Meet ‘Dicky’ Evans, the accidental hotel developer
The name Richard Evans may not immediately ring a bell, but Hemingways Nairobi will probably do. Located in the leafy neighbourhood of Karen, the five-star hotel is part of a local chain Evans built from scratch.
Overlooking the picturesque Ngong Hills, the 45-room hotel is an architectural masterpiece with a design borrowed from an American sports club.
The developer, known simply as Dicky, is a sports lover. He captained Kenya and East Africa at rugby tournaments in the 1970s. He is a champion of the ‘tag and release’ sport-fishing programme at the Coast. He is also a veteran golfer – and golf inspired the hotel’s design.
In the northern reaches of Augusta, eastern Georgia, lies one of the world’s most exclusive golf clubs. Augusta National Golf Club was originally constructed in 1857 as a 14-room farmhouse for Dennis Redmond. The club has hosted presidents, global business executives and royalty during the Masters Tournament played on the second weekend of April every year.
So exclusive is Augusta that a mere whisper that you are looking for membership is enough to get your name permanently struck off the list. “You don’t seek membership at Augusta. If Augusta wants you, it will find you. There’s no waiting list,” says Business Insider.
Dicky went for the Georgian architecture that comprises a symmetrical one or two-storey building weaved around a wide, central façade, a decorative crown above the front door with ornamental columns on each side.
Hemingways Nairobi is Kenya’s Augusta.
“We settled on a model based on such historical plantation houses – elegant and with lots of space,” says Dicky.
Before the Nairobi edifice, Dicky had already set up Hemingways Watamu and Ol Seki Mara, a luxury tented camp in Naboisho Conservancy.
However, setting up the now thriving hospitality chain was the last thing on the mind of Dicky, the 73-year-old trained civil engineer, who came to Africa by chance.
How it all began
Everything was going for him in Cornwall, his county of birth in the United Kingdom. There were wild moorland landscapes, a long coastline and attractive villages. The climate? Mild winters and cool summers – the perfect mix for Dicky to play rugby, which is the Cornish staple sports diet.
In 1967, a year after he graduated from Kings College in London, Dicky landed a job as a consulting engineer for the United Nations and the World Bank. He specialised in dam design and construction, water and sewerage supplies as well as upgrading urban infrastructure.
Two years later, UNDP was in the process of working on both Kampala and Jinja water supply. Dicky’s boss was expected to come and supervise the project. He never did due to illness.
“I was called upon to come down to Uganda and represent my boss. I immediately fell in love with East Africa. It had good climate and lovable people. I knew this was home,” says Dicky.
In the same year, Dicky came to the Kenyan Coast for the first time. His mission was to play rugby with the Kenyan team in Mombasa and enjoy some vacation. The allure of the then thriving tourist hotels and white sandy beaches was too much to resist.
“I loved the beach vistas. I tried my hand in fishing and liked it too. There was no place like Watamu,” says Dicky.
Soon, he was back in Uganda, carrying Watamu’s sweetness whenever he went. His brief sojourn at the Coast had planted a small seed that would later grow into a mighty hospitality empire. In Uganda, however, things took a turn for the worst. On January 25, 1971, Ugandan army general Idi Amin overthrew the government of Milton Obote and launched one of the most ruthless atrocities the country had ever seen. By the end of his eight-year rule, more than 300,000 people had been killed. Dicky was caught right in the middle of the conflagration. The dead were not mere statistics.
“I was lecturing at Makerere University with several other colleagues. At Amin’s orders, three of my fellow engineers were murdered in cold blood… the idiot just killed them…,” Dicky says, struggling to fight back tears at the memory of his fallen comrades. That episode was perhaps the lowest point in his life. He went back to Europe, but not for long.
In June 1971, Dicky was back in East Africa, this time to the coastal town of Mombasa. Here, he worked on the region’s water supply programmes. He went on to design coffee dams in Kenya’s interior. At the Coast, he met and formed a lifelong business partnership with Gary Cullen, another avid golfer and conservationist.
Both men shared a love for fishing – scouring the waters around Watamu for blue, black and striped marlins.
“I mentioned to Gary about my desire to establish a small fishing outpost in Watamu. I am not sure if he gave it much thought back then,” recalls Dicky.
With the business bug biting hard, Dicky established a horticultural firm in Naivasha – Homegrown – in 1982. Homegrown (later Flamingo Holdings) was later sold to James Finlay’s in 2007.
Back in Watamu, Dicky convinced a British war hero to sell him 22 acres where Seafarers Hotel, a laid-back establishment frequented more by locals, stood. “What do you know about hotels?” the owner asked Dicky. “Nothing.” He bought it.
“One morning, I broke the news about the purchase to Gary just before he hit the 14th tee at Karen. He looked at me in shock, dropped the driver, and the ball, rushed to the club for a celebratory drink as I played catch-up,” says Dicky.
By 1988, Dicky had transformed Seafarers into an iconic beach hotel and renamed it Hemingways, after the famous American author and traveller, who had made Watamu part of his fishing circuit.
Early this year, the hotel reopened after undergoing an 18-month rehabilitation. The Sh1.38 billion redevelopment saw the hotel reduce the number of rooms from 74 to 39.
Apart from hotel rooms, Hemingways Watamu now consists of 21 luxury apartments of one, two and four bedrooms, selling from Sh45 million to Sh140 million. The development brings the total Hemingways Collection investment portfolio to Sh6 billion.
For Richard ‘Dicky’ Evans, a father of three who describes himself as the “mad Cornish”, his hospitality development story is one of sweat and tears, and whose final chapter is yet to be written.