An ambitious plan to build a skyscraper in coastal resort Watamu, where hardly any building is taller than three floors, has presented a dilemma between economic gains and heritage. Proposed by three Italian investors, the Sh28 billion Palm Exotica aspires to be the tallest in Africa at 370m high, giving the Coast a “Little Dubai” that will boost tourism. However, critics say it will also be a magnet for terrorists in a region with a history of attacks. They add that it would disturb marine life and strain infrastructure not currently ready to cope with thousands of visitors a day. Sir Michael Norton-Griffiths, the chairman of Watamu Association, said the tower will change the face of the coastal town for the worse.

“The project will fundamentally transform the nature of the Watamu community, which is still that of a quiet, low-density, residential tourist destination built around a Marine National Park and a traditional coastal fishing village,”
Watamu Association Chairman, Sir Michael Norton-Griffiths

However, experts who assessed it say there is “overwhelming support” for the project from the local community, with Kilifi North MP Owen Baya among the outspoken ones.

“We found no significant negative impacts that could pose adverse effects to the extent that the proposed project should not be implemented,” the experts say.

Since 1973, the tallest skyscraper in Africa has been Johannesburg's Carlton Centre, which stands 223m tall. However, several taller buildings are under construction. At 370m, Palm Exotica would be 50m higher than the ongoing construction of the soon-to-be Kenya’s highest building in Nairobi, The Pinnacle.


The project comprises a 61-floor luxury tower and posh residential facilities. It will take approximately five years to complete, if the National Environmental Management Authority approves it. Project proponents are veterinary doctor and property investor Giuseppe Moscarinno, career private funds manager Oliver Nepomuceno and Rome-based architect Lorenzo Pagnini. Already, they have submitted the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment report to Nema. The ESIA study, a 179-page report seen by the Star, indicates the project will be built on a 0.96 ha (2.4 acres) land, registration number Gede/Kirepwe ‘B’/369, along Turtle Bay Road in Dabaso, Kilifi county. The ESIA also states that the total construction area for the proposed project is 209,026 square metres.

Once complete, the project will have five-star hotel rooms, conference facilities and a community school of hospitality, among other components. The high-rise tower will have four basements for parking, mechanical and technical maintenance. It will have a luxury 270-room hotel and a mix of guest rooms and suites.

Architectural render / RAMI SHATAT

Architectural render / RAMI SHATAT

“In addition to guest rooms, the hotel will have an all-day dining restaurant, two specialty restaurants, a rooftop bar and restaurant and a beach bar and restaurant, two outdoor swimming pools, a spa and a gym and other facilities typically found in a luxury hotel,’’ the report reads in part.  The proponents expect the project to be affiliated with a luxury brand that will appeal to international guests.

“The luxury rooms will have a modern yet authentic design and feature high-end amenities that should give the guests a sense of well-being and safety. The restaurants will create a ‘Little Dubai’ experience: quality food, gourmet products, modern design and high-end finishing and vibrant atmosphere,”
ESIA study

The mall is expected to be comparable in quality to the Dubai Mall in Dubai. The investors present it as an iconic development and the first of its kind on the East African coast.

“The Palm Exotica could be compared to international developments such as The Porsche Tower in Miami and Dubai Mixed-Use Tower, also referred to as the Dancing Sisters,’’ the report reads.

Architectural render / RAMI SHATAT

Architectural render / RAMI SHATAT

“Standing at 61 storeys, Palm Exotica pays tribute to luxurious yet eco-friendly design, organic cultural motifs and holistic experience. Set to be the tallest tower in all of Kenya, this exclusive mixed-use development is for the discerning traveller who appreciates life's finer things.

“From chic residential suites to premium commercial space, eclectic restaurants, Palm Exotica is an impressive address designed to invoke and accentuate sustainability from its surroundings for the residents to enjoy uninterrupted views of vivid warm ocean colours and the picturesque Watamu panorama.”

Architectural render / RAMI SHATAT

Architectural render / RAMI SHATAT


The proposal has outlined both positive and negative gains that will come in hand with the high-rise tower, which will have a capacity of accommodating over 1,500 high-end tourists. Positively, the resort will create jobs, boost the tourism industry and create a market for locally available goods and minerals. Further, it will lead to increase in property values, growth of local businesses and improved livelihoods, as well as increasing local revenue generation and associated economic growth.

On the flip side, the project proponents say it would contribute to the loss of vegetation cover, air degradation from construction activities and an increase in solid waste generation. It will also lead to increased pressure on the available infrastructure and social services and raise environmental and health safety concerns during construction.

Other negative aspects shall be the potential impact on sea animals and the Watamu Marine Park, alteration of natural drainage systems, risk of fire and disasters, impacts on occupational health and safety, interference with social-cultural set-up of families and changing demographics and related concerns.

“As per the analysis of the aspects of both positive and negative environmental impacts of the project’s development, we, the experts, found no significant negative impacts that could pose adverse effects to the extent that the proposed project should not be implemented,” the report states.

The experts who conducted the study said the local community has overwhelming support for the project, and they are very well informed, having conducted three public meetings and several stakeholder engagements with stakeholders. Through the development, experts also said there is a high expectation of employment for the youths and improvement in the household incomes, infrastructure and general delivery of social services.

 “The proponent of the proposed project shall be committed to putting in place several measures to mitigate the negative environmental, safety, health and social impacts associated with the life cycle of the project,” the report reads.


The investors said the location was chosen due to the potential of the area as a world-class tourism destination and the reduction in land acquisition needs. Moreover, the proponents say there are no detrimental environmental factors that were reported, adding that all the required studies as pertaining to the proposed development have been conducted and approvals necessary acquired. Among the studies done, they say, are the ESIA scoping report, geotechnical and topography survey of the site, aeronautical studies, traffic impact analysis and marine studies. Others are hydrogeological survey for the two boreholes on site, which is subject to a different EIA study, change of user permit and approval of project architectural and structural drawings.

The experts who conducted the ESIA report want the authorities to approve the project, saying the investors will ensure implementation of the proposed mitigation measures and compliance with ESMP during construction, commissioning and operational phases of the high-rise resort.

The investors say their aim is to promote social and economic development in the Coastal region and improve the living standards of residents along the project area and the East African region by promoting local and international tourism activity.

The Palm Exotica project shall also advertise Watamu all over the world as a world-class tourism destination locally and globally. As investors eye a landmark and residents weigh the pros and cons, it remains to be seen what Nema’s verdict will be.


Man fishing on Watamu creek / FOTOLIA

Man fishing on Watamu creek / FOTOLIA

A section of Watamu stakeholders has opposed to the establishment of the Sh28 billion Palm Exotica tower in Watamu. The Watamu Association, local community groups and the Kilifi County Alliance are concerned about the viability of the project. Locals and environmental organisations are questioning the effects of the high-rise tower and are seriously concerned about the implementation of the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment for the project.

The concerns, which have since been forwarded to the director general of Nema, include lack of meaningful public participation in the granting of change of user and approval of the scale and scope of the project.

In a report signed by the chairman of Watamu Association, Sir Michael Norton-Griffiths, the groups say there is a danger of significant cultural, social and heritage impact. They also cite environmental impacts on the Watamu Marine National Park from the disposal of waste and building detritus in the local environment. They are also worried that there is a threat of overwhelming local infrastructure, such as roads, accommodation, health and services, including water, electricity and waste networks.

The community also says the two public participation meetings held on March 7 and April 11were primarily public relations exercises.

“At both meetings, the PE-ESIA team generated completely unrealistic expectations about the benefits to be gained from the PE project in terms of jobs and development, to the extent that any alternative or dissenting proposals, however mild, were shouted down,” Sir Norton-Griffiths said.

He said the project is inappropriate for the area as it will change and dominate the skyline of the surrounding and destroy its manor attractions as an area of outstanding beauty. Watamu is a renowned tourism destination that has won awards for its white, scenic beaches.

 “The project will fundamentally transform the nature of the Watamu community, which is still that of a quiet, low density, residential tourist destination built around a Marine National Park and a traditional coastal fishing village,”
Watamu Association Chairman, Sir Michael Norton-Griffiths

Watamu beach / FOTOLIA

Watamu beach / FOTOLIA


Norton-Griffiths said the ESIA should develop compelling arguments as to why the project should be permitted to inflict such change on the community in Watamu. To them, the high-rise tower will have serious security threats and make it a target for terrorists.

Once the project is completed, the Watamu stakeholders argue that property values within a large radius of the building will be negatively impacted from privacy, as every private residence and hotel within sight will be overlooked by this building. The high-rise building, they say, shall create a shadow that will affect properties for up to 2km as the sun moves around the tower. The sunlight reflected from the tower, they said, will also negatively affect properties.

The Watamu community, in another report, also said the tower will disturb turtle migration, nesting, migration of dolphins and birds. They called for a serious study to be done.

 “The project will result in a huge increase in visitor numbers, potentially 1,500 per day, into the Marine Park and Watamu beach. The capacity to absorb such an increase is very doubtful,”
Watamu Community Report

Turtle, Watamu / FOTOLIA

Turtle, Watamu / FOTOLIA

On infrastructure, the locals fear that the tower shall overwhelm the existing power, water roads, health accommodation, waste management, and firefighting and security networks.

 “To be successful, the project will have to make major upgrades to all service networks,” they said.

The Palm Exotica project proponents said they would require only 10 per cent of water from Malindi Water and Sewerage Company, and the rest would be obtained from water harvested from two boreholes. However, the stakeholders also said the current electricity in Watamu is inadequate to meet the demand, with interruptions, phase failures and low voltages experienced every day. They also want a comprehensive waste and water management study to be carried out and a policy developed before the building design is finalised.

“All waste disposals have to be off-site, raising huge risks of contamination and damage to the local environment,”
Local community groups

Another concern raised about the project is the possibility of failure due to financial and technical aspects. Stakeholders say if the project is abandoned before completion, it could be a complete disaster. Already, they said, there have been complexes abandoned along the Coast, from Mombasa to Malindi.