After more than a decade in the US, Butere’s prodigal son returned home armed with ambition and a big dream.
The former air force engineer had seen and experienced all that was good with the world and was convinced he would sprinkle some of these wonders of the universe in Lunza, a sleepy village in Kakamega County.
Julius Mwale’s Crystal ball had never been clearer, and in it he saw a brand new world in which he would be the architect.
Mwale left the country with almost nothing. But he returned a billionaire.
Nothing, it seemed was impossible for the man who dazzled former school mates and childhood friends who struggled to reconcile the old him, with the new one hell bent on transforming his village into a silicon savannah worth at least Sh200 billion. In fact, in a few years, would build a city so big that, in his own words, would rival Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
To set the ball rolling, Mwale, a talented salesman and a man keen on self-image, built himself a luxurious mansion, complete with a perimeter fence. He furnished his home with kingly furniture. The lighting is state-of-the art. The floors and staircase thickly carpeted. He built himself a house that spelt opulence in capital letters. Portraits of himself standing next to global personalities including Barack Obama dot his walls. And he talked big too.
There are 40 private security guards watching after his empire. He also has two policemen on guard day and night in addition to numerous CCTV cameras.
To get to the house, you must go through two gigantic gates. If you are unwanted, you will not make it past the second gate. If you were lucky to pass the second gate, then you will not survive the dogs that lie in wait for any unwelcome guest.
It is from the comfort of this home that most investment deals and construction contracts have been be sealed. And it is from the confines of this same house, that Mwale is now overseeing the peeling of a veneer he had painstakingly applied on himself.
He is a charming master painter and over his 42 years, he has managed to paint himself in different colours. Of all the hues he has had, none was as successful as the one he adopted in 2010 when he passed himself off as a technology genius and inventor of a rather successful mobile systems software.
Keen on keeping up appearances, Mwale did not travel alone during this visit. He was flanked by four Americans meant to sell his story of success beyond doubt. After all, if he had made it in America, he could make it anywhere.
His travelling posse included Kaila E Knox, his wife, his brother in law Daniel Knox, who runs the day to day operations at the Hamptons Mall, the anchor supermarket for his gigantic investment. There are also two other whites, namely William and Christine, who handle investors and recruitment of staff among other roles. Their main job is to add credibility to Mwale’s project and kill any suspicion that he was not what he was saying he was.
After the stylish landing, Mwale still had to convince Butere locals to buy into his ideas. He needed land. So once again, he went into a charm offensive with the sole goal of securing the 5,000 acre communal land around the proposed site of his investment.
First, he promised locals that all residents of Kakamega County would be treated free of charge in the medical referral hospital he is building. He was going to change their fortunes by creating 20,000 new jobs in the county. They would be the first beneficiaries.
He dangled the carrot of possibility to his neighbours. He sold hope, possibility and aspiration. All the residents needed to do was hand over part or all of their land to him. In exchange he would build them houses that they would either live in or choose to rent out to some of the 20,000 newly created workforce.
To make it achievable, Mwale broke down his ambitious plan in two year phases that would see him put up the Hamptons Mall, a concept borrowed from The Hamptons in the US.
The US Hamptons is described as the summer playground of wealthy New Yorkers. It is the home to some of the most expensive real estate investments in the country.
Mwale wanted to replicate that in his rural home. He was to build the Hamptons Mall, which would have 200,000 square feet, the Mwalmart supermarket, a cafe and private residences in the first two years.
Phase two would be to put up more than 300 solar street lights, 70km of roads, and a 5,000 bed medical referral hospital, which was initially meant to be opened to the public by July last year. With the medical city, Mwale’s vision was to provide a competitive facility in the region that would stop thousands of residents from East Africa from flying to India for medical tourism.
The hospital would have 2,000 doctors and 4,000 nurses by 2020. These doctors will be seeing 12,000 patients per day. The first batch of doctors were scheduled to report to the hospital in July last year, to run the cancer treatment centre from August. With those numbers of medics and patients, his hospital would be bigger than Kenyatta National Hospital, Kenya’s main referral hospital.
The third phase of the project, which runs between 2017 and 2020 is the most ambitious. Villagers would see the first 36-hole golf course. Along the golf course, he would put up 1,500 guest rooms.
There would also be 4,800 new houses to host doctors and nurses also built alongside the golf course.
The next step would be to do a technology park that would host 10,000 engineers. He would then build a 144 megawatt gasification waste to energy power plant, one of its kind on the continent. The power plant would be run by the waste generated by the city.
Building such a plant would need mountains of waste, rigorous environmental impact assessment tests and dislocation of people.
To put this into context, KenGen, which has resources and government backing takes at least three years to build a power plant that has similar capacity. This is minus the time taken for mobilising funds and community sensitisation which can take on average about two additional years.
But Mwale’s plan is to have this plant up and running in the next two years, despite having no waste on the ground. Sensing naivety, the pitch continued. He would have a medical school in the complex. He would then build an airport, a second mall, a convention centre and a water park. The icing on the cake will be an aerial cable car to transport visitors and patients from the airport to the hospital. With this plan, Mwale needed investors to sign up as quickly as possible to make the 2020 dream a reality.
Mwale says in his multiple marketing interviews that the first and second phases of the project are fully funded. The hospital and the power plant are also fully funded.
He says that a third of the 4,800 homes have also been committed. The only available investment opportunities he is offering potential investors is the remaining 3,200 homes.
He has 25 housing plans for investors to pick from among them mansions, town homes and apartment buildings.
Apartments range from about Sh10 million while mansions go for as high as Sh100 million.
The ex-soldier will not take more than five minutes to hook an unsuspecting investor to buy into his dream.
Cash flow hiccups
After the locals were hooked, Mwale, went for the bigger fish on a whirlwind of contract signing. Contractors from across the country were basically eating out of his hand and scampering to secured tenders in this mega project. The first main contracts were to build roads and set up street lights. The involvement of his white employees’ gave comfort to investors that they were dealing with a man of means, and many took his word for it.
Some rushed to take bank loans and spent millions to be part of the Mwale dream. After all, payments were being made every 45 days after completion of works. Or so they thought.
Contractors are now fighting in and out of court to get their money. But, as many have come to realise, Mwale’s vault may contain significantly less money than he leads people to believe. Staff have gone six months without pay. Whenever they ask for the arrears, they are given the once in a lifetime opportunity to walk around the supermarket and get goods equivalent of their monthly pay.
The investigative desk spoke to a dozen employees, security guards, and neighbours of Mwale who confirmed that the businessman is going through a tough cash crunch.
“We are told to pick shopping. To make it worse, the products on the shelves are inflated and some suppliers have stopped bringing new stock over rising debt,” a supermarket attendant said. The attendant said a number of staff had already quit and those left are looking for jobs.
Mwale’s white manager, Daniel Knox was arrested by police last week after he failed to pay another contractor on time. He would be released after several hours in police custody, following numerous calls. After he returned, he vanished from the premises when we sought to have an interview with him.
We saw copies of at least eight cheques including dollar denominated ones that bounced.
As more cheques continue to bounce, unpaid contractors are now turning to the courts to get back their money.
A group of contractors and suppliers contracted Robi Kerato, a law firm, to demand money on their behalf after Mwale delayed to pay for goods and services rendered.
The matter escalated last month, when a Kakamega court ordered the businessman now facing charges of obtaining services by false pretense to deposit his Kenyan passport in court.
The court also ordered Mwale to appear at the office of Director of Criminal Investigations at Kisumu every Wednesday until the matter is heard and determined.
The orders were granted after state counsel Jamsumba Onyango said the tycoon is a potential flight risk yet there is a pending prosecution against him.
Mwale is accused of giving out 12 bad cheques to the law firm on diverse dates between November 27 and December 1, 2017 which amounted to Sh22 million through Diamond Trust Bank.
In a sworn affidavit, Mwale avers that, Timothy Kerato who is a member of the Robi Kerato firm together with Flying Squad from Kisumu stormed his home and demanded Sh150,000 and forced him to give them post-dated cheques.
The matter will be mentioned on February 27.
Trouble for the businessman started last year when he had a run in with the county government. The Kakamega county government accused the businessman of kicking off the project before securing requisite approvals.
Read Part 2 of the story on How investor Mwale fanned an ember of court case into flame of controversies.