PART ONE: The First Buildings, The Imperialist and Jews of Nairobi

PART TWO: How the Indians came to build Kenya

PART THREE: History of Cement Industry in Kenya

PART FOUR: Historical Development of Construction Contracting in Kenya

PART FIVE: The Rise of the National Construction Corporation in Kenya

PART SIX: The Fall of the National Construction Corporation


The Beginning and Early Buildings

The construction of buildings that serve different purposes in Kenya started way before the modern-day brick and mortar came into the picture. Over decades, the construction sector in Kenya has been moulded by religions, politics, cultures and races. Whereas some of these buildings have been protected, others have been pulled down gradually to pave way for newer, more modern buildings.

In this short series, we seek to provide you with a skeleton of how various aspects of building and construction have evolved in Kenya. There is a lot that has been documented but cannot be accessed. There is a lot more that has not been documented or available in the public domain.

The technologies and designs are some of the aspects that have shaped the way we live today. Combined with politics and cultures, for example, buildings that have weathered the test of time can articulate the times when they were put up. Why do we find Asian communities living in one corner of the city and not the other? Why do we view Nairobi’s Eastlands different from the Nairobi that lies to the West of Uhuru Highway? Why does the upper class of any modern Kenyan town or city prefer to live on one side of the city and not the other?

Buildings in any society tend to evoke a wide range feelings and thoughts. In our history, the colonial buildings demonstrated “power and hegemony” for the ruling class while, on the other hand, evoked feelings of “oppression, violence and authority” for the native Kenyans. This was a subject that was studied in detail by Maurice Amutabi in Buildings as Symbols and Metaphors of Colonial Hegemony: Interrogating Colonial Buildings and Architecture in Kenya’s Urban Spaces.

In his study, Amutabi highlights that government buildings such as the Nairobi Government House (now The Nairobi State House) “were supposed to radiate the strength and power of empire, helping institute the ideas of law, order and government.” hence its location on Nairobi Hill, from where it gave “vistas across the city below.”

The Government House (now The Nairobi State House) (source: Old East Africa Postcards)

The Government House (now The Nairobi State House) (source: Old East Africa Postcards)

In the social circles, the location and proximity of All Saints Cathedral (for white Anglicans), Holy Family Basilica (for the white Catholics) and St Andrew’s Church (for the white Presbyterians) around the Uhuru and Central Parks was not by accident. It was by design. These fall in what was considered a privileged area where Africans were not allowed to access, thanks to the Kipande System. In the colonial era, these churches were a preserve for the whites who, “after a church service would freely stroll into the park for Sunday afternoon picnics away from the gaze of Africans.”

Catholic Church Nairobi (source: Old East Africa Postcards)

Catholic Church Nairobi (source: Old East Africa Postcards)

Politically, in 1969, President Jomo Kenyatta “appealed to Kenyan planners to redesign urban spaces according to African requirements.” This, Amutabi posited, must have been a move that stemmed from “colonial landmarks in Nairobi that reminded him of colonial segregation.”

In general, buildings have shaped the streets and roads. They have shaped our upbringing or our understanding of how we navigate the city of Nairobi and other urban areas across the country. The history of any place is more likely shaped by the history of buildings as we shall find below.

Before the British Came

The native Kenyans used to build their own houses. Simply because they were different from the seemingly modern brick-and-mortar, should not make you think they were any less functional. In most nomadic communities, the role of building homes would be left to the women. The role of building the home would vary from one community to another – but there would be a shelter to call a home at the end of the day. The Arabs and the Portuguese also brought in their technologies, which are still evident in the coastal towns and cities of Kenya and these hold centuries-old history.


Maasai woman building a manyatta (source: Longido Mountain Lodge)

During the colonial rule, there were many attempts to organize the city of Nairobi. The colonial government in 1926 came up with Nairobi’s first urban plan which, like many that came after it, faced serious implementation challenges. For a small town which began as “a railway town, with railway offices and workshops near the station,” it was not uncommon to see “lines of corrugated-iron bungalows occupied by subordinate railway staff, including Europeans.” In Red Strangers, Nicholls notes that the houses were so basic that “those boasting baths had no internal plumbing, and those baths emptied through a hole in the floorboards into the earth below.”

The racial aspect of the society at the time was the basis upon which Nairobi’s growth was planned. The Africans were allocated the worst, unproductive sections of the growing town while the whites were given the most productive. The Asians were given the middle zones. Ewart Grogan, a British settler is quoted saying that “No distinction other than colour is politically possible since every grade of intelligence or wealth…exist in our midst without reference to colour. There can be no intelligence or wealth test here. Let us be honest and call a spade a spade. Our boundary line is colour.”

The First Nairobi Jewish Synagogue

One of the earliest modern buildings to be put up in Nairobi was the Jewish Temple in 1912. It was to be built on a piece of land that was allocated to the small Jewish congregation in Nairobi. An annual general meeting (AGM) held on October 22, 1911, the congregation decided that a synagogue would be built in Nairobi at a cost of not more than 300 sterling pounds. This cost excluded the furniture and fittings for the synagogue.

“On Thursday (June 20, 1912) afternoon, H.E. C.C. Bowring, C.M.G., laid the foundation stone of the new synagogue which is to be erected by the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation. The ceremony was based on Masonic Ritual, prominent Royal Arch Masons being present in regalia,” read the African Standard (June 22, 1912).

The Old Nairobi Synagogue (Source: The Jews of Nairobi)

The Old Nairobi Synagogue (Source: The Jews in Nairobi)

The project architect was Mr Miller Robertson – the proprietor of Robertson, Gow and Davidson, an architectural firm based in Nairobi. He submitted the plans for the synagogue whose cost stood at 500 sterling pounds. The committee that oversaw the project invited contractors to bid/tender for the construction works. On February 18, 1912, a decision was made at an AGM that saw the plans for the construction approved.

According to The Jews in Nairobi 1903 – 1962, the following three tenders were received:

  1. M. Sorabjee – 10,712 Rupees
  2. W.A. Gain – 7,443 Rupees
  3. F.G. Stephens – 8,800 Rupees

The tender was awarded to W.A Gain for the construction of the Jewish Synagogue that would serve the 30 Jews in Kenya at the time. In fact, all the Jews in Kenya – 30 in total – attended the laying of the foundation stone on June 20, 1912. The event was officiated by C.C, Bowring. The temple was functional by the end of October 1913.

new synagogue nairobi

The Governor of Kenya Sir Evelyn Baring laying the foundation stone of the new Synagogue watched by Mr Imre Rosza (Left, the architect), the Sikh foreman and Mr Henry Groner (the contractor) – (Source: The Jews in Nairobi)

In the 1950s, the Jewish community in Nairobi had grown and the synagogue had become so dilapidated that it “continued to absorb large sums in constant and continuous repairs.” In July of 1950, “a special general meeting resolved to demolish the old synagogue and to build a new one” at a cost of “between £8,000 and £10,000.” The design of the new synagogue was done by a Jewish architect, Imre Rosza.

Nairobi’s First Cinema

The Garvie’s and Steyn’s were the only settlers in the Nandi area as of the year 1905. The Garvie family is said to have been given a land deal in the Nandi area that saw them get 20,364 acres allocated to them. Donald Garvie sold his portion land to his brother and relocated to Nairobi.

In the year 1912, Donald Sutherland Garvie put up the first movie theatre and the first lodging in Nairobi. In her book, Red Strangers, Christine Nicholls described the theatre as a “corrugated-iron building on Government Road with planks for seats.”

The Stanley Hotel

Nairobi’s New Stanley Hotel arguably has one of the best kept historical records that can be used to decipher the nature and context of construction in Kenya over the last century. In Malachite Lion: A Travel Adventure, Richard Modlin notes that “one of the newest corrugated metal shacks” hotel was started by “a demure and dainty lady by the name of Mayence Bent.”

It is said that Mayence opened the hotel as an act of vengeance after a possibly bitter fall-out with a Mr Tommy Wood. Mr Wood owned the general shop where Mayence once worked. In 1901 he had bought the building from one M. MacJohn. Wood’s business also comprised of a hotel – Victoria Hotel – run and managed by Mayence, who also operated her dressmaking business nearby. Mr Wood’s businesses were operated near the Railways Station along today’s Tom Mboya Street. Mayence’s husband, W.S. Bent, operated a farm which supplied the hotel with foodstuff. The farm was situated at Fort Smith (present-day Kiambu) near Kikuyu.

Abraham Block (Right) in 1916

Abraham Block (Right) in 1916

After Mayence opened her metal shack hotel, it became so attractive to the visitors who trooped into Nairobi. The hotel had “a more attractive appearance.” It was here that she met a Lithuanian Jew and “a refugee from the Boer War”, Abraham Lazarus Block. Block supplied Mayence’s Stanley Hotel with 23 grass-stuffed mattresses thereafter.

After a fire that razed down her hotel in 1905, Mayence moved her guests to a structure that is believed to have been either “under construction or had been vacated.” The building was situated along Government Road – today’s Moi Avenue. It was a bungalow owned by Dan Noble who was Nairobi’s Postmaster. Two years after the fire, in 1907, Mayence left her husband and married her “new business partner”, Fred Tate. Fred was “Nairobi’s stationmaster and a pianist at the Railway Institute.”


The Stanley Hotel (source: Old East Africa Postcards)

Five years later, in 1912, the Tate’s built a new, 60-room hotel called The New Stanley Hotel which was opened in 1913. Who were the architects? The same architectural firm that designed Nairobi’s first synagogue – Robertson, Gow and Davidson. The new hotel was located on the Delamere Avenue – today’s Kenyatta Avenue.

In 1913, after the New Stanley Hotel was opened, the Mayence and Fred Tate sold back the first Stanley Hotel on Government Road to Dan Noble. There was a legal dispute regarding the use of the name Stanley Hotel by Dan Noble – hence The New Stanley Hotel adopted by the Tate’s. Later, the Tate’s moved to the UK.

1912: The Stanley Hotel under construction (source: The Agora)

1912: The Stanley Hotel under construction (source: The Agora)

In 1932, Fred and Mayence Tate came back to Nairobi to witness the opening of the Stanley Long Bar. Fred Tate passed away on June 20, 1937, leaving Mayence to oversee the management of the hotel. In 1947, Mayence sold The New Stanley Hotel to, you guessed it – Abraham Lazarus Block – the same “refugee from the Boer War” who had by this time become a prominent hotelier. His family has been for a long time associated with The Block Hotels.

Abraham Block also bought the Norfolk Hotel in 1927. In this detailed article on the life of Jews in Kenya, the Block family was heavily involved and invested in the hotel and hospitality sector. Besides The Stanley hotel, the family also bought Mawingo Club (now Mount Kenya Safari Club), which they sold before taking “a lease on the Brackenhurst Hotel in Limuru.” The Block family “started Keekorok Lodge in the Mara, bought Samburu Game Lodge, the famous Tree Tops in Nyeri and later added the Outspan Hotel.”

The Jews in Kenya were also involved in construction activities in Kenya later on. One such company was HZ Company (later HZ and Company and later HZ Engineering), which moved from Uganda at the height of the Idi Amin rule, into Kenya. It was owned by one Gad Zeevi. HZ Engineering was the builder of the Yaya Centre shopping mall and infrastructure projects such as the Turkwel Gorge and Hydroelectric Dam. When Zeevi moved his business to Kenya, he teamed up with politician and businessman Nicholas Biwott, forming the HZ Group.

 PART II: The Contribution of the Asians to Kenya’s Construction Sector