Fifteen years ago, Michael Kabiah started growing indigenous trees on a piece of land that his grandfather gifted him.
Over the years, he kept planting trees in his homestead in Naromoru, Nyeri, until it turned into a forest, but with walk paths.
Five years ago, he realised that city dwellers were craving serene spaces, so he decided to build grass-thatched mud homes to host paying guests.
We visit in the early morning, the glacier on top of Mount Kenya is visible, soft rays of sunshine brush on the skin and the cool bliss is refreshing.
In the evening, a view from the homestead gives one a glimpse of the glowing orange sunset from the Aberdares.
Surrounding the cottages are about 768 indigenous trees of different species that he sources from licensed tree nurseries in different parts of Kenya.
He named the place Podocarpus Cottages after a plum pine plant because of its evergreen nature.
“I want to have a complete ecosystem in this place which nurtures both the living and non-living organisms,” he says.
“I started planting the trees while in high school on a two-acre piece of land that I was bequeathed by my grandfather one tree at a time.”
Currently, birds are nestled on trees and the grass-thatched roofing of the cottages. Wild animals such as antelopes wander from the forests to the cottage fields freely to the allure of the guests.
The eco-friendly cottages are self-contained such that guests can prepare meals and do barbecues in the foyer under LED lighting hanging on the trees.
“The birds will be chirping by 6am and the guests are thrilled to feed them,” he says.
Mr Kabiah is leveraging the healing attribute of nature to lure people to the premises and offering a home away from home.
“This is a place for people to call home and for nature lovers to spend time immersed in the flora and fauna of Mount Kenya,” he says.
Mr Kabiah, who is a landscaper, uses the knowledge that he has gained from reading widely on the Internet to plant the trees and get ideas on how to build the cottages and plan for décor.
“I have no formal training in landscaping but through research, I can curate the accessories I want inside the cottages using wood mostly to make it beautiful and comfortable for our visitors,” he says.
When he is not working on his ideas in Naromoru, Mr Kabiah runs a landscaping company in Nairobi under Mika Landscapers that serves mostly wealthy city residents.
Since he started his landscaping business, he has done more than 300 projects across Kenya with his portfolio featuring posh residential areas in Nairobi where most of his clients are based.
Once contracted, he uses site plans to determine the layout of the gardens and then creates a design sketch, which he uses to consult a landscape architect for a 3D design.
“Each project is unique and landscaping is a creative art that is not merely turning an open field into a beautiful lawn within days. I always tell my clients to be patient and wait for the transformation,” he says.
On average, it takes about three to six months for a new project to turn into a lush green lawn.
At the Podocarpus Cottages, Mr Kabiah says he is not keen on planting many flowers because he does not want “a beautiful place” for his guests, saying flower gardens are all over and there would not be anything fresh for his visitors to experience.
“I want people to feel like they are inside a park and not in the usual environment they are used to,” he said, adding that the area includes fruit trees and flower segments to attract bees, insects and butterflies, which will help complete the ecosystem.
There is also a pond with tilapia fish and guests participate in sport fishing where they catch and release them back to the pond.
To fully conserve the environment, Mr Kabiah says people need to stop planting commercial trees that mature fast for logging and instead should plant indigenous trees for posterity.
“People plant the exotic species because they take less time to mature and for indigenous ones, there is no immediate return in terms of investment,” he says.
Mr Kabiah says he has spent between Sh9 million and Sh12 million on tree planting and maintenance. And the houses have cost him about Sh3.8 million.
For a general structure, Mr Kabiah says using local materials one can save about 30 percent but the bulk of his costing went into the artistic parts of the cottages which include carving wood into accessories for the walls, doors, lighting, beds and other furniture in the cottages as well as thatching.
He said he used local materials because the temperatures near the forest can fall and therefore the houses are warm throughout.
However, he adds, anyone who wants to start a similar project, should avoid cost otherwise you will be discouraged along the way.
“If it was a one-off project it would not have been this perfect… the gradual process has allowed me to invest more time in curating and investing a lot of time and energy in putting up near-perfect homes through research,” says Mr Kabiah.
Although Podocarpus Cottages is located in a village, so far it has hosted more than 100 visitors.
Depending on the days and seasons, guests pay between Sh10,000 and Sh15,000.
Besides finances, one of the major challenges he has encountered is trees suffering from drought and with depleting water levels in the rivers, the trees that were in the developing stage end up drying up.
“There are also other trees that are resistant to grow in this area due to the cold weather,” he adds.