Coastal hotels scramble for 'makutis' creating millionaire farmers

Long held as a cheap alternative to the expensive roofing materials, palm branches commonly referred to as makuti are fast rising as a symbol of prestige and cultural attraction in coast hotels, a phenomenon that has seen their prices on an unprecedented upward trajectory for the last decade with even five star hotels and villas spending millions in makuti roofing. Business has been brisk especially among a few remaining coconut farmers who stuck to coconut farming as dwindling returns from the once prestigious farming crashed farmers' hopes.

In the 80's and early 90's returns from coconuts were high and farmers usually discarded the palm branches which they found no use for. Those who never had coconut trees could pick them from neighbours free of charge. The palms are particularly preferred in coast due to their ability to provide a cooling effect in houses owing to the high temperatures.

Even when the commercialization of palms for roofing picked up, no one took it seriously as palms were frequently available. But the dwindling coconut trees and the fast pace at which cottages, villages and hotels with an African touch and design are emerging has redefined palm trade.

In the 90's a head load of palm branches would cost Sh100 and Mombasa residents like Dena Kajembe recalls building their two roomed makuti thatched houses with sticks and mud walls at Sh10,000 with the palms costing some Sh2,000. The cost however has risen ten fold in the last ten years.

His son Hiram building the same house recently spent Sh50,000 with the palms eating up Sh20,000. “And they have been in so much demand that you are lucky if you get them because farmers and traders sell them to big hotels who buy them at a higher price. I remember growing up how we would even throw them away and considered them a nuisance,”said Hiram whose father was among the thousands who uprooted the coconut trees for its poor returns.

International hotels, cottages and villas, that have sprout up in the coastal town are driving the market price for the palms. With the hotels looking for unique African designs palms are becoming their sure bets. The obsession with palms has become so entrenched that some hotels even report having spent between Sh1.5 and 3million on buying and designing makuti roofing alone. “You see we employ the locals who know how to identify palm fronds from the best coconut tree and since they have become scarce we have to spend a lot to buy them plus pay for designers who know how to position them in a unique way in the roofs. The tourists identify the palm roofed hotels with a sense of Mombasa and Africa so if you are to draw them to your hotel you have to spend on the makuti roofing,” says Ahmed Kisa the owner of Whitefelt International hotel Mombasa.

The business has picked up so fast and turned some farmers and traders into millionaires that the coastal town is experiencing a huge come back of farmers into coconut farming not for the fruit but for its branches. Rajib Kawawa is one millionaire farmer who chanced on the palm trade by luck. Having nothing else to grow on his land and knowing how labour intensive any other farming would be especially on his barren land, he decided to let the coconut trees stay. “I would sell the coconuts so cheaply at between Sh3 and Sh5 since we had many others who were also in the trade.

Until hotels started cropping up and lorries would come right into our farms begging to buy our palms,”he said. Within a short time the business of buying palm fronds had mushroomed so fast that a frond had moved from just Sh5 to Sh100. Kawawa distributed about 1000 such fronds in a week from his one acre piece of land. It is a venture that has seen him build a night club which is a favourite among the coastal people, and which is wholly made of interwoven fronds.

Palm branches are harvested and dried, then the upper ends are woven around a stick two-feet long, and this sheaf is called a kuti. A small interwoven branch that resembles a doormat is now sold at Sh50 up from Sh5, just four years ago. A ten square feet hut would require 1,000 of these to thatch, which translates to Sh50,000 depicting rising fortunes of the branches.

And as government tries to resuscitate the dwindling fortunes of the once lucrative coconut fruit, farmers have stuck adamantly to the branches, arguing that they prefer the variety that produces palms with no fruits. The government's headache now is to slow down the obsessive uptake of the branch producing palms at the expense of coconut farming.