Some 20 years ago, land in Lamu was idle, forested and under-priced; today, it is expensive, creating immense wealth.
The archipelago is turning into a lucrative investment destination, with the county ranked fourth in consumption per household, according to the Economic Survey 2016.
Lamu’s fortunes are on the rise. Land prices have appreciated in anticipation of huge projects such as the Sh2.5 trillion Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) Corridor. Already, the port project has turned around the lifestyles of dozens of peasants, who shared out Sh860 million as land compensation.
More should be paid off for a Sh204.3 billion coal power plant expected to yield 1,050 megawatts and Sh20 billion wind power project on a 3,200-acre land expected to generate about 90MW of electricity.
Mr Alwy Abzeein, a communication consultant and former Kenya National Museums of Kenya public relations officer, observed that such huge projects have attracted speculators, who have embarked on land buying sprees, providing cash for the residents.
“People who the other day were hungry and confused are now wealthy traders and property owners outside Lamu in Malindi, Mombasa and elsewhere,” observed Mr Abzeein.
Tourism has also created a small number of noticeably wealthy people in the upmarket Shela neighbourhood.
Shela, Lamu’s version of Muthaiga in Nairobi or Mombasa’s Nyali, is home to European celebrities and business magnates, foreign aristocrats and Kenyan tycoons. Plots here sell for about Sh20 million each.
An acre of a front-row beach plot measured from the high water mark is worth more than Sh60 million. A quick internet search further indicates that an exclusive seafront parcel of 130 acres is on sale for Sh500 million.
Luxury beach hotels, resorts and private villas abound, frequented by international celebrities and wealthy individuals for holidays, weddings and honeymoons. Hotels such as Red Pepper House, Majlis Hotel and The Font at Shela Beach are in high demand and charge between Sh50,000 and Sh100,000 a night.
Hotels, the anticipated mega-projects and billions of shillings from land sales have attracted investment, and banks have followed the cash. KCB, Gulf African, Co-operative, ABC, DTB and Equity banks now have operations in Lamu.
About 70 per cent of the local population relies on fishing, a sector with the potential to be the second- or third-biggest employer in the region despite local fishermen lacking the skills and modern equipment to rival the sophisticated trawlers used by their Asian competitors, which are capable of fishing within Kenya’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
Species such as sailfish have given Lamu an international image in sport fishing with participants paying a daily fee of between 400 euros and 700 euros. Highly priced lobsters and prawns, which are sold to tourist hotels, go for Sh2,500 a kilogramme and crabs go for Sh1,200.
The Lamu County government estimates that 2,500 tonnes of fish valued at Sh180 million are produced annually. However, it projects that its 144km coastline and 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone have the potential to yield 30,000 tonnes, worth Sh6 billion, per year.
The mainland areas of Mpeketoni, Hindi and Witu, with their vast arable lands, are important for food security. Livestock, especially cattle, goats, sheep and poultry, are kept in Mpeketoni and Hindi, for instance.
But amid the growing prosperity is a huge population of low-income earners, forced to dwell in mushrooming informal settlements on the island and mainland. The high cost of living in the largely tourist Lamu and Shela towns means many are pushed out of their ancestral homes.
They are cramped together in settlements such as India, Kashimiri, Bombay, Kandahar and Gadeni, where housing and land are still affordable. All these villages with populations of about 10,000 have neither hospitals nor schools.
Poor sanitation leads to massive contamination of the water, causing many cases of bilharzia and diarrhoea.