A few years ago, three friends in their 20s fell in love with Coastal Kenya. Diani, in particular. They vowed to invest there until they travelled to Lamu and their mind was made up on owning a holiday home one day.
But George Wambani, Jack Bukachi and Muli Mwendwa’s luck struck during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In 2018, we set aside some money to travel around Kenya and East Africa,” says George.
“Covid hit when we were supposed to go to Zanzibar, so we were looking for a similar destination, and that’s how we ended up visiting Lamu for the first time in July 2020. We were some of the very first tourists post-lockdown, and we fell in love with the place, so much so that we considered investing there. Lamu is completely different from the rest of the coast,” he says.
The quest to find a befitting house that they could rent and sublet at a profit was however not an easy one.
“We made friends, took their contacts, and even after leaving Lamu, were calling locals to ask if they had any updates on properties. We travelled to the island several times to follow up, viewing several properties in the process,” says George.
“Some rents were ridiculously high- a guy quoted Sh500,000 a month. Some were too old, one was bat-infested. We were very lucky to find La Joya House after a month, although it wasn’t in the best state when we first saw it.”
The previous owner was Spanish and had not been to Kenya since the start of the pandemic. He had therefore been running it remotely, with the help of a lady based in Lamu.
They found the house in September 2020 and signed a contract at the beginning of October. While the three friends were very happy with their discovery and started planning the renovation, this is also when the mistakes started.
“We invited a friend who owns several houses in Lamu to consult and give advice on potential costs,” says George.
“We thought it would take a month to repaint and do the interior decor, but that ran into two and half months. I had never run such a project before and next time I’ll just get a project manager because they would have helped me with the budget, deadlines. We spent around Sh1 million on everything, including renovations. We are, however, very pleased with the outcome,” he says.
When the trio first started on the renovation, George moved to Lamu to oversee the project.
“The house was old but it had most of the furniture. The colour was grey, so we repainted the walls, we wanted bright colours and artwork. For the latter, we used local artists,” he says.
The main artist was Mohammad Twaha Shariff. On one wall leading to the staircase, up the penthouse, he painted Arabic calligraphy in blue, and they somewhat look like stars tumbling down the stairs. There are also paintings of Lamu’s narrow streets, a Swahili woman covered in buibui and more.
There is a striking painting of a woman with a bareback done on a papyrus reed mat, hanging on a wall at the penthouse. “We made new curtains, cushions and seat covers, selected colours and fabric. Most of the money went into the renovation and furnishing, from buying a fridge to cutlery and a hammock. We even added more plants and grass to the small garden at the entrance.”
As usual, working with tailors and carpenters to bring their designs to reality was stressful.
“You commission the stitching of curtains and the tailors always told us ‘it will be done next week’. I gave one guy a chair design from PInterest and he made something completely different, yet time had run out. We paid the guy making the curtains beforehand, and for two days he was not picking calls. One day we went to watch a football match and we saw him, he jumped across a table, ran out and we had to chase him down. Paintworks just kept taking in more and more money,” he says.
On December 15, 2020, work on the holiday home was finally complete. Set in Shela village, Lamu Island, about a five-minute walk from the beachfront, La Joya is a three-storey Swahili-style home that costs from Sh2,800 to Sh40,000 a day depending on the number of people being hosted and the season.
They hired a local, Mathias, to cook, clean and look after the property, and they were ready for guests. They listed it on Airbnb and Booking.com, online travel agencies for lodging reservations. Holidaymakers have the option of booking a single room or the whole house.
Guests have been trickling in, thanks to referrals.
“Lamu Holiday Solutions, a tour agent that organises holidays has also been instrumental in helping us get bookings. It may have not been the best time to start a business because tourism had taken a hit, and we had zero experience in marketing and hospitality, but things have been picking up. Most of our online bookings are actually through Booking.com [a Dutch website with over 28 million listings]. So far we’ve had hardly any from Airbnb. We’re starting a tours company so that should help,” says George.