Seven years ago Anne Kagwe had what you would call a perfect home.
She had spent years saving and putting up a strikingly beautiful house on the banks of River Honi in Mweiga, Kieni District, and as she settled down to bring up her children, she hoped this was where she would retire and live her sunset years.
The bungalow she had created blended diverse designs with the quiet, almost soothing atmosphere around here and, from far, the rich canopy of the surroundings seemed to envelope her posh address with the loving arms of Mother Nature.
Yes, this was what she had always wanted, always hoped for.
But then the children grew up and decided life in the city suburb of Kileleshwa was better that one on the banks of River Honi, and so they left.
Anne suddenly had five, all-ensuite bedrooms to herself. Surely, this was too much… a waste of space, if you like.
And that is how the idea of turning this beautiful country home into a commercial venture was born.
Today, the house she thought would be her retirement home is a guest house, rented out to fun-loving local tourists seeking a break from the madness of the city.
Her story is certainly food for thought for thousands of other Kenyans with huge homes upcountry that they rarely use, glistening citadels that spend the whole year gathering dust, only to be occupied for three days over Christmas.
And so we sought to know how she made the leap of faith, and whether she has any regrets.
At the reception area, she waves us to a zebra-print sofa at the bistro, but all I want to do is roam this little getaway tucked just six minutes off the Nanyuki-Nairobi highway.
And so I stroll away to take in the profound wooden feel of the established, broken every now and then by fuses of metal that create coffee colour lines and patches in the banqueting area and living room.
While this was once a private home, Anne decided to transform it into a boutique hotel by introducing landscaped gardens and fitting all the bathrooms with travertine floorings, countertops and dual sinks, as well as modern jacuzzis and twin king-size cradles.
Everything portrays radiance and dazzle, with lots of windows and doors complementing each other to create an overwhelmingly airy feel.
That Summer Garden Homes, as this place is now called, is no longer Anne’s alone is evident all over the place, as if the fact that it must have taken a lot of planning with her husband to embrace the change.
But she wasn’t always a property person. Far from it. After high school, Anne decided she wanted to get into the airline industry, and so enrolled for an International Air Transport Association (IATA) course, then worked for Kenya Airways for some time before quitting.
“Then I left for Uganda, where I set up a business as a KCC and Brookside milk distributor assigned to the United Nations in Congo.
But, east or west, home is always best, so after 10 years of labour in foreign lands, I decided to come back home. However, settling in the city was a bit challenging because of all the competition there, so I moved here to, among other things, cut costs and set up a hassle-free retirement plan.”
That plan spawned her business venture, which, luckily for her, came at a time when Kenyans were starting to embrace domestic tourism in the form of weekend getaways.
Business, she says, has been brisk, and she plans to expand the establishment by doing what she had never dreamt of in her life: putting up 40 additional cottages on the piece of land on which she planned to retire — probably with a cat and the occasional visit by naughty grandchildren — and going full-blast into the hospitality industry.
“I am a landscaper and I have already contracted an architect to design the additional cottages, which will stretch all the way to the river,” she says.
If that happens, this new venture will dwarf another interest she has in Nanyuki, which is leased to the Spice Heart Company, and which mostly hosts British soldiers in the area, weddings, and other group functions.
She will use the earnings from the Nanyuki business, which she says range between Sh1.5 million and Sh2 million a month, to construct the cottages, and then sit and wait for the fun-seekers to knock on her doors.
“I bank on two things,” she says. “The devolved government, and domestic tourism. These two will most likely transform rural economies, and I want to be among the first to harness the huge potential that they bring to the table.”
That plan seems to be bang on the money. Devolution has been cited as a potential key driver in the housing and hospitality industries in the counties.
As more and more workers shift their bases from the city to the rest of the country, they will create demand for accommodation, which will have a knock-on effect on related industries.
Domestic tourism, on the other hand, has been on an upward trajectory over the last few years and the government says it could cushion the industry during periods of low international tourist arrivals.
Also, with the aggressive promotion of the domestic sector, local tourism business is expected to increase significantly as Kenyans’ disposable income gradually increases.
But there is something else to harness from the counties as well, and Anne, the savvy investor, knows it. That “something” is farming, and now that she has embraced life out of Nairobi, Anne says she is ready to soil her hands.
“I recently put up two greenhouses at a cost of Sh350,000 each,” she says, “and planted tomatoes and green pepper inside.
There is potential in the business because I now make about Sh500,000 from the greenhouses every three months, which is not bad considering the initial investment.
I distribute the produce in Nyeri and Chaka markets, but I hope to soon penetrate Nairobi and other counties.”
For now, however, her eyes are firmly cast on growing her hospitality business, and while farming might add to the family kitty, more is likely to come from the brick and mortar side of things.
Luckily, for her, she has the land and the dreams.
At a time when no one was thinking of purchasing land here, Anne and her husband decided to buy 20 acres for Sh130,000 each. Today an acre goes for Sh1 million here, and those “crazy prices”, as she calls them, keep climbing.
Combine that investment with her huge dreams and investment potential of the area, and you begin to see why Anne will not be retiring to her five-bedroom, all-ensuite bungalow any time soon.