Kipande House was Nairobi’s tallest building for about two decades

NAIROBI, KENYA: Hardly a year after it was completed, Britam Towers is set to be displaced by Pinnacle Tower as not only the tallest building in Nairobi but also the entire Africa.

But did you know that Kipande House, now not easily mentioned anywhere where a conversation about heights comes up, was the tallest building in Nairobi for at about two decades?

On completion, the Pinnacle Tower is set to beat Carlton Centre in South Africa which is a 50-floor, 223 metres-tall building completed in 1973.

But for Kipande House, it may have been beaten on height but its history remains.

Today, it houses Kenya’s largest bank by asset base, Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB). But its course is older than KCB.

In 1889, Gurdit Singh Nayer, then a 32-year-old banker left Lahore, Pakistan to Kenya.

To do so, he had to depend on the dhows that were popular in carrying visitors to the East African region on the Indian Ocean in a journey of about 40 days.

Having seen gaps in infrastructure, he developed an interest in bridging the gap. He assembled a group of masons, carpenters and other kinds of artisans and delved into the construction industry.

In 1913, he designed Nayer Building, with close assistance from English architect David Fialt.

Located close to the Kenya-Uganda Railway, the building was leased by the colonial government and used by Coolies (Indian manual laborers) who worked on the Kenya-Uganda Railway.

They made it a warehouse. The old Uganda Railway line passed parallel to Loita Street. But this purpose did not last for long.

About a year later, Sir Henry Conway Belfield who served as the first Kenyan governor between 1914 and 1917 came up with the Kipande system under which Africans were to be issued with identity cards.

All Africans, then called “locals,” would be forced to go there to be registered and issued with identification cards.

An approach Africans found intimidating and discriminatory, they popularity referred to the building as “Kipande.” That way, the name never faded away.

Identity cards

Some authors in Kenya have written that the building was the tallest in the city for 38 years till Boneh & Factah completed the Kenya International Convention Centre (KICC) in 1974.

However, other say, it was beaten in height by City Hall, which was opened in 1935, starring a 165-feet tower clock.

The identity cards were not in respectable sizes as it is now where they are easily tucked in a wallet or handbag and only produced when the need arises.

The identity document was a red book with details such as the name, tribe, employer and the salary. It was then encased in a metallic container.

Africans were commanded to hang it around the neck using a string or leather cord and walk with it all the time.

Failure of following this meant a jail term or other severe forms of punishment.

This was the quickest way for colonialists to know how to get cheap labour since they would get to know the unemployed or what the already employed African was earning.  The kipande would usually have an expiration date. For those who came on short visits, theirs could have a 72-hour limit; which they had to renew if they were staying longer.

Two years after the end of the Second World War in 1945, the kipande system was outlawed but made a comeback in 1952.

Today, the closer Kenyans come to a kipande system is using workplace employee passes which are required to be hung in the neck while at work.

Having been designed and constructed under the watch of a banker, the use of the building as a warehouse and later on as an office to register Africans did not kill its ties with banking.

 In 1976, KCB, a lender that started as National Bank of India in 1895 acquired the masterpiece.

In 2006, KCB commissioned Triad Architects to undertake internal refurbishment of the building by creating a large banking hall while KCB architect Derek Fialt worked on the exterior, retaining the vintage look.

Owing to its rich history, the former labour office was gazetted as a national monument and the bank was only allowed to use it as long as there were no structural alterations.

Kipande House at the intersection of Loita Street and Kenyatta Avenue still stands with its British architecture but the fancy building with a peculiar tower is no longer anywhere near the tallest structures that dot modern Nairobi.

The competition for skyscrapers is intensifying.

Some of the tallest buildings in Nairobi include Britam Tower (200 metres), UAP Old Mutual Tower (163 metres), The Times Tower (140 metres) Teleposta Tower (120 metres), KICC (105 metres), NSSF building (103 metres and KCB Plaza which stands 100 metres from the ground.

However, Kipande House’s history still stands the tallest.

Too tall that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation named the building as a world heritage site due to its historical significance.

Kipande HouseBritam TowersPinnacle Tower