Designing and Building in Central and East Africa


Visioning the Modern: The Challenges and Risks Surrounding Kenya’s Proposed Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor



.                 1. The World is Coming

.                 2. Lines of Territory Upon Strata of History

.                 3. Visioning

.                 4. Shifting Alliances

.                 5. Entangled Priorities

.                 6. Reliance: South Sudan

.                 7. The Kenyan Frontier

.                 8. Lamu – A City on the Edge

.                 9. East African Resolve

.                 10. References


“The world is coming…”

– Deputy Secretary of the Kililana Farmers Association
Lamu Town, April 2015


.     The Lamu South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor is the largest project currently being planned in the East Africa region. With an estimated budget of $23 Billion, this decade-long process of regional transformation is expected to create numerous opportunities for international investment, while coaxing regional social and political fissures to the surface of this contested landscape.

The first step of the project (currently underway) will be to transform the Kenyan fishing city of Lamu into an enormous port, accommodating as many as 32 oil tankers, supporting infrastructure, and projects of urban expansion. This phase is expected to boost the city’s population from 100,000 to 1,000,000 within a matter of years. The second phase will see the construction of a road and railway line from Lamu through Kenya and into Ethiopia and South Sudan. Previous iterations of this project saw avenues into neighboring Uganda, and speculated an extension into the Central African Republic. The final stage will be the installation of a pipeline from the oil fields of Northern South Sudan and Kenya’s Lokichar oil basin, back through Kenya, to Ethiopia, and to Lamu (Herbert).

Considerations at the Kenyan regional and local levels have grown in ambition with the size of the corridor to incorporate airstrips, resort cities, water systems, agricultural initiatives, and projects of civic infrastructure. Some discussions have begun regarding integration with the Standard Gauge Railway project; connecting Nairobi with Mombasa and nearly completed by the Chinese. Funding for the LAPSSET Corridor project is still in speculation. This project has come to dominate Kenyan local and regional planning discussions, Kenya’s foreign policy priorities, and makes up a substantial portion of the nationally acclaimed Vision 2030.

Throughout East Africa and across Kenya, this project represents a shift in regional prioritization from past efforts to simply control and contain the vast ‘uncharted hinterlands’ on the periphery, to a future in which these landscapes are transformed. Tribalism, territorialization, frontierism, cultural prioritization and anticipated economic displacement put this already contentious initiative in a constant state of flux. In order for the project to succeed however, the complex – yet delicate – framework of international agreements and political hierarchies must remain in place.

lines of territory upon strata of history

“The railway is the beginning of all history of Kenya… and it is the railway which created Kenya as a colony of the crown.”
 – Sir Edward Grigg, Governor of Kenya, 1928


.     The history of the East African region, dating back to pre-history, consists of a diverse and heterogeneous mixture of cultures, religions and models of habitation.  In the 1870’s however, foreign powers from Europe began to lay claim upon vast tracts of East African land, homogenizing diverse aggregations of tribes, communities, and identities into the territorial constructs of European colonialist governance. The emergent colonializing strategies for development of these claimed regions were established upon plans for the economic benefit of the colonizing nations. Though the boundaries and limits of territory were established in agreement between European powers, few of the development initiatives were coordinated – reflecting a euro-centric competition that further fragmented the East African landscape.

One of the most well-known infrastructure projects from the era is the British financed Kenya-Uganda railway – the so called ‘Lunatic Express’.  Remembered for the logistical challenges of construction that were presented by the difficult and ‘wild’ Kenyan landscape, the turn-of-the-century railway was established as a single line corridor from the African coast to the interior of the African continent. Similar yet independent projects of varying standards were built by the Germans in Tanzania and the French in Ethiopia. As a wave of independence swept across the African continent in the mid-20th century however, the newly recognized nation-states were left with an assemblage of fragmented islands of infrastructure (Graham, 40), limiting both regional integration of markets and cultural communication. The vast regions of land in between the developed ‘modern’ corridors remained for decades as contained, yet neglected ‘hinterlands’. To date, this remanence of colonialist development strategy has meant that the cost of inland transportation throughout East Africa remains the highest in the world (UNHabitat, 155).

Seeking to improve their capacity for economic growth and regional connectivity within the community, the governments of East Africa have initiated standardized reconstructions of their national railway infrastructures. With nearly completed projects in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda; and contracts for construction recently awarded in Tanzania and Rwanda (Templeton), the East African community is poised for the first time to establish an interconnected, cross-cultural railway transportation network. These monumental achievements have begun to give rise to grand, ambitious visions of further economic integration, development, and modernization.


“The commencement of this project reinforces the Government’s resolve to make infrastructure a key facilitator of our social and economic development. It is a major milestone in delivering the LAPSSET corridor programme as well as achieving Kenya’s Vision 2030,”
 – Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Speaking of the New Standard Gauge Railway, August 2014


.     The nationalist construct of Vision 2030 lays out a future in which Kenya will have been transformed “into a newly industrializing middle-income country providing high quality life to all its citizens by the year 2030.” Through media campaigns that promote ‘The Kenya We Want…” alongside images of impressive seaside resort cities and sleek transportation infrastructure, references to high modernist ideals can be seen within the country’s relentless pursuit towards a technological sublime (Graham, 45).

Described as neo-liberal in substance by economists (Mosely, 457), Kenya’s aspirations are echoed in Uganda’s Vision 2040, Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan, and Tanzania’s Vision 2025. It is only in the past 10 years has this trend of longer term planning and ‘visioning’ has taken hold in East Africa. As these nations have witnessed from afar the incredible economic growth in South East Asia and the alluring transformations of cities like Dubai, the strategic direction of East African countries has begun to shift away from the aid-based model presented by the west, to one of foreign direct investment that allows for a scale of planning that involves massive infrastructural upgrades, economic deregulation, and seeks a new era of interconnection and extension (Graham, 41).

Vision 2030 and the flagship LAPSSET project will cut cross the Northern Kenyan territories, drawing static lines of fluid commerce across the vast, semi-arid landscape. As Jason Mosley, a research associate at the Oxford University African Studies Centre points out, this ‘visioning’ marks a reversal in approach on the part of national leadership, “as these frontier regions were formerly seen as unproductive and of little interest; now they are seen as the site of unexploited resources.” The ability to capitalize on such vast, untapped resources of territory however, will fall primarily to the national leadership and wealthy elite within the capital cities. Mosley carries on to clarify that “these plans, articulated and promulgated first at the center, have huge implications for the peoples and landscapes at the margins”(453), indicating that those who will benefit the most from these projects will be those who will sacrifice the least. With the majority of the length of the corridor passing through not only the poorest regions of the country but also across traditional pastoralist territories, these hard lines of development will only be helpful to those communities that drastically change their traditional way of life.

In Kenya, Mosley’s observations have already begun to register upon the semi-arid, former ‘hinterlands’ of the Northern Kenya. The importance of the other nations involved in the LAPSSET corridor project however, cannot be understated. While the economic potential of Kenya’s development is substantial, this progress is both reliant upon and a precursor to the extensions of the corridor into its neighboring countries. This coordination and inter-reliance was recently tested to a breaking point with Kenya’s Western neighbor, Uganda.

shifting alliances

“Africa is wealthy in natural resources; the problem is they are not optimally utilized.”
– Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, September, 2005


.     Venerated by the international community as ‘The Pearl of Africa’ for its incredibly bio-diversity, Uganda’s economic potential began to emerge in the 1990s and 2000s after decades of stalled and contracted growth. Even at a time when conflict was raging in Rwanda to the South and in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the West, Uganda was able to maintain a remarkable average growth rate of approximately 7%. While some of the growth could perhaps be attributed to the conflicts themselves, Uganda’s geography and railway link with Nairobi facilitated a fruitful and essential connection to the international market for its main exports of coffee, tea and tobacco. Over the past 5 years however, Uganda’s growth rate has begun to decline to an average 4.5% per annum. Analysts project a resurgent growth in the coming months to 5.1% in 2018, and 5.6% in 2019 (World Bank); due primarily to accelerated development of energy resources and the construction of public infrastructures. These investments however will not be initiated under the LAPSSET partnership.

In the early stages of planning for the LAPSSET project, Uganda was an immediate and enthusiastic partner. Having recently announced the discovery of substantial oil deposits in September of 2009 in its Lake Albert Basin, the nation found itself sitting upon an estimated 1.7 billion barrels of oil (Tillow). These resources were ‘visioned’ not only to help support the growth of Uganda, but as an opportunity for Uganda to further connect with the global economy. With resource extraction and conveyance to the international market growing as a common goal among numerous members of the East African community, the economy of anticipation was ripe for large scale planning. It was this fortuitous discovery of oil that brought Uganda into initial discussions to craft the new and additional transport corridor into Northern Kenya. In 2013, the LAPSSET partnership of four interconnection nations was recognized, formalized and inaugurated.

As Kenya crafted detailed plans for resort cities, urban expansions, and infrastructural upgrades over the following years, Uganda’s economy began to slow, and the patience on the part of the Museveni administration began to wane. The increasing scale of Kenyan ambition along with the complexity of quadri-national agreements, slowly began to extend the project’s timeline. Most pressing however, was that foreign investments into the region were desperately needed in order to realize the project; and the financial successes of the project were hanging upon an extremely volatile, unpredictable, and potentially escalating conflict in South Sudan. Add to this a series of high profile terror attacks in Kenya and growing resistance to initial construction phases in coastal Lamu communities; the concerns in Uganda grew over the immediate viability of the LAPSSET project. In order to achieve and maintain the goals of its own Vision 2025, Uganda began to explore an alternate corridor that would export its newly found oil wealth through Rwanda and Tanzania.

While not part of the LAPPSET corridor framework, the nation of Tanzania has been no less ambitious in the scale of its long term regional and international pursuits. As recently as February of 2017, Tanzanian President Magufuli’s administration awarded the contract for construction of the nation’s contribution to the growing East African standard gauge railway network (Templeton). Coordinated with Rwanda and Burundi, the colonial era railways will be upgraded and ultimately unify a circle of commerce through the urban centers of Dar Es-Salaam, Bujumbura, Kigali, Kampala, Nairobi, and Mombasa. Internationally, the Tanzanian agenda has coalesced around the “Mwambani Economic Corridor”, which will connect the Tanzanian port of Tanga (currently under construction) with Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (TanzaniaInvest).

When Uganda began investigating an alternative alignment of its exports through Tanzania, not only was the project able to be incorporated in the logistical planning of an already established partnership, but the relative security of the more southern nation proved greater potential for the timely completion of an oil pipeline. In November of 2016, the two nations signed an agreement to rapidly design and construct the line through numerous concurrent contracts, fast-tracking the project in order to expedite Uganda’s oil extraction and export (Reuters).

Faced with the withdrawal of Uganda’s key partnership, President Kenyatta emphatically stated to journalists that “the LAPSSET project is continuing one way or another. As you know, we have already started. The Lamu port as we stand and talk here is already being constructed. It is moving ahead.”  With the number of partnering countries reduced from four to three, the value and importance of Kenya’s remaining partnerships have grown to be indispensable.  It is in Ethiopia however, that competing avenues of economic priority have established a complex and politically precarious partnership.

entangled priorities

“Whatever they say or do, [they] can’t stop us from the path of development we are taking.”
 – Ethiopia Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Jinka 2011


.     In October of 2016 the first trains began to move along the newly constructed Addis-Ababa – Djibouti Railway.  The recently completed standard heavy-gauge railway replaced an aging line build by foreign powers in 1917, and further bound the two nations together in operational management and economic development. While the new increased capacity railway was funded and constructed by the Chinese, a second component of energy infrastructure, the Horn of Africa Pipeline, was signed into construction with American funding in September of 2016. Upon expected completion in 2018, the combined trio of road, rail, and pipe will constitute an economic corridor that currently conveys 95% of Ethiopia’s trade.

The enormous territory of Ethiopia, like many countries in the region, has a history of uneven development. The impressive growth of the capital, Addis-Ababa, has been largely serviced by the country’s main conduit to the Gulf of Aden via the coastal nation of Djibouti. This has led to a North-Easterly focus from the capital, with the West and Southern regions of the country following in secondary priority. The Northern province of Tigray, often referred to as the cradle of Ethiopian civilization, has seen a largely disproportionate amount of investment over the past two decades. While culturally valuable, this mountainous region is one of the most arid regions of the country and provides relatively little with regards to the import or export activity (Abebe). The construction of a national railway from Addis-Ababa to Mek’ele, the provincial capital of Tigray, called bias and financially unwise by critics, is exactly what the national government did in 2012. This preferential misallocation of financial resources to the Northern region for political and ethnic motivations has left the country with substantial debt to international investors; and has made pressing initiatives in other parts of the nation difficult to fulfill (Akloweg).

The South West provinces of Ethiopia are host to the most agriculturally rich regions in the country, producing world-renown coffee and host to a substantial sugar industry. Unfortunately, these products are still confronted with substantial transport costs towards Addis-Ababa, hampering the economic viability of the produce. It is here that an improved transport corridor, namely the LAPSSET corridor project that is being promoted by Kenya, would have potentially great effect upon these isolated regions of Southern Ethiopia. Agreements towards the realization of the project however are hampered by a financially over extended government in Addis-Ababa. Not only has this made it difficult for the country to secure further international investment, but the projected financial models are increasingly demanding rapid returns. As a result, the promises of Kenya’s development and improved economy are a necessary precursor towards investment on the corridor in Ethiopia (Akloweg). It is here that the two countries find themselves interlocked in a mutually dependent – yet precarious – agreement towards development.

In the West of Ethiopia, the nation has constructed a pair of paved roadways into the agriculturally rich regions of the Country; but these arteries terminate before extending on to their true destinations: Malakal and Juba. The situation in South Sudan is as delicate as it is chaotic, and the conflict contained within its borders makes effective trade with Ethiopia dangerous and complex.  Kenya however, is uniquely positioned – both geographically and politically – to open South Sudanese markets to the world.

reliance: south sudan

“… we’re just waiting for the whole thing to collapse, really.”
– Country Director of South Sudan, the International Rescue Committee. Juba, May, 2017


.     In July of 2011, the world watched in amazement as Africa added a new nation to the global community. After decades of horrifying reports of intractable civil war, coupled with international media campaigns seeking to raise awareness of the ongoing atrocities, the South Sudanese themselves had taken an incredible step towards peace: they declared their independence and seceded from the Sudan. Celebrations erupted on the streets of the South as anticipation of a new era of peace and prosperity swept across the infant country.  In Juba, a signing of the declaration of independence was held to great fanfare. In attendance, were the presidents of Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya (Gettleman).

The civil war that raged in the Sudan for decades had its roots in both political maneuvering and ethnic and tribal conflicts. From 1999 however, the vast resources of oil wealth found beneath the territories of Darfur and the Nuba Mountains became a resource that began to fuel conflict to horrific levels. The Greater Nile Pipeline, built to extract the vast resources, was aligned to the North through Khartoum and on to Port Sudan at the Red Sea. From there, profits from the sale of the oil were used to purchase weapons and further the fight against the Southern People’s Liberation Army (Nuba). In 2011, now that independence had been declared and a peace deal had been signed, it was anticipated that this same source of financing would be made available to fund the prosperous future of the new nation. The complications presented in front of this lofty goal however, were both social as well as physical and geographical.

The leadership of the new South Sudan was a built upon a resistance movement – a guerilla army – with the result of field commanders being placed in positions of political power.  The decommissioning of resistance fighters was slow, leaving heavily armed bands of warriors strewn across a loosely governed landscape. As a result, territorial disputes in the oil rich regions of the North/South border continued. Logistically and spatially, the majority of oil resources that continued to be extracted from South Sudanese territory had to be transferred through the Sudan via its existing pipeline infrastructure. With the North levying heavy tariffs upon these transactions (Veilleux), the meager profits gained by the South not only reopened hostilities between the nations, but prevented the new administration from securing the needed capital it needed to rebuild its war-ravaged country.

It was here that the LAPSSET corridor project was presented not only as a solution the financial obstructions to the South’s development, but as a strategy towards conflict mediation in the Darfur region. Transporting the oil and its profits through the South however presents navigational challenges that must be considered at the tribal level, thereby acknowledging the different forms of habitation exhibited in the country. With 64 ethnic tribes in South Sudan, each of which practice different customs and speak different languages, the diverse population can be divided into three categories: the farmers in the West, the nomads in the East, and the pastoralists in the interior. President Salva Kiir is an ethnic Dinka and pastoralist whose home region is in the center of the country. Since taking office, his administration has shown clear lack of interest in development initiatives that would assist the farmers to the west. Most notable is a road project through the South’s fertile “Bread Basket” (via Yei, Maridi, Yambio, and Tambura, to Wau). Such a project would greatly improve the welfare of the communities in the west, while facilitating food distribution throughout the country. Political rivals however, in the mind of the president, are apparently a greater threat than national hunger. The administration’s relations with the Nomads to the East of the country “are even worse” (Tata).  As a result of the spatial distribution of South Sudan’s tribal differences, President Kiir’s preferred options for development projects have been to look to the international community; to look South. With the complex tribal and political distribution across the country, it remains unclear if the connection that the LAPSSET corridor would provide would help or only further entangle the delicate nation in conflict.

Kenya has been a strong supporter of President Kiir’s administration. Initially expressing unwavering support at the inauguration of the newest African nation, Nairobi’s relations with Juba have grown in preparations towards realization of the corridor project. Juba’s desire to see South Sudan linked to the Indian Ocean has grown to a pressuring stance, such that the two leaders now speak not only of the challenges preventing progress into South Sudan, but also of the territorial conflicts plaguing the vast ‘frontier’ of Northern Kenya (Capital News).

the kenyan frontier

“Our founder fought bravely to have the right to make choices free of external influence. Today the world is full of wars driven by the desires of some to exploit the resources of independent nations.”
– Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, December 2016


.     Hailed as a beacon of opportunity in an otherwise unpredictable region, the World Bank has pointed to Kenya as having “the potential to be one of Africa’s great success stories.” Sighting a vibrant services sector, a stable currency, and figures indicating recurrent quarters of economic growth, the World Bank’s assessment of Kenya’s economy complements its global cultural image as a progressive nation that is located within a landscape of magnificent wildlife. As the primary force behind the LAPSSET initiative, it is precisely this image that is being pushed forward in pursuit of both regional and international partnerships. A review of even the most recent history however, reveals a nation that is replete with territorial conflict.

It was only a decade ago that the world witnessed a momentary lapse of this idyllic facade as the country descended into what is commonly referred to as the ‘election violence’ of 2007. On the surface, this month long destabilizing period during which over 1000 citizens were killed was the result of the disputed presidential election. Underpinning much of the conflict however, were disputes of land and territory in both the capital in the fertile regions of the western province.  In the aftermath of the violence, entire communities found themselves reshuffled and displaced. Territorial divisions were drawn along ethnic lines, and Kenya’s complex history of tribalism was revealed to the world.  To date, these fissures remain as a muted topic, yet are regarded by many to remain just as real as the image of prosperity that the nation hopes to obtain.

In the North, the indigenous pastoralist and hunter-gatherer communities largely endured the conflicts of 2007 without incident. In 2011 however, when Tillow oil discovered massive oil deposits in the arid Lokichar basin, new value was ascribed to these former hinterlands. Numerous communities inhabit these sparsely populated territories, including the Sanye, Samburi and iconic Turkana tribes. These communities “are some of the most excluded from the socio-economic and political fabric of Kenya and are least equipped to respond to the new set of challenges that the LAPSSET transport corridor portends” (Sena, 3).  When asked in March of 2017 about the prospect of oil wealth and promises of prosperity, Asekon Ekai, a 56 year old Turkana woman, stated flatly that “the oil is ours and we will not leave Turkana if there is no money for us” (Muiruri).  While Tillow has established a number of amenities in the region, including a handful of schools and water projects, it is unclear if the company will be following through on its apparent promises of financial compensation.  It is further unclear or if the surrounding communities will remain permissive of Tillow’s operations if these promises are not met. This remote region of Kenya has rarely found its way into the national discourse however, as terrifying – and highly visible – attacks have drawn the nation’s gaze to the East.

Kenya’s relationship with Somalia was once one of refuge. As Somalia descended into civil war the 1990s, Kenya opened its borders for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war and famine. The past decade however has seen the relations between the Kenyan diaspora and ethnic Somalis deteriorate significantly. After two high profile terrorist attacks in Nairobi and Garissa at the hands of the Al-Shabaab, the Somali based militant terrorist organization, the Kenyan government launched a series of retaliation attacks into Somali territory. While the government and national media pointed to concerns of ‘national security’ as reasons for the intervention, Jason Mosley’s research identified an alternative motivation: “The salience of LAPSSET for the centralized economic vision … has been underscored by Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia. [The terror attacks] triggered a Kenyan security intervention in Somalia to protect the LAPSSET agenda in Northern Kenya and Lamu. Subsequently, Kenya became more (not less) tightly tied to Somalia’s security troubles” (462).  This increased complexity of the ‘security’ situation along the Somali border has been met with hard-lined responses by the Kenyan administration in order to support an image of strength and determination. Principal among these actions are numerous efforts to dismantle Dadaab Refugee camp and forcibly relocate the hundreds of refugees. Such a drastic measure, while clearly an intention to pacify the region just north of the LAPSSET corridor, will likely destabilize the Somali border region even further; and sow the seeds of religious and ideological conflict upon a territory that is already socially and economically contested on Kenya’s coast…

lamu: a city on edge

“Lamu will not be denied the opportunity to be heard.”
– Save Lamu, public statement, December 2016


.     The town of Lamu boasts a rich history of Islamic and Swahili culture, and is recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as “the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa.” Known for its beautiful characteristic architecture, vibrant traditional fishing industry, and pristine beaches and coral reefs, the town has existed for centuries as a destination for merchants and tourists alike. Ominous interventions of development however, have revealed Lamu to be on the front line of Kenya’s vision to transform its economy at the compromise of its cultural heritage.

Over the summer of 2016, the Government of Kenya awarded a contract of $480 million to the China Communication Construction Company for the construction of the first three of 32 births, and the first steps towards the Lamu Port transformation. Currently under way, the contractor has begun dredging avenues through Manda Bay in anticipation of the heavy construction to come.  Already built are a handful of placeholder buildings and field offices to coordinate the ongoing works, along with lengths of wall to enclose and define the effort. Within these boundaries, plans of resort cities and golf courses are shared and discussed with headquarters in Nairobi (Mwende).

Beyond these walls, the effects of rapidly rising property values, and an evolving physical and political landscape are exacerbated by rumors and miscommunication. Primoz Kovacic, a regional cartographer who has attended community activist meetings and conducted inclusive mapping exercises with Lamu citizens, explained that “Nairobi is so removed.  It’s their only interest to enrich themselves, and none of them give a shit about the people here. One fifth of this county is going to be gone, and the reason there is so much conflict is that no maps are being shared, and no one tells people when or where things are going to be built.”

The implications of this confusion make the looming economic and demographic (and therefore political) transformations more ominous and potentially volatile. The ongoing dredging is cutting a decisive slice through the local fishing economy. The Mkanda Channel has existed for generations to connect local fishermen from Amu Island to the inland fishing sites of Pate Island.  Essential during the monsoon seasons, the traditional boats, or Dhows, cannot contend with the rough seas of the Indian Ocean on the other side of Manda Island. The proposed port development area will consume this channel along with the livelihoods of the local fishermen. While it is argued that the massive developments will bring different and more lucrative jobs to the community, the impending demographic shift resulting from Kenyans arriving in search of employment is expected to offset and further silence the voices of indigenous Lamu community.

In response to the recent years of swirling rumors and mysterious construction activity, the community leaders of Lamu have assembled and consolidated their efforts in resistance to the activities of development by founding the Save Lamu organization. Interestingly, their voice is not in complete opposition to the Lamu Port project, standing rather as a call to “engage communities and stakeholders to ensure participatory decision-making so as to achieve sustainable and responsible development” ( This mission statement is supported by continued legal efforts to engage the Kenyan government towards transparent and consultative decision making, and protest signs that read “We want a port – only after community consultation!”

This conciliatory tone is perhaps emblematic of the conflicts plaguing the LAPSSET project and the massive development visions that have been established across the East Africa region.  Between cherished cultural traditions and the desires of development and modernization, the resulting challenges provoked point to a future in which identity and a pursuit of happiness will inevitably have to be redefined.

east african resolve

“You cannot enslave a mind that knows itself. That values itself. That understands itself.”
-Wangari Maathai, East African politician, theorist and environmentalist


.     In pursuit of modernization, the nations of East African have been caught within the confines of modernity itself. As the west progressed through the industrial revolution, concerns of environmental stewardship, indigenous rights, and indeed human rights were in their infancy. Now in an age of universal suffrage and an interconnected world of media and communication, modernity has shackled the developing world with physical and civil standards that are rife with intractable contradiction.

With the clear and substantial ambition exhibited by leaders in the East African community, it is likely that East Africa will continue on its path of social, physical and economic transformation via the LAPSSET corridor and its prolific visions of prosperity. Still, the recent policies that have been passed by the Kenyan government that have sought to erode civil liberties (DDG), the intractable conflicts raging in South Sudan, and the broad economic woes effecting the region point in a direction that is fraught with challenges.

This future, ominous as it may seem, remains uncharted.  Having endured and resisted a long history of colonialist rule and generations of economic hardship, the citizens of the region have emerged to address global obstacles with unique and novel African solutions. Such problems that are increasingly encountered in the developed world are repeatedly confronted by an Africa that fosters a resilient and resourceful entrepreneurial culture; one with limitless potential. As dredging of the Lamu port continues and the planning for a regional prosperity makes its way across the East African landscape, the physical and social challenges uprooted by the forces a globalized world will be confronted by an adaptive and enduring African resolve.



Abebe, Muse; Mekele-Woldia 1.6 Billion Dollar Rail Construction, Ethiopia News and Opinions. June, 2012:

Capital News; Kenya, South Sudan Move to Fast-Track LAPSSET Project, Capital Business, May 2013:

Gettleman, Jefferey; After Years of Struggle, South Sudan Becomes a New Nation, New York Times. July, 2011:

Kenyatta, Uhuru; President Uhuru Kenyatta Statement on LAPSSET. Jamhuri Magazine, undated:

Okoth, Jackson; President Uhuru Kenyatta Endorses Sh42b Lapsset deal amid unease in Lamu. The Standard. August, 2014:

Kenyatta, Uhuru; Youtube: Uhuru Says LAPSSET Must Proceed Even Without Uganda, April 2016.

Kovacic, Primoz; Documenting Potential Impact of Development Projects on communities in Lamu County, Spatial Collective Blog. April, 2015:

Muiruri, Peter; Lokichar Oil: A Blessing or a Curse for Turkana?, Standard Media, March 2017 :

Mwende, Judy, Kenya Sets Up Agency For Lamu Port Project, Construction Kenya. April, 2013:

Nuba Reports;

Reuters Africa; Tanzania, Uganda Agree to Speed Up Oil Pipeline Project, November, 2016.

Save Lamu, Mission Statement:

Tanzania Invest; Mwambani Economic Corridor Project in Good Course, MWAPORC Director Says, April, 2015:

Templeton, Dan, Tanzania Awards Standard Gauge Contract, International Railway Journal. February, 2017:

Tillow Oil, Uganda Operations. January 2017:

UNESCO, World Heritage Convention, Lamu Old Town, Description:

US Department of State; President Museveni highlights Ugandan Achievements for Americans, September, 2005 :

World Bank; Kenya Overview. March, 2017:

World Bank; Uganda Overview. April, 2017:

Xinhua, Chinese Contractor to Complete First Birth of Lamu Port in Mid 2018, Standard Digital Media, April 2017:


Graham, Stephen and Simon Marvin; Splintering Urbanism, Routledge, New York, 2001.

Hill, Mervyn, Permanent Way: Story of the Kenya Uganda Railway. East Africa Railways and Harbors, Nairobi, Kenya. 1961.

Menkaus, Ken; Danish Demining Group; Conflict Assessment / 2014 – Northern Kenya and Somaliland, March 2015.
Mosley, Jason and Elizabeth Watson; Frontier Transformations:

Development Visions, Spaces and Processes in Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia; Journal of East African Studies, 2016.

Sena, Kanyinke; Lamu Port South Sudan Transport Corridor and Indigenous Peoples in Kenya, UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; undated:


Akloweg, Yilak; Transport Planner, Ethiopia Ministry of Transport. Cambridge, MA. April, 2017.

Della Rosa, Flavia; Research Associate, Kimetrica. Nairobi, Kenya. January, 2017.

Herbert, Richard; Chairman and Executive Director, Aeolus Kenya LTD. Nairobi, Kenya. January 2017.

Kovacic, Primoz; Founder and Executive Director, Spatial Collective. Skype (Nairobi). May, 2017.

Tata, Justin; Transport Planner, the Government of South Sudan. Skype (Nairobi). April, 2017.

Veilleux, Ronald-Paul; Country Director of South Sudan, International Rescue Committee. Skype (Juba). May, 2017.


Cover Image: Tillow Lokichar Oil Extraction Site

Figure 1: Protests in Lamu County

Figure 2: Colonial Era Railway Map
Hill, Mervyn, Permanent Way: Story of the Kenya Uganda Railway. East Africa Railways and Harbors, Nairobi, Kenya. 1961.

Figure 3:
Graham, Stephen and Simon Marvin; Splintering Urbanism, Routledge, New York, 2001.

Figure 4:


Tujenge Kibera: We have a Life in Kibera

Over the past two years of working in Kibera, Nairobi, I regularly encountered the numerous challenges facing residents within the “infamous slum”. The lack of proper sewage or regular garbage collection, the ever-present threat of crime, and the stops and starts of failed development projects that touch each of Kibera’s 13 villages remain constant factors in the daily lives of residents.  Unfortunately, it is only these kinds of stories that make their way to the outside world – painting a picture of a hopeless condition that cannot remedied; and one that has not experienced any progress over the years towards a better quality of life for residents.

It is this unrelenting negative picture of Kibera that is being shown to the world that motivated our team at Kounkuey Design Initiative to produce a call to action that would show a different, emerging side of Kibera: the side that reveals the work that residents are doing to improve their own neighborhoods.  The film below is the result of months of work and was selected as a winner of the Rockefeller Foundation Storytelling Challenge. It was a pleasure to write and produce this film with my team in Nairobi and with our colleagues at Lightbox Africa.

Tujenge Kibera Viewing Party

Film Viewing Party, Kibera November, 2015

This film was shown to the Kibera community during a public viewing at Undugu fields on November 7th, 2015. The film was well received by residents and accompanied by a children’s dance competition and celebration.  The event concluded with the final message of the film – to share stories of positive change in Kibera.

On November 20th, stories of positive change will be shared during Nairobi Design Week.  To learn more about the work that the KDI team is doing with Kibera residents and for details on how to visit the Kibera during design week, you can visit Nairobi Design Week’s website here.

Tujenge Kibera

How To Start A Project In Kibera

Having worked with numerous NGOs ranging from the smallest (of only one or two volunteers) to one of largest (with thousands of full time staff), I have grown to question the strategies with which development projects are initiated.  Over time I grew frustrated that so much of the initiative rested with the donor or service provider – and communities dissolved into simple recipients.

At the small end, projects are often begin through international friendships.  These are either through expats in the west seeking funding opportunities for their village back home, or someone in the tourism industry that befriends a traveler.  These friendships spawn a non-profit that is often dedicated to a single community or project.  While work gets done and progress is sometimes made, the individuals who initiate the project and those who fund it often do not have the expertise needed to make strategic decisions that foster further discussion, development and progress.

On the other end of the spectrum, the largest NGOs have only the best and informed goals in mind. With a well organized staff of individuals that have dedicated their lives to such work, these organizations have the resources and ability to target projects that contribute to larger macro-solutions. However, with massive budgets and constrained timelines, these expansive initiatives must often focus more on numbers of affected beneficiaries and dollars spent per month than on the diversity of challenges posed by each different community. This translates most simply to: get started, get building, get spending. As a result, the selection process of communities can be done while looking over a large map – hardly enough information to understand a community’s needs and capacity for development.

I reached a point last year where I was ready to quit working for these “others” whose strategies I did not agree with. I was ready to start something of my own: an organization that takes the time needed to do things right, allocates significant budgets (with flexible timelines) to important initiatives, and – most importantly – provides services and programs for which a community group would have to apply. Such an application process would force communities to self reflect, substantiate their needs, and propose self-authored solutions. I outlined many of these thoughts in an article published in 2010 on Engineering For Change titled “How to Write a Proposal For Work in Your Community”.

It was right at this time that I found myself in an interview with Kounkuey Design Initiative. KDI seemed to be developing a strategy that merged all of my proposed strategies and were working to perfect many of them. I signed on, and just this past week finalized my first call for project proposals throughout Kibera, the largest urban slum in East Africa.

This is how development projects should start.

RFP poster advertises information sessions about how to apply for a development project.

RFP poster advertises information sessions about how to apply for a development project.

The process begins with hundreds of posters distributed throughout the targeted area. These are at first concentrated around high profile (chief’s offices, district commissioner compounds) and high traffic areas (neighborhood entrances and markets). Posters are then placed around sites with development potential, and finally in quieter, residential zones. Care must be taken to publish the information in all languages (in this case English and Kiswahili), and to post the fliers in all neighborhoods. This ensures that all residents have equal opportunity to apply. The posters themselves (right) advertise information sessions that are held on different days in large public spaces. During these events, questions are answered and applications distributed.

KDI RFP info meeting

KDI RFP Information Meeting

The application itself seeks to reveal the potential of the proposed project as well as any flaws. It begins with basic questions about the Community Based Organization (CBO) such as “How many members do you have” or “Who controls the site referenced in your proposal”.  These questions provide valuable information as to the capacity of the group and the feasibility of the project. The following questions ask the authoring group to reflect upon the organization’s history of community and NGO engagement. What lessons has the community group learned? (What has it not learned?) Finally, the group has to articulate its vision for the proposed project. With no restrictions as to what the project could be, the community is free to propose a sanitation facility, flood water control, an urban garden, an Internet cafe – anything. These questions and answers provide our team with the needed data and valuable perspective as we move into the selection process.

After the one month window for submissions has closed, our team reviews each submission independently (the last RFP solicited over 30 applications).  This then graduates to community site visits, interviews, and meetings with area residents and chiefs.  This interview and selection process can last anywhere from one to three months.  It is only when site boundaries are confirmed, and the CBO, area residents and local leaders are all consulted, that an MOU is signed and design meetings begin.

This kind of competitive process is one of the best ways that and NGO can ensure that whatever project it begins is in line with community needs and desires; while also contributing to the larger macro goals of the NGO.  It also ensures that if the project’s program evolves throughout the design process, solid leadership and management exist within the CBO to organize and refocus the strengths of the community.  Moreover, such an application process moves a community group from beneficiaries to active participants in – and authors of – the entire initiative.

The deadline for this round of submissions is the 24th of February at 5pm.  I’m looking forward to posting an update once the selection process is complete!

The Loita Learning Center – Up and Running

I am happy to report that one year later the Loita Learning Center in Kenya’s Maasai land is up and running with solar panels, a massive dish, and working internet!   The project was organized by Under The Acacia and the administration of the Loita Hills Academy.  A great summary of the project was recently posted on the Internet Society’s blog, written by UTA chief strategist, Dylan Mahalingham.

The beauty of the center was made possible by the people of Loita Hills.

For a complete summary of the design process, I send you to one of my earlier posts: 15,000 Bottle Caps For Africa.

A 35 year old Innovation

Not your typical roofing system

This little building might not look like anything spectacular, but as I passed by it on my friend’s bike I quickly asked him to stop.  The entire roof was made from what looked like antique circular shingles.

We walked up the path towards the woman in the front courtyard who smiled as she saw us approach.  She lifted herself from washing clothes and we introduced ourselves.  Her name was Amiya.  When I started asking questions about the home, she revealed a sliver of history that told the story of this little building.

Amiya’s husband built the building sometime between 1972 and 1977.  He was working as a laborer on a large construction crew that was repaving the highway between Nairobi and Mombasa.  He would walk the 5 kilometers to the highway every morning to mix tar into the asphalt mixtures and to spread and compact the hot surface.  At some point during his work, he struck a deal with his foreman to purchase all of the leftover tops of the tar canisters for two Kenyan cents each. Today this would be about 1/10 of a USA penny.  He then carried 20 at a time back to his home over the course of two weeks.

The drum tops sit upon a wood superstructure and are fastened together with nails and bottle cap washers.  Roofing systems at that time were still only made of dry grass, so this was a truly an innovation.  The walls of the home, build from mud and wood posts, are in surprisingly good condition for being 35 years old – and probably constitute one of the oldest buildings in the region.

Amiya and her family live in Kenya roughly halfway between Kibwezi and Kithasyu.

15,000 Bottle Caps for Africa

As a development professional working in Sub Saharan Africa, I always adhere to the ultimate goals of my client: the community.  As an architect, I try to bring new ideas and always push to raise the expectations of those I am working with, by working hand in hand with local artisans and community leaders.

A Maasai woman, Loita

The Maasai are among the most recognized of ethnic groups in East Africa due to their continued historic customs, unique social structure and beautiful aesthetic.  Their territory spans between Kenya and Tanzania, alongside the Maasai Mara and Serengeti.  As nomadic pastoralists, they exist within a patriarchal social system, share a religion unique to their tribe, and, contrary to many stereotypes, are very peaceful and hardworking.   They are also often eager to explain the details of what makes their Maasai culture unique.

The integrity of their culture has not been sustained by accident, but rather by a deep-seated sense of identity and pride within the Maasai community.  Since the early days of colonization, the Maasai have always kept western influences at arm’s length.   This pride sparked action in 1975, when Maasai leadership banned western cultivation practices in order to preserve their way of life.  While this ban was lifted in 1992, Maasai politicians still resist major development opportunities that would have brought roads and other infrastructure to the region.  Such drastic self-imposed limitations may appear stubborn to those in the west, but this proud sense of identity has undoubtedly preserved the beauty of the Maasai environment and culture.

Even with steps taken toward preservation, for better and for worse, the lives of the Maasai are changing.  The encroaching borders of game parks, the growing challenge of finding water, the emerging concern for maternal and community health, and concerns of the next generation’s future in this changing world have led many Maasai to put down roots.  As a result, many emerging communities have begun to organize the development of schools and clinics.  The remote community of Loita Hills is one such community.

Understanding the tribe’s customs and rich history, I realized that I was faced with an enormous challenge when I was offered the opportunity to create a library and internet learning center in Loita with Under The Acacia, an organization working on small scale development projects in Kenya.    UTA had already been working with this community for three years and had established a primary school of three classrooms, a clinic, and had set up food and water program resulting in the creation of seven new jobs.  The next step was to bring information – massive amounts of it – through thousands of books and a Wi-Fi internet connection.

In Loita, where education and western medicine are just beginning to take root, the idea of introducing something as foreign and as far reaching as the internet would be an enormous challenge.  While the younger generation was entirely ready (proven by the fact that many had well over 1000 friends on Facebook through their mobile phones), I was concerned about the elders’ acceptance of such a project.  A library is straightforward enough; the concept of the internet can be extremely difficult convey. Described as “a library in the sky”, the internet would allow the community not only to see out into this vast world, but it would also allow the rest of us into theirs.  This was to be a massive step, one that would have to be taken carefully and with the entire community on board.

The question for me then became “How to create a building that that will not only provide space for these learning programs, but will also work within a process that involves the community in the design to ensure that it is accepted as a project unique to the Loita Hills Community?”

The answer lay within the culture itself.

Schematic Rendering - showing incorporation of Maasai jewelry

It is the Maasai jewelry that stands out as the most iconic symbol of the tribe.  Jewelry is worn at all times by both men and women, and in great quantity during special occasions.  The jewelry can range from simple bracelets of solid color to elaborate headdresses of intricate patterns.  The jewelry is quite complex, in that each piece, and therefore each designer, must follow a distinct set of rules.  There are primary colors and secondary colors; and each color has a symbolic significance.  Further, each region of Maasai land tends to favor a specific color.  These regional differences lend to variations in design styles and preferred types of jewelry pieces.

I began to study this art form through various journals and textbooks, and even tried to design some of my own.  Clearly though, as a white American man, I have no place assuming that I have the skills necessary to be a designer of Maasai jewelry.  The only people qualified to design such a piece are those who have grown up in the craft: the Maasai women.  Jewelry making has woven itself into the social structure of the women of Loita, who come together after the day’s work is done.  The learning of the craft starts at a young age, and the best designers enjoy great recognition of their skills and beauty.  Their art permeates everything Maasai.  Here was an opportunity to bring the local women into the design process and literally make the learning center into piece of jewelry.  Not only would this became the driving force behind the community’s involvement, but the building as a whole would stand as a monument to the beauty of Maasai art.

A Maasai woman, Loita

A challenge emerged: what could we use as our beads?  I considered the possibility of small painted stones, but their inevitably inconsistent size could create a sloppy result.  I referred back to my previous projects in other parts of Kenya, and remembered that bottle caps are used quite often as washers, wheels on toy cars, or as units on an abacus.  Here was a consistent unit that had the unique shape that would stick into plaster and is available all throughout Kenya.

In initial sketches, I began to realize that if this was going to be a success, we would need thousands of caps.  Living in New York City at the time, I began a campaign to collect used bottle caps.  Over the course of five weeks, I got acquainted with servers at bars and restaurants within my neighborhood, taking home close to 2500 bottle caps per week.  I knew I wouldn’t have enough.  Some friends helped make a YouTube video that helped get the word out, and soon I was receiving boxes of bottle caps from people all around the USA.  Thousands from California, New Hampshire and Georgia arrived in New York.  In all we received caps from nine states.  After five weeks, we had too many to count.  Some strategic thinking brought us to FedEx, which upon hearing about our project, offered to send all of the caps to Kenya for free.  These bottle caps eventually met up with growing collections in Kenya, bringing our collection to a total of over 70,000 bottle caps.

But how to incorporate this art form into the design of the building?

Traditional Maasai Manyatta

I began by studying the local architecture.  In this nomadic society, architecture is largely limited to residential structures: manyattas, or bomas.  Further, these structures are built to be easily dismantled for transport and/or to leave a minimal footprint.  Only local materials are used, mainly tree trunks, branches, mud and cow dung.  These materials are then assembled using a method similar to the wattle and daub method of spreading mud and dung over a woven framework of sticks.  The typical plan also includes some unique features: tree trunk columns within to support the roof, a circular plan or rounded corners which provide structural rigidity, and entrances that turn in at 90 degrees to prevent cattle from entering the homestead.  While many African tribes build huts of various styles, these characteristics are unique to the Maasai culture.  In contrast, Under the Acacia’s architectural projects in Loita (3 classrooms, a clinic and 2 offices) were to be made with some of the best and strongest building materials available.  The use of stone, continuous cement mortar, reinforced concrete elements, and the best roof panels available will ensure that these structures remain standing for years.  The buildings are also accented with plaster finishes, pointing, and fresh paint.  As much as these buildings are vibrant examples of craftsmanship and construction and are the pride of the community, they stand in stark contrast to the surrounding manyattas.  Further, the stone block accounted for a large portion of their construction costs, as all materials had to be trucked into Loita from Narok, a two to four hour drive away.

This disconnect between the historic vernacular and the accepted “standard” modern building practices became the first conceptual challenge of the architectural project.  After establishing the square footage requirements for a twelve-unit computer lab and a 4000-book library within the limitations of a $20,000 budget, I began to work towards a scheme that would combine and resolve these contrasting building systems. After various iterations, a plan emerged that would employ some of the characteristics of the typical manyatta plan as well as introduce a new system of construction that resembles the wattle and daub method while incorporating modern building materials.  This method could then be blended with the standard confined masonry construction used in the existing

Learning Center Plan

classrooms. I opted to build the main body of the structure with standard stone construction.  This may seem odd, for the method was out of context, but this was the best possible approach for two reasons:  (1) as a proven method in which I had experience, we would be able to guarantee successful completion of the project and better estimate the construction timeline;  and (2) the masons would be working within a construction method they would be comfortable in for the majority of the project.  Therefore the method of stone construction served to secure the spaces in strength and constructability.

As the plan developed, it became clear that the reading/meeting area created a structural challenge.  At 24’x18’, it would be a large space, and require some special considerations to achieve the roof span.  It became apparent that columns could be necessary, which could potentially fracture the space I had originally intended for gatherings.  This challenge however, soon became another opportunity for further incorporating Maasai traditions and culture.   Oleng’oti meetings among elders are held regularly, and always under the shade of a tree, to discuss local issues and marriages and to settle disputes. With some creative structure, we would be able to create a permanent meeting space that would reference the Oleng’oti tradition while providing needed structural support for the large roof span.

This reading and meeting space and stone structure was then complimented by a curved feature wall of wattle and daub construction to define the circulation corridor between the spaces.  It was this curved wall that became the ideal palette to become a wall of Maasai jewelry.

At the beginning of the project, the women organized themselves to into groups to sort the bottle caps into colors and sizes and to prepare designs for the installation.

Bottle Cap Installation

The election of three group leaders , Nalepo, Memotie, and Kerembe, by all the village women not only ensured that the three women’s enthusiasm would spread to everyone, but it also gave the design team structure and direction.  Four weeks into the project, we had two designs for the wall.  Chosen for the outside was a common pattern that used all of the colors of the Maasai palette, and incorporated white, the most popular color of Loita beadwork.  The interior pattern emerged as an extremely traditional and unique geometric design that is found only in Loita.  Once the designs were completed, I got to work estimating the quantities of colored caps that we would need (20,000 white, 8,000 red, etc.), and used this information to purchase proper quantities of paint.  After one week of painting, we finally reached the convergence of the construction progress of the masons and the hard work of the women.  For four days, a massive assembly line went into operation, with the masons plastering one section at a time, and the army of women following installing thousands of bottle caps, one at a time.

Throughout construction, the women (and many of the men) were amazed with what was happening.  After five weeks of planning, designing and coordination, the Loita Learning Center had taken shape into something that no one had ever seen before, yet spoke a language that everyone understood.

The Costs

Materials and local labor costs for this project came in at $20,000, or $18.00 per square foot.   A relevant, yet challenging, cost comparison would be to a typical government-funded school construction project.  When the Kenyan Ministry of Education commits to building a classroom, a grant of $7,000 is provided, which translates to about $12.00 per square foot.  Thus, the Loita Learning Center project cost $6,500 more than a “standard” construction project in rural Kenya of the same size.

This project however, is far from standard.

It is always difficult to justify any increase in cost when working with donors and organizations that are faced with the challenge of raising money.  A skeptic may challenge a project such as this one by asking “Why build that building for the cost of ‘x’, when you could build two lesser quality structures and reach twice as many people at the same cost?”  This is a logical question – but the wrong one.  If we as investors in Sub-Saharan Africa allow ourselves to lower our standards for what can (and needs) to be achieved – such expectations can very well seep into the communities themselves.  Such a result would then undermine any and all efforts to initiate sustained growth.  Allocating additional yet measured funds towards a higher quality of construction, towards a process that involves the community in construction and design, and towards an elegant finished product can have long lasting effects that can improve lives beyond any statistical measurement.

Since completion of the GreyStone Learning Center in November of 2011, the community has declared the reading area to be the new and official meeting space for matters of Oleng’oti, and the women of Loita can point to their creative expertise as the driving force behind the building’s unique design; a design which has begun to draw numerous elders from over the horizon.  Once the internet and books arrive in Loita, news, information and learning software will become available, and word of something special in Loita will continue to spread.

As of January 2012, UTA’s partners are on the ground in Loita working to install solar panels, set up a Wi-Fi connection, and to ensure the internet café business model is off to a good start.  The funds for this equipment is possible by a grant from The Internet Society.  Adele’s Literacy Library is also in the process of resolving logistical issues in sending the thousands of books that will supply Loita’s new library.  Completion is scheduled for the end of February, 2012.

A Liter Of Light: Too Good For Only The Slums

Upon learning of the Liter of Light concept in July of 2011, I realized that this idea was so good that it could be applied well beyond the slum settings where it was introduced.  The concept is simple: fill a 1 liter clear plastic bottle with water (and a small amount of ammonia to prevent bacteria build up), then place the up-right bottle into a hole in the roof – allowing light to diffract through the water.   This not only prevents hot “sun spots” from occurring throughout the day, but it also distributes enough light to be compared to a 55 watt light bulb.

This simple method can be applied to larger buildings and is particularly useful for libraries and classrooms. In this project in Loita, Kenya, we installed a series of these “sky bulbs” throughout the building.  Since completing the structure, the community has collected more plastic bottles for installation in other spaces of the learning center and in their neighboring classrooms.