How Kenol moved from a fuel pump to a real estate hotspot

Fifty years ago, a lone fuel pump stood halfway between Thika and Murang’a towns. The pump had been installed by the then Kenya Oil Company Limited or Kenol, a company that grew into a pan-African oil marketer.

Sisal and coffee plantations dotted the area where only few locals lived on the large farms owned by white settlers. Among the well-known estates here is Kakuzi, whose origin dates back to 1906 after Donald Seth-Smith and Lord Cranworth (one of the three original proprietors of White Rhino Hotel in Nyeri) acquired over 10,000 acres.

The central location for this estate, according to the estate’s website, “was christened Makuyu, the native name for fig tree, which remains at the head office to this day.”

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As the whites left the country shortly after independence, land-buying companies took over a number of these farms on behalf of local shareholders. Few, though, wanted to make permanent abodes in the seemingly forlorn and bleak landscape.

Mzee Samuel Kamande remembers well the negative sentiments of those who bought shares in these farms.

“Some of the areas were quite swampy. Mosquitoes were everywhere, their presence enhanced by the many water dams developed by the white farmers. Few Africans wanted to make this area their home,” recalls Kamande, who used to fish in the dams.

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Fast forward to 2019 and the area now known simply as Kenol (after the original fuel pump) has grown to become a preferred destination for high-end real estate developments.

The hitherto small shopping centre in Murang’a, tucked inside the Y-junction to Murang’a and Makuyu towns, has become a large catchment area for major projects and businesses.

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Not far from Kenol is Thika Greens, a gated community with an 18-hole golf course that hosts top tournaments in the country. A former coffee estate, Thika Greens comes with palatial homes and a lifestyle that is changing the once sleepy neighbourhood.

In a recent interview, Charles Kibiru, one of the people behind the concept, says such developments would spur not just residential lifestyles, but tourism prospects for Murang’a County.

He said the diverse natural beauty in the region would henceforth become more pronounced as more accommodation facilities are built.

He said there is a direct relationship between these mega projects and the overall property value in the area.

“We had naysayers when we came up with this project. We were told that people would not settle in this area as it is “too rural”. Today, we are on the tail end of the sales process, having created a world-class lifestyle. We are happy that property owners around us are now using our development as the reference point for their sales, said Kibiru.

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A few kilometres from Kenol off the Kenol-Makuyu road is yet another location earmarked for a resort city, Makuyu Ridge. Sitting on 1,000 acres, Makuyu Ridge will be a fully integrated resort city comprising 1,500 holiday homes, an 18-hole golf course, an international hotel, a convention centre and other socio-economic facilities. The project will be a flagship economic zone in Muranga County.

Developed by Resorts and Cities, Makuyu Ridge takes advantage of major projects earmarked for the region, including the Greater Eastern Bypass.

Lee Karuri, chairman of Resorts and Cities, says investors should follow the plans to open up large swathes of the country through big infrastructure projects. He says people ought to look beyond the current state and “see” what they will become once such infrastructure is in place. “Some people may not realise the potential these new regions hold. We just need to look at how land around Thika Road appreciated after the road was upgraded. The region between Kenol and Makuyu will be another frontier for large-scale developments,” he says.

Fortunes for this region changed when the Kibaki administration included parts of Murang’a County in Nairobi’s metropolitan masterplan.

In May 2008, Kibaki, through a presidential directive, created the Ministry of Nairobi Metropolitan Development. Among other things, the ministry was to come up with a blueprint to enhance developments in Nairobi, parts of Kajiado, Machakos, Kiambu and later, Murang’a.    

In March 2013, then Lands minister James Orengo signed a document entitled, Spatial Planning Concept for Nairobi Metropolitan Region. Six new cities that would reduce pressure from the capital were incorporated.

Among them was an “aerotropolis” – a city that would include a new international airport to handle all air transport-related businesses. The new city was to sit on 2,000 acres near Thika and attract close to 100,000 people during peak operations.

“All great developments start as concepts,” said Peter Kibinda. Kibinda was among the top planners in the city when these “dreams” were conceived. “Planners take a holistic look at a general area and see the potential for development. Another generation will take up the actual development.”

He said the appetite for land around Kenol and surrounding areas is caused by congestion in cities like Nairobi. People like Mzee Kamande hope to live and see the actualisation of these grand plans.

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