What you need to know:
- Creating well planned parks and preserving sufficient land for them can generate financial returns that are often many times greater than the money initially invested into the project, even when maintenance costs are factored in.
When you spend most of your life surrounded by concrete, glass and asphalt, you are prone to start yearning for nature; a forest with trees and flowers and bird song.
Intuitively, most of us seem to sense that taking a walk in a forest is good for us not only because it breaks the monotony of our daily lives but also because there is beauty and peace in spending time in a natural setting. Entering a forest is akin to returning home, where you reconnect with who you truly are, amongst those that reciprocate your love.
There are studies which show that visiting a forest, even for five minutes, has quantifiable health benefits, both mental and physical. But in a place like the Greater Kampala Metropolitan Area (Kampala, Mukono, Wakiso and Mpigi Districts) where public parks are disappearing at an alarming rate, there is barely anywhere to go.
A few real estate investors seem to have started smelling an investment opportunity and this gap may soon be bridged by private investors after all. After years of real estate development focusing on housing investments of all types, the next big investment area may just be the area of recreation parks after all.
Several developers have started turning large tracks of land into forested havens of flora in and around developed neighbourhoods that attract city dwellers yearning for nature.
Lweza Forest Park
One great example of such a park is Lweza Forest Resort. It is a 14-acre forest, 500 metres off Entebbe Road near Kajjansi. While most of it is natural in as far as the indigenous trees and shrubbery were left untamed and wild, a small section of it was clearly planted for aesthetic purposes.
Upon entry into the property, other than the expansive parking area, what takes your attention is the forest itself and not the architectural structures. The two bars, the swimming pool and the children’s play area were all designed to play a background role to the park. You instantly realise that the main attraction is the forest and the lawns, not the buildings.
According to the Robert Begumisa, the proprietor, the park opened in December 2021, and has constantly attracted enough clientele. On a Sunday afternoon, you will find throngs of people engaged in different activities under the thick canopy of a well-manicured forest.
There is staff at the drop of a hat waiting to satisfy your every whim. Parents are also happy to let their children wander all over the park since it is also secure because while it is open to all, the right of entry is not completely open to all.
“People come here for all sorts of things, to relax, for parties and even photoshoots,” Begumisa says.
The children’s play area is equipped with swings, bouncy castles, water slides and chairs for the young ones to catch their breath after their vigorous play. The swimming pool has its own bar so the patrons do not have to go leave the comfort of the water to get a drink.
Having worked in the tourism sector for 22 years, Begumisa says the park was originally created for tourists but they have been surprised that it now attracts many locals.
The untamed section is also home to small meeting huts that are completely shrouded in shrubbery giving it the feel of a game park. The whole property has that rugged rustic atmosphere reminiscent of tourist lodges.
“I initially wanted to build a tourist lodge in this place but in the middle of the planning, I realised that Ugandans would love such a facility too. As I was building, I started receiving visitors, from the community who loved what I was doing, so I changed my plans,” Begumisa says.
He says he changed his mind because there is a conflict between serving tourists and serving Ugandans.
“Ugandans love music and excitement generally while tourists prefer silence and tranquility. When Ugandans started showing interest in the place, I provided some music and slowly, I turned a tourist lodging into a place that could serve the community instead,” he says.
The property has a few rooms for those seeking temporary accommodation in the wild, tourist lodge style. Here, creatives that are working intense projects come to not only soak in nature but also in search of change of environment, just so the creative juices can probably flow.
“I plan to have a one stop centre for hospitality that is not only affordable and nice, but also exclusive in its own way. I also want to attract groups of people who are looking for a secret meeting place in Kampala, where important deals can be cut without the possibility of anyone eavesdropping on their conversations.”
There are major challenges to this kind of business. Trying to run an untamed forest in an orderly manner is no easy feat. There are mosquitoes to worry about and snakes to fear. While there is a simple solution to these, which is fumigation, there is a larger problem of serving very large crowds in a 14-acre forest.
“Some weekends can be very hectic because of the huge numbers of people we receive, but that fades in comparison with what we have seen around Christmas holidays. This place can get very packed and that creates a staffing problem.
“Over the weekends, we need 83 staff to cater for the people. Sometimes, the numbers make economic sense but sometimes they do not. But we have to pay all the 83 staff to be present just in case,” he says.
Clearly, this is a lucrative business simply because there is a desperate need for the service. Those that have large tracts of undeveloped land close to the city could look into it. There is very little need for structures, which makes the investment less stressful.
Regreening the city
Denis Obbo, the Ministry of Lands spokesman says that the reason the communities in the Greater Kampala Metropolitan Area do not have any parks is because many new suburbs have developed without much planning but he is quick to add that this will come to an end with the implementation of the new National Physical Development Plan.
“The just approved NPDP has revived the establishment of parks. Under the new plan, all local governments will be urged to procure land specifically for parks but private investors too will be sensitised to the need for green zones. Those who buy large pieces of land and subdivide them for sell to home developers will be asked to leave a certain amount of land for parks. At some point, we will not allow these people to sell land for homes if they do not show us the communal green zone,” he says.
Asked why someone would buy land only to be told that he must hand it over to the community as a park, he replied that private investors are allowed to create commercial parks where they charge entry fees.
Research has showed that playing in nature is crucial for the healthy development of children. Over and above improving hand eye co-ordination, children who play in nature also experience better emotional stability and improved mental health.