• It is one of a few places in Muslim territory where the middle-class can enjoy a drink
• Once derailed by terror, now revived by new owner, it is thriving in wake of new port
Is it your first time on Lamu Town Island?
Look out for a floating structure in the middle of the Indian Ocean channel as you cruise from either Manda Airport to Lamu Island or from Mokowe Jetty to Lamu Island.
If you are coming to Lamu by road, you will alight at Mokowe Jetty and take a 10-minute speedboat ride to your final destination. And if you are arriving by air, you will take a five-minute boat ride from Manda Airport Jetty to Lamu Island.
For eons, Lamu Island has been predominantly occupied by the Muslim community, who are very conservative.
Fun-loving tourists who might want to drown their sorrows or work-related stress with an evening drink could not do so because ‘alcohol’ is a foreign word among the conservative Muslim population.
Very few high-end hotel facilities, such as Peponi and Majlis, were selling alcohol. However, it is an open secret that not all people, especially local Kenyan tourists, can afford beer prices in these premium sophisticated facilities.
Apart from the expensive hotels in Shela and Manda, there are few other places on the island where the middle-class can enjoy a drink or two. These include Petley's Inn, Lamu House, the police canteens and the floating bar.
The Lamu floating bar and restaurant has for years been a darling to tourists seeking to party and unwind as they enjoy the beautiful view of the Indian ocean.
The bar, which is located in the middle of the ocean channel about a kilometre from Shela and Lamu Old Town, remains one of the unique and secluded places where visitors can enjoy a drink away from the eyesight of the conservative Muslim locals.
Fridah Njeri, 38, is the proprietor of the floating bar. The mother of two has owned the facility since 2014 after taking over its management from Gerald Johnson.
Johnson wanted to dispose of the facility following the increased cases of terror attacks and kidnapping of tourists in Lamu county between 2011 and 2013.
Njeri says the bar had remained without guests for most of 2013, making it impossible for the previous owner to continue with the business on the Island.
“I was a regular client to this spot and decided that I will purchase the place with high hopes that I could turn around its fortunes,” she says.
She bought the place at a throwaway price of Sh350,000.
Having been born, raised and schooled in Lamu Island, she knew she could revive the restaurant.
With no experience in running the business but a strong will to make it work, she pumped in Sh2 million in repairs and renovations to bring it back to life.
Upon reopening, she started receiving a good number of tourists, who were fascinated by its beauty and unique location.
She introduced local delicacies in the menu at the restaurants, which proved a hit and increased the number of visitors.
However, the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic hit the tourism industry very hard and made a number of tourist attraction sites close due to a low number of guests.
Njeri says they were not spared by the Covid-19 outbreak that reached Kenya in March last year.
It became difficult for the floating bar to remain afloat in terms of business. The number of visitors drastically went down because of the many restrictions issued by the national government.
Njeri says there were days they went without tourists at all at the peak of Covid-19 last year.
“The pandemic really hit us hard. At times, we could only get 15 guests visiting the restaurant, making it difficult to maintain the facility,” she says.
A lot of what Njeri earns as profit goes into the maintenance of the structure, which is immersed 24-7 and anchored into the deep, salty waters of the Indian ocean.
The structure sits on 200 pressurised drums that help it to stay afloat.
“Maintaining this place requires a lot of money, so we end up spending a lot of our earnings on maintenance and to ensure this place remains attractive,” she says.
All the repair and maintenance works are done by locals under the guidance and strict supervision of the contractor who designed the structure.
Njeri also requires the services of a professional diver, who from time to time dives in to check on the status of the pressured drums and assess what needs to be repaired beneath.
In March last year, when Covid-19 struck and the government imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, she was forced to close down the place for renovations.
The structure was pushed to the dry dock for a complete overhaul.
“What I had imagined would be a small task turned out to be very complicated work. We ended up paying a whopping Sh3.5 million to renovate the place and return it to this place,” Njeri says.
The commissioning of the first berth of the Sh40 billion Lamu port has been a game-changer in Lamu county.
The first berth of the port was commissioned by President Uhuru Kenyatta on May 20 and so far, two commercial ships have docked and picked cargo from the facility.
There is growing interest in the port, which means very many people are travelling to the county to get a first-hand experience of the new port.
Investors, businessmen, people looking for employment, government officers and new staff deployed at Lamu Port have been flocking the region every other week.
Most of these people are fascinated by the floating bar and many turn up for evening dinner and drinks. The facility is now a beehive of activities.
“Business has been really good. We are now hosting an average of 50 guests daily since the Lamu port became operational,” she explains.
With the increased revenue, Njeri is now planning to expand her business because sometimes they are forced to host the guests in batches.
“We cannot accommodate a large crowd at one time because the space is not very adequate here. We are now planning to expand this place,” she says.
In her new plan, she would like to offer bar and restaurant facilities, accommodation and conference facilities for small groups.
“We want to have accommodation facilities that can host up to four people in one room. We want to start hosting families, honeymooners and guests on vacation, who do wish to spend a night in the middle of the ocean,” she says.
The conference facility, which will have a capacity of about 50 people, will be up the deck.
Because of the increased number of revellers who wish to dance as they enjoy their meals and drinks, they will also expand the dance floor area, the bar, the lounge and the kitchen.
The bar and lounge will have a capacity of more than 100 people at any given time.
However, all these plans require a huge amount of capital.
“We are looking for capital of about Sh25 million to make the plans become a reality. We are hopeful we will make it,” she says.
Njeri is the only hotelier from Lamu county to have applied for the government Tourism Stimulus Programme, which was unveiled by President Uhuru Kenyatta in May last year.
The President allocated Sh5.6 billion to the tourism sector to assuage its plight as the industry suffered the most due to the restricted movements and termination of international flights.
“We are hopeful that we will get some funding to expand this business. We have applied for government funding and we are awaiting approvals,” Njeri says.
She says she had initially applied for Sh45 million but had to reduce the budget.
“However, if we do not get the government funding, we will just embark on the expansion plan with the little we have. Slowly, we will get to where we want,” Njeri says.
She says she cannot get a bank loan for the business because the place does not have a title deed.
“No one can have a title deed for a part of the ocean. Therefore, it is not very possible to get a loan for this investment, unless I attach other assets,” she says.
Apart from the county government business permit, Njeri is also required to pay for the liquor licences. She also pays the Kenya Maritime Authority for annual sea-worthiness inspections and the Kenya Ports Authority for the annual moorings charges.
Njeri is optimistic that once her plans succeed, the Lamu floating bar will be a paradise on earth.
Edited by T Jalio