How do you build the tallest building in Africa? Well, naturally you need a thick slab of audacity. But first, you dream.
Sometimes monstrous dreams like these are borne in the oddest and remotest of places, in this case in the hearts of two friends in the hinterlands of Northern Kenya: Abdinasir Ali Hassan (executive chairman, Hass Petroleum) and Mahat Mohamoud Noor (White Lotus Projects).
“In 1970, we were travelling back home to Garissa from Wajir Primary Boarding School. When we got to the Lorian Swamp, we found it flooded and impassable,” says Mahat.
“For three days, we were marooned there. I recall thousands of mosquitoes buzzing around us at night but I didn’t feel them, I was looking at the land, the water, the waste, and thinking, ‘when will this become a farmland that can feed the people of this region? And now, close to half a century later, we are about to finally sign off a road from Mudogashe to Wajir. With the road, that dream will become a reality. By that swamp, we dreamt big. We believed that we would end up in the big city and fly as high up as anybody else can,” he says.
The flight started. Mahat became an accountant; ran the PricewaterhouseCoopers office in Somalia before coming back in 1989, got a job as an audit manager at Firestone, then went to Middle East as a general manager for the biggest confectionery and biscuit company (United Food Industries).
He then got into the energy industry. His childhood friend, Abdinasir got into business, joined his brother at Hass Petroleum in 1997 and expanded it into half a dozen countries in Africa.
The “Lorian Dream” finally took shape after another partner joined in— Raju Poosapati, the co-founder and vice chairman of White Lotus. He is a banker and a businessman who has invested heavily in the region: 12,000 acres of farmland in Malindi and Narok under Farm Africa; cashew nuts farming in Tanzania, mining in Zambia and South Africa and other ventures.
Together they looked at Upper Hill in Nairobi and all the pieces slowly fell in place. In 2013, the seed of audacity was planted.
Met the masters
To build the tallest building in Africa, you have to visit skyscrapers and most magnificent buildings in the world to see the kind of horse you are backing.
So Mahat and Abdinasir travelled, first to China where they visited some of the tallest buildings in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Tianjin and Beijing.
Then off to Saudi Arabia to see the Abraj Al Bait Clock Tower (601 metres), South Korea Lotte World Tower (554m) and of course, to UAE to marvel at the indomitable and egoistic, Burj Khalifa (828m).
They then nipped into a wintry and grey Germany to see more skyscrapers talking to people who thrust steel pieces of art into God’s space. In the US and London, they rode up elevators and internalised not only the business end of it but the responsibility that comes with being the tallest.
“One time, we were at the very top of Shun Hing Square in Shenzhen, 69 floors up and some 384 meters above ground and Abdinasir said ‘we have to build something like this if we are to make any mark. This is how it should feel like,” Mahat says.
They met the masters who built the building and many other contractors who have constructed iconic skyscrapers. They settled on China State Engineering Construction Corporation that built the tallest all-steel building in China, Shun Hing Square and also African Union headquarters in Ethiopia.
“They agreed to do the job because they wanted to be counted when Africa breaks ground,” says Mahat. Word was sent out on ravens; that three gentlemen and their backers were about to disrupt the landscape in Africa. More hats were thrown in their ring.
One of the hats was ArchGroup Consultants which was awarded the job of designing the building. They are a consulting firm based in Dubai. They came up with a behemoth of twin steel, scaling into oblivious and virgin skies of Africa, staring eye to eye with the tallest and the boldest in Africa, Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya.
This grandiose is not borne from nowhere because ArchGroup Consultants designed the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel in Dubai, the tallest hotel in the world. To give it a local flavour in design, they got in Sketch Studio as architect of record.
“When you look at the architectural plans, the building sits on a shape of the inverted hammer, which wasn’t planned really, but it could be metaphoric, a gong big enough for the world to hear,” says Japal Sigh of Studio Sketch.
But there is more than just a gong, the building is a metaphor of a journey into yonder.
“I look at the design of the building and I see a dhow and a sail, but a very sleek and modern one,” he says.
“This is more than a building, it’s a ship to the future.”
The search of the best team to put up the tallest building continued and two years ago, a mobile phone vibrated in a meeting room of Rudolph and Sletten, a construction and engineering firm in New York.
It was after 2pm on an unremarkable Wednesday. Just another day on the slog. The man who excused himself to take the strange foreign number was Mokase Monono, a Cameroonian, who had been living in New York for 27 years.
He had heard of East Africa, but he had not imagined that a day would come for him to move his family to this small East African country to live and work there.
“Although initially I wasn’t lured by coming to Nairobi, I have grown to love it tremendously, it’s something about the vibe here,” says Mokase, who was involved in the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre.
My interest for coming, though, was about what this project meant for the history of Africa. Who wouldn’t want to be part of something like this?”
The two friends, Mahat and Abdinasir, continued putting together the dream team. They took in IT consultants and engineers, 70 in total plus six interns.
The team is headed by Tom Lee, a resident engineer for Meinhardt Group, a Singapore-based firm and engineers from Metrix Integrated Consultancy in Kenya.
The team was in place to tackle the tallest ultramodern project Africa has witnessed; a 314 metres, 70-floor mixed development on a 2.5 acre plot that features a twin complex to house a 255-room Hilton Hotel, a luxury residential housing, shopping mall, health spa and entertainment centre.
There will be a viewing deck on the 69th floor that one will be able to see Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro, they claim. Naturally, there will be a helipad that juts out of the tower, for the plutocrats who will not have the time to lose money in Nairobi’s spaghetti traffic jams.
They named it, rather ironically, The Pinnacle.
Mahat does not mix his words to say that the building will not pretend to cater for anybody but the very high-end.
“We are not looking to put up supermarkets for the sake of driving foot traffic, we intend to make it a high-end establishment with the mall featuring select designer stores,” he says.
Hilton Hotel will have one wing for their iconic 45-storey Hilton, the 50th of their restaurants and resorts. It will dwarf every building; the Britam Towers, AVIC International Towers, UAP Towers and Times Towers. The only building that will “attempt” to stand shoulder to shoulder with it will be Carlton Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa. But it will still be 91 meters shorter.
Big dreams come with big challenges. For instance, they hit a snag while digging the foundation. The unique rock layers stopped work and engineers were brought from Australia, South Africa, UK, to sort it. When they could not figure it out, they brought in the big boys from Tetra Tech EBA from Vancouver, Canada.
Close to 100 workers are currently on site under hard hats, steel-toe boots, drilling, digging and knocking in earnest to beat the 2021 deadline.
When one sits at a table with this dream team, one gets the feeling that the building is more than just mortar and bricks. You get the feeling that they are building a statement. And indeed “statement” is one word that keeps occurring during Mahat’s enthused discussion of the project.
“The statement we are trying to make is that Africa is the future, that what others can do we can also do, that if you wait for others to realise your own dreams it will never happen, that we have to leave something for our future generations to look up to, to improve on, something to challenge them,” he says.
“Why can’t we do it? We have learned, skilled and highly resourceful Kenyans. If we sit on our strengths and ambitions, if we continue getting involved in disgusting politics, Ethiopia will take over,” he says.
He sees the project as an opportunity for engineering students to learn from. On site, are professors of geology, environment and an invite for heads in local universities to document and learn from the project.
Finally, to construct the tallest building in Africa there is a “small” matter of financing. To put it bluntly, you need Sh20 billion in this case.
“We have raised 25 per cent of that ourselves, Afreximbank is also putting in some money, so are some local banks,” says Mahat.
Later at lunch at Crowne Plaza’s Sikia Fine Dining Restaurant, he waxes philosophy, pontificates the value of participation and social responsibility as Kenyans and Africans. He talks about Africa being “the destination of the world.”
As the waiter takes our orders and gathers the menus, Mahat expresses his fear that his generation might die and not show the youth the road to the future through works that push the boundary. He and his like-minded peers want to change that.
Momentarily ignoring his starter of Tom yum Goong — a clear hot and sour broth with prawns flavoured with lemongrass and coriander—he poses an unexpected question.
“Where do you belong?” An intense stare follows. I tell him which part of the country I hail from. Spoon dangling over his broth, he leans over conspiratorially and says rather gravely.
“You don’t belong where you are born, you belong where you want to be.”
And where do you want to be? I ask him. He points at the ceiling with his spoon.
“Up there, 70 floors up, at the very top of Africa. That’s where our ambition lives.”