The eighties were certainly the heyday for Kenyan coffee, famed for its rich flavour and potent sweetness. Sydney Sheldon, in his 1980 compelling novel Rage of Angels, even mentioned it. During that illustrious period, Kenyan coffee farmers, most of them small-scale growers, reaped big from their farms. Today, however, the goose that laid the golden eggs has been killed by local cartels and mismanagement in the sector.
And now, uncertain of a return to the glory days, most coffee-growing families have moved on, consequently uprooting the crop in favour of alternative uses for their once lucrative pieces of land.
One such family is that of Mr Eric Muguku. Their vast coffee estate in Tigoni, Limuru, has been replaced with well-manicured lawns surrounded by a thick perimeter hedge, ready to host any kind of open-air event, from weddings, graduation ceremonies, baby showers, bridal showers, family get-togethers, team buildings and other corporate events.
After toiling on the land for many years with very little income to show for the efforts, Mr Muguku says, his family decided to abandon the crop, having held onto the hope that was not yielding any fruit.
However, perhaps motivated by the incessant government promises of a great revival, Mr Muguku’s mother decided to give it her last shot, doing everything to improve her land and the crop for four years straight.
“She ended up spending a lot of money on the land but got little in return,” he says.
Frustrated, Mr Muguku’s mother finally threw in the towel, completely abandoning the farm. While this is just one case, there are many families stuck with unproductive farmlands, most occupied by vast coffee estates that are not productive.
For instance, Mr Muguku’s family land remained unused for six years until 2017, when he decided to turn the farm into a venue for weddings. The experience of planning his wedding in November 2016 is what opened his eyes to the kind of potential the abandoned piece of land held.
“As I planned my wedding, the biggest challenge I had was to find fitting grounds to hold it. For example, I would find nice grounds, but I had to hire mobile toilets on the side, an additional cost and a logistical nightmare. Other grounds would have little space for parking or none at all. In the instance where all this was available, the venue owner would insist on doing the catering.”
“I felt as if services were being shoved down my throat,” he adds.
This experience, coupled with the fact that the coffee business was not working for the family, gave birth to Oakridge Gardens, a one-year-old garden wedding venue located off Limuru Road in Tigoni. A few kilometres from Oakridge Gardens is yet another family-owned events destination, Naishola Gardens.
Until 2010, the family of Mr Segeni Ng’ethe, the business manager of the venue, did livestock farming. Their expansive land, full of indigenous trees and grass, justified this kind of venture. One terrible night, though, the farm was raided and cattle thieves who drove away with all the animals.
“It is a very sad story,” he says.
“That is what justified the closure of that business.”
After the incident, he says, the family decided to abandon livestock farming for a venture that could not be ‘stolen’, in this case a garden wedding venue. Mr Ng’ethe admits that there was a bit of influence from neighbours who were also setting up similar ventures.
A factor of production, land can be put into several uses, including farming, putting up residential housing, commercial real estate (business premises and factories) and creation of recreation facilities such as parks.
What about alternative land use such as spaces to hold social events?
The fact is that investing in ventures such as commercial real estate requires a high amount of capital to get started. With garden events venues, though, investors say that this kind of venture is not as capital-intensive.
“It is doable with little money. The stage that needs most investing in is the flowers (which don’t come cheap) and the grass — you don’t need to have a lot of infrastructure,” says Mr Muguku.
Says Mr Ng’ethe, “The input cost for maintaining and running the gardens is reasonable if you can balance it with enough clients throughout the year.”
He is, however, quick to caution that as simple as it may sound, just planting grass and flowers (flowers are expensive) is not a business that you wake up one day and do.
“People are actually investing a lot of money in their grounds to make them stand out,” he says. “I have been called by potential clients who enquire about the type of grass I have on the grounds — one might wonder, ‘Si nyasi ni nyasi'? But no, I know of more than 10 different types of grass and each one of them has unique qualities and characteristics.”
Knowing, therefore, what to plant and what not to is key.
Limuru is fast becoming a hotbed for garden events venues, giving Naivasha a run for its money. So what makes this area ideal for this kind of venture?
Mr Muguku attributes this to a change in taste.
OUT OF TOWN
“I think people want an out-of-town feel without having to travel too far, a getaway of sorts, but one that is accessible, where, from Nairobi’s CBD, you can drive to this place in about 50 minutes and return home without much of a hassle,” he says.
The weather conditions in Limuru are also good for maintaining lawns and flowers. There is also availability of water, a crucial factor in this form of business.
The out-of-town location also discourages gate-crushers, Mr Muguku points out. The reason Limuru is turning out to be an ideal destination for this kind of venture, Mr Ng’ethe thinks, is due to the growing number of people interested in holding outdoor events such as weddings.
He says, “People like the idea of having a one-stop shop where they can do everything on the D-Day, from the church ceremony to the photo shoot, reception and the evening party.”
Having hosted a couple that travelled with family and friends from western Kenya, Mr Ng’ethe believes destination weddings in a sense are a unique version of local tourism, in which he sees great potential. The increase in people living in apartments and the limitations that come with that kind of lifestyle has also in a big way triggered the demand for airy venues.
“Add to that the fact that the middle class is ballooning, income levels are rising, people are getting more sophisticated and the churches that previously resisted garden weddings have now opened up to that idea. These factors are also fuelling demand for outdoor venues,” offers Mr Muguku.
Across the world, destination weddings are a big thing and continue to grow. In Europe, for instance, old castles have been converted to grand places for holding weddings and corporate events. Mr Ng’ethe thinks this is the trend that is catching on in Limuru and its environs.
“Landowners are now thinking differently in terms of what they can do to attract people to come here. That’s how the idea of wedding venues is gaining traction. It is a trend that is global as it is local,” he notes.
As the events business continues to grow and more destinations come into the market, perhaps the success factor will be how best the proprietors are able to differentiate their products. For example, on the piece of land adjacent to the wedding grounds, Mr Muguku is putting up a conference hall, a bigger kitchen, gazebos for holding smaller events and accommodation facilities.
He reveals a zip line is also in the works. As for Mr Ng’ethe, he plans to offer his clients more than a destination for weddings but also an educational nature trail.
He says, “We got a botanist who labelled our trees. Much to our surprise, many of the trees we have are endangered.”
By planting a variety of fruit trees in the compound as well, Mr Ng’ethe hopes to achieve “a little Garden of Eden” in the space.
“We are looking at an opportunity where people can come learn about trees, fruits, nature, plants and at the same time also celebrate a wedding, therefore we have taken that educational approach,” he says.
But event venues are much more than just investments on land.
Ms Smita Radia, a director at Zen Gardens in Lower Kabete, says that these natural spaces provide spaces for people to breathe some fresh air, enjoy nature and calm their nerves.
A florist and nature enthusiast, Ms Radia expresses concerns that recent commercial developments and road projects are not leaving spaces for landscaping, thereby converting the country into a concrete jungle.
“Our country needs a lot of gardens because there is a lot of concrete at the moment,” she says.
A recent survey by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that put the contribution of the construction industry to greenhouse gases at 40 per cent supports her observation.
Ms Radia urges developers to strive to strike a balance between buildings and well-landscaped open spaces for the well-being of occupants.
“At Zen Garden, I have used one-third of my space for the restaurant and two-thirds for the garden. I designed it in such a way that anybody who comes here to eat, for a meeting or a conference, the natural atmosphere completely calms them and takes them to another level where they are at peace,” she says.
Mr Ng’ethe says: “When you look at it from the point of view of environmental friendliness, the benefits, the cost of running and maintenance, investments in such venues should be encouraged. It provides an alternative use of space that reminds us what natural space should look like.”