The Harambee Spirit is alive – the story of Emma Too’s year in Mombasa


(Posted 01st June 2014)

Emma Too, a Kenyan celebrity, former Face of Africa finalist and fashion model turned into a ‘green fingered landscape designer’ and a long-time friend of mine, spent much of the past year in Mombasa working on a project to make Kenya’s Indian Ocean port city look better. Not being able to catch up in person inspite of our best efforts, Emma, instead of giving a life interview, agreed to provide her impressions of the last 12 months in a narrative, one I am happy to re-broadcast here. It is a story of ambition, a story of determination, a story which defies many odds and a story of hope, something Kenya needs these days as the country celebrates the 51st Madaraka Day, when in 1963 the country attained internal self-governance.

Mombasa was, and in part remains, notorious for potholed roads, shabby appearances and uncollected garbage, something the tourism fraternity has been struggling to get sorted out, until a year ago by the Mombasa City Council and since the new devolution the Mombasa City County administration.

Emma got into the fray at ground level, being given the go ahead by Mombasa County Governor Hassan Ali Joho, and from the humble beginnings as the picture above shows, she and her team made considerable progress as the next pictures will document.

And here is Emma’s story, the way she looks back over the past year and how she experienced progress, set backs and eventual success:

The Mombasa Beautification Project.

I grew up visiting the coast as a young girl. My family home is in Vipingo and Mombasa was our main town. We drove through it a million times, and seated in the back of my mother’s car, I re-landscaped Mombasa town in my head a million times. I got headaches thinking of how I could ever get this chance, but deep in my heart, I knew I would one day, I would be part of this transformation somehow and I would be willing to do it for free. Of course, along the way a lot of people said I was crazy giving up everything to work on this project, but I knew that if not for anything else, my heart would be content and my work, God willing, will put smiles on people’s face and the faces of my children should I have any in years to come.

My experience on this project has not only been to transform Mombasa, but it has be a life journey to transform me personally. I have lived a very guarded life and working on this project was a reality check in terms of how I perceived life and people in general, before and after. Today, I am a brand new person with new thoughts, appreciation of the smallest things, new friends I have made and others that I’ve lost, but I thank God for those who’ve stood by me. I thank my mother who made sure I didn’t give up and never let my pride get in my way.

It’s been hard, but I’m a much stronger person, I lost love and found love in the process, I may have come to Mombasa hoping to transform the town, but I transformed myself. I strongly believe that I was born to do this. I will forever be grateful to the Governor of Mombasa Hassan Ali Joho for giving me this opportunity to give back to the community.


Mombasa being the gateway to Kenya and a tourist city, and the fact that it is an old town rich in history, beautification of the city centre was very necessary and long overdue. The local climate favours a vibrant tropical garden and the use of palm trees will complement the coastal feel and look similar to any other coastal town around the world. Let’s not forget by the way that plants have other important environmental benefits like cleaning the air by converting CO2 into Oxygen, other than just the beautification element.


The main objectives of city & town beautification;

– It should be low maintenance.

– Have a good balance and coordination in design & style?

– Avoiding monotony by balancing elements that complement the overall design line.

– The whole town can have different themed streets and characteristics to give different character to different parts of the city.

– Size of plants must be considered for easy visibility for the motorists.

– A good drainage system is very necessary.

– Lighting is very important element in beautification.


To describe the Bondeni & Fontanela concepts in a few words, it’s a fair balance of a coordinated style that avoids monotony on long stretches of road and streets, remembering that this road was done as a sample street and the hard-landscaping had already been implemented by either the Municipal Council or the Highway Authorities hence we maintained that plan, by just adding plants, changing the soil & adding greenery and replacing of the broken slaps. Hopefully we will have introduced a different and better feel & look than what we found when we started.


– The biggest challenge has been finance.

– The assumption by people that I was on contract of sorts and was misusing county facilities, made it very difficult to get assistance, hence the project took longer than necessary.

– Many people were confused by the excavations and questions were asked about whether we were digging swimming pools. In order to have garden plants that can prosper for another five to ten years with minimal maintenance, removal of the old earth together with dirt and reintroduction of fresh top soil was very necessary. Though cumbersome and expensive, it is very necessary for durability.

– There was also the misconception of the difference between the Christmas Palms & the Royal Palms, these are two very different palms but have similar leaf structure when young but one is a dwarf palm (Christmas Palm) which we used mainly and the other is a giant tall palm (Royal Palm).

– The arrangement of plants was another big complaint but there is nothing wrong in clustering of plants or close proximity arrangements as long as one is aware of the maturity status of the plants in question, i.e: The diameter & height must be considered. This arrangement we used was so as to achieve a mature garden-look concept. (Everyone wants overnight results & so did we)

– The slow pace of how things are rolled out.

– The stealing of plants, the Cycads Palms and the Yellow Lantana mostly.


I would like to thank the Governor Hassan Ali Joho again for his keen interest in the transformation of the city environment and his full support in the beautification project by funding the project in partnership with the County Government, and for giving me this opportunity to show case my talent in landscaping.

I also want to thank the Environment Department for their continued support as well as the Infrastructure & Engineering Departments, for all their continued assistance to see us transform Mombasa to its former glory.

I am also happy that due to the transformation of the streets, the residents are also changing their habits, & attitudes toward their environmental surroundings and are no longer dumping waste carelessly as they did before the Beautification Project started and they have also taken proud ownership of the beautification project and even admonish those who do anything to spoil what has been achieved so far. That for me is an achievement money can’t buy. As we come to the end of my works on the sample street, I will commit to regular visits to Mombasa and to collaborate with the Environment Ministry to ensure that Mombasa Beautification Project is not just a project but part of Mombasa County lifestyle.

Emma’s story shows that while she was given some access to the city’s resources, her own work was undertaken free of cost to the city and it was that spirit, when I learned about it, which made me want to talk to her in person. During several visits to Kenya over the past year we tried and failed and tried again and failed some more, but did stay in close contact, Emma narrating her challenges, her ups and downs, her doubts and her hopes while I extended support and courage to her, never having any doubt that she would succeed.

There is still much to be done in Mombasa, along the way from the airport into the city, through the city to the Nyali Bridge and to the Likoni Ferry, as well as across the Nyali Bridge and across the channel in Likoni itself. I should know, I keep writing about these issues on a regular basis but I take hope, seeing Emma’s project completed, that it can be done and can be done through the spirit of Harambee – pulling resources together from individuals and the community at large, for a cleaner and greener Mombasa, of which Kenyans can be proud again and which tourist visitors will be keen to see and experience.

21 Responses

  1. Thank you Dr Thome for this behind-the-scenes view. The work around Bondeni looks great (though the pavement area in front of markiti is unfinished). If only there was some way to prevent matatus from running over and destroying the cement slabs. Great work, Emma Too! Hope you get to Jomo Kenyatta Ave soon!

  2. I am proud of Emma, and the great volunteer work she has done for the city of Mombasa. I am just lucky to be associated with you in more ways than one – especially as family. You are one unique being. You have always volunteered in other ways, some of which I still appreciate to date. Your friendship: Priceless!

  3. Emma Too has done what many people do not want to do: roll up their sleeves and get dirty for the good of everyone. Congratulations. People are always remembered for what they did. You have all my respect. Help is on the way Emma.

  4. Emma Too exemplifies what JF Kennedy said,’ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for the country’
    She is a trailblazer in her own right.

  5. I was just wondering what is going on around beautification of our town is amazing especially moi avenue,now I know.

  6. What else can I say Emma? Thank you very much for your excellent efforts of beautifying Mombasa. May you reap the fruits of your selfless efforts in an unmatched way. I only want to request either any other kind hearted team, individual, organization or and Mombasa county government to emulate you in picking it from where you left to Make our town, Mombasa even more beautifull.

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