The listing of Lamu as a World Heritage Site coupled with plans to build Kenya’s second port in the area have resulted in the escalation of land and property prices.
Local speculators who act as linkmen between residents and foreign buyers have been doing a roaring business.
According to the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), the custodians of heritage sites such as Shella, Ras Kitau, Kipungani, Manda and Lamu Town, the archipelago has become a popular hunting ground for property speculators, especially foreign investors who want to cash in on the expected boom.
Coast region NMK assistant director Athman Hussein said plots that used to sell for between Sh2 million and Sh3 million have shot up to between Sh5 million and Sh10 million.
“Most investors were attracted by the rich cultural heritage that heralds a new clientele comprising rich Europeans who are mainly interested in a serene environment.
“As demand grew, some local people sold their dilapidated houses in the old town to foreign investors for tidy sums,” Mr Hussein said.
Similarly, the fortunes of property owners in the mainland have changed substantially following the announcement that the government was planning to build a new port in the area. The properties are mainly abandoned farms.
“Areas such as Mokowe, Hindi and Kililana on the periphery of Magogoni, the proposed site of the new port, have suddenly assumed new significance and land there is a gem,” he said.
An acre now sells for up to Sh2 million, according to Mr Mohamed Athman, a former councillor.
The listing of Lamu as a World Heritage Site was not by accident. According to a Unesco report, it had all the qualities to join world famous sites such as the Egyptian pyramids and hanging gardens of Babylon in Iraq.
“The architecture and urban structure of Lamu graphically demonstrates the cultural influences that have come together over several hundred years from Europe, Arabia and India, utilising Swahili techniques to produce a distinct culture. It is the oldest and best preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa,” says Unesco.
And before the excitement over the listing of Lamu died down, news that the second port in Kenya would be built on the archipelago brought a new flood of investors and speculators who will spare nothing to get a piece of the action.
Speculators, who have vast interests in the maritime business, have taken strategic positions and want to control the politics of the area in order to have their way.
This explains the intrigues surrounding elections to choose the Lamu county council chairman. Control of the council would mean that the goodies that are anticipated with the multi-billion- shilling project will be within easy reach.
But a major cause of concern to Lamu residents is the decision by the government to retain land ownership in the area.
This, said the chairman of Shungwaya Welfare Association, Mr Mohamed Bwana made it easy for land sharks to collude with unscrupulous government officials to acquire land and title deeds.
“It is interesting and sad to note that though locals do not have title deeds because the land is classified as government owned, tycoons have acquired deeds and are threatening to evict residents who have been there for years.
“Only the council can save the situation by refusing these people permission to develop the plots,” he said.
The chairman of the town planning committee, Mr Ali Bunu, said the council has barred any development on land near the water catchment area in Shella and will do the same with all the other parcels of land on the island.
And as speculators scramble for land in Lamu, a new phenomenon has emerged. Informal settlements are mushrooming on the town’s outskirts where low-income earners and some of those who sold their property have set up homes.