‘This is our home’: Kenya islanders demand say in foreign-backed projects

Picture: Thomson Reuters Foundation / Kim Harrisberg

Like many African countries, Kenya has courted foreign companies to invest in transport and energy projects but residents are increasingly demanding more of a say on development projects.

Armed with maps, activists on the tourist island of Lamu have managed to stall plans for Kenya’s first coal-powered plant as local communities become more vocal about rising numbers of foreign-backed projects on their doorsteps.

Kenya’s government in 2016 granted a licence to Amu Power – a consortium involving Kenya’s Gulf Energy and Centum Investment , some Chinese companies as well as U.S. and Omani backers – to build the plant as demand for electricity soared.

But using smartphones and GPS trackers, activists collected information on wildlife and historical sites to highlight in court the impact the plant could have on the islanders’ environment and livelihoods.

“This is our home,” said Walid Ahmed, the secretary general of Save Lamu, an advocacy group which is part of the mapping campaign for the World Heritage Site’s protection.

“We do want development of course, but we also want to be informed about what this development will look like,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from his Lamu office with walls covered in maps of the island.

In June a Kenyan environmental tribunal delayed the licence for the planned power plant, saying Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) had granted the licence without a proper environmental study that consulted residents.

The court’s ruling was the latest in a long-running legal battle over the plant – with a Kenyan court last year suspending the project for a second time – and the latest dispute over a Chinese-backed project feared to impact local livelihoods.


Like many African countries, Kenya has courted foreign companies to invest in transport and energy projects, with China funding a quarter of infrastructure development in East Africa in 2018, according to international accounting group Deloitte.

But Cobus van Staden, a senior researcher from the South African Institute of International Affairs, said residents were increasingly demanding more of a say on development projects and how they could impact the lives of local residents.

Van Staden said Lamu island – the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa – was caught up in “a tango between the desire to modernise, while protecting environmental and cultural heritage”.

“We need mechanisms in place to engage local communities and encourage public disclosure,” van Staden said in a phone interview.

The coal power plant was not the Lamu islanders’ first legal battle against foreign-backed development projects which they fear could harm the area’s cultural and environmental heritage.

In 2018 about 5,000 fishermen, again using maps, won 1.76 billion Kenyan shillings ($17 million) in compensation for the loss of traditional fishing rights due to constructing a major port at Manda Bay, near the islands of Lamu, Manda and Pate.

The port is part of the $26 billion Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor that envisages, by 2030, a port, new roads, a railway and an oil-export pipeline linking Kenya with neighbouring South Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia.

A consortium of companies led by China Communications Construction Company won the 41 billion Kenyan shillings contract to build the first three berths at Lamu port in 2013 where dhows – traditional sailing vessels – glide across the Indian Ocean.

“The sea and this land are our wealth,” said Ahmed of Save Lamu, referring to the fishing, tourism, farming and pastoral activities which the island’s tiny population of about 120,000 rely on to live.

“At least 80% of our livelihoods in Lamu are part of a delicate balance with the blue economy,” said Mohamed Somo, chairman of the Lamu Beach Management Unit, referring to ocean resources.

The director general for LAPSSET did not respond to several requests for comment.

Lamu Heritage

The backers of the Lamu power plant said the project would help tackle Kenya’s frequent blackouts by increasing generation capacity by nearly a third and generating power that would cost about half what consumers currently pay.

Cyrus Kirima, the consortium’s chief operating officer, said the power plant would be a “game changer” for the island and transform “one of the most marginalised areas in the country into an important economic zone”.

It would also create nearly 2,000 local jobs, he said in emailed comments. Unemployment on the island stands at 16%.

Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority declined to comment.

Kirima said islanders had been consulted on the coal plant and public engagement would remain a key part of the project for Lamu, where donkeys roam the island’s streets between ornate Swahili architecture and coral-built houses.

He said the company had appealed the environmental tribunal’s judgment delaying the licence in August.

Community meetings and discussions between the Kenyan government and local campaign groups are helping to build consensus on development projects, said Edmond Moukala, head of the UNESCO Africa Unit.

In 2018, UNESCO met with 25 representatives from different community organisations in Lamu as well as government representatives in Nairobi, the capital, to discuss concerns around the coal plant, Moukala said.

In similar fashion, UNESCO held an Africa-China forum in Paris in June that brought together experts from both regions to share recommendations on heritage protection.

“The absence of dialogue is at the root of many tensions … there were a lot of questions from all parties and we made recommendations on how the community could be more involved,” Moukala said.

Ahmed from Save Lamu said the islanders were ready to keep fighting as he rolled up the community-built maps in his office.

“I feel blessed to be born here, on an island so rich in natural resources and history,” he said. “This is why we are so passionate about safeguarding our heritage.”

First published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.




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