long and short stays, complete to go with sparkling cutlery in the drawers, blunt marble counters and comfortable homely sitting areas.

The penthouse, a four bedroomed opulence that spreads several square miles of floor space large enough to roll down an elephant sits perched at the very top of the city. It even has a back door next to the extra bed space area for residents security or house help.

Kenyans used to a bible in the lodging rooms here will have to learn a thing or two about Chinese literature. I read one book about the origin of tea and whether it originated from a wise man who experimented with herbs or a tea leaves eating snake that had been fed marble by an angry farmer who wanted to get rid of the marauder of his chicken eggs.

True to Chinese fashion the English books, glimmering hardcovers are just empty display box props. You are more likely to learn financial of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s philosophical thought behind their outward push and life in rural China.

“We are Chinese owned, Singaporean led and Kenyan at heart,” Pan Pacific local staff say that is their mantra in distilling the different cultures spread in architecture, design and literature.

Immediately you get a sense of the people being targeted here, especially with the office space boasting of pillar less open areas that is easily adaptable into the ideal locations for fortune five hundred companies wishing to set up a location in Kenya targeting the continent and regional market. The catalogue ‘Life at the Centre’ that comes in an English and mandarin version has no local models and feels just like something by foreigners for foreigners.

It is exactly in this Singaporean branded hotel that one can feel Tyler Cowen’s Kenya becoming the Singapore of Africa. Where recent events like UN Habitat conference, Safari Rally later in the year and Mice conferences bring along the global elite looking for a locale with a reasonable level of English fluency, an attractive year-round climate and a growth rate of about 5.5 percent.

Occasionally, it will tap into the tens of heads of states and multilateral lenders visiting Kenya for its strategic geographical location on the Indian Ocean bearing on outcomes of any confrontation between energy insecure China and the fledging American empire.

“The Pan Pacific Serviced Suites is in Nairobi. The only city in the world with a national park on its doorstep. Nairobi is the hub of East Africa that features unique attractions from bustling markets to fascinating historical sites such as the Karen Blixen Museum,” said Susan Waringa, Director of Sales and Marketing, Pan Pacific Serviced Suites Nairobi. 

“The name “Nairobi” comes from the Maasai phrase Enkare Nyirobi, which means “the place of cool waters”. Known as the ‘Green city in the sun’ Nairobi is popular for its landscape and filming where movies such as Out of Africa and The Constant Gardener were filmed,” she said.

The location by China’s Avic International, markets itself as a logistical miracle that had mysteriously found itself adjacent to both the entry and exit of the Chinese built expressway which guaranteed visitors quick entry and exit from this country. In just 20 minutes you can be at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) 16 kilometers away or 5.3 kilometers away at Wilson.

For their conference needs, the location sells its sun compass location that can easily drop delegates to KICC at the centre of the city, Sarit which is emerging as a new conference location as well as Oshwal centre.

The hospitality industry in Africa is gradually returning to its pre-pandemic levels, supported by fiscal incentives from the government, a high number of domestic travelers, and investments in new high-end hotels.

In Kenya the hospitality industry has been on recovery following the sharp dip in tourist arrivals during the Covid-19 curbs on travel and subsequent squeeze of inflation on incomes that has cut down prospects of holiday visits.

International tourist arrivals went up 34 percent to 109,482 from 89,409 in March last year as confidence returned to the markets following Kenya’s peaceful election and political transition that saw President William Ruto replace President Uhuru Kenyatta.

While Kenya tends to fall back on domestic tourism whenever the industry is hit by shocks, local capacity has come under strain with high inflation that has cut incomes on higher taxes, depreciating currency and a decade of stagnant, sometimes declining incomes.

As the night wedges itself away from the glare of GTC lighting and crescendo of advertising rising along its columns, the sense of desertion starts to creep in on the new establishment. I ask around about the demand for the apartments and suites and my guide is frank that the pace of uptake has not been as fast as anticipated.

However, like me, am told everyone who has lay their eyes on the property has been blown away with the simple beauty of the rooms and common areas even though the place is just 75 percent complete and a lot of the amenities are not expected to open until August.

At the briefing, Amos Maunde Pan Pacific Finance Manager was more hopeful about the business citing the fact that JW Marriot will also be opening on the same location and reports that Hilton will also be opening a new location.

“I worked at Hilton just so you get some context,” Mr Maunde told a journalist who cited the closure of the iconic hotel at the heart of the capital as a sign of the dwindling fortunes of the hotel industry. “There had been an arrangement for years for leasing the brand but the government chose not to renew the lease.

Hilton is still in the market and continues to look for new locations. Our foray here has been informed by demand in the market, we are also strategically positioning ourselves for the future, a few years down the line Pan Pacific will be a big brand here,” he said.

Although the ‘latent demand’ of Kenya’s wish for some softlife remains squeezed waiting for the economy to do better to spur demand, the iconic landmark may still get one business right. Kenyans love for grand gestures for their women.

“We have had an inquiry of someone who wanted to propose to his lover and wanted her name displayed on the side of the tower,” my guide said.

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