Burj Zanzibar: A Dubai-style construction boom

A render of the Burj Zanzibar building in the background.

By Seth Onyango, bird story agency

Zanzibar is undergoing an infrastructure overhaul on a scale not witnessed since independence, with plans to turn the archipelago famed for its pristine beaches and narrow-alleyed old towns into a megalopolis.

Shiny – and green – new towers are coming to Zanzibar as the semi-autonomous island sets out to lure investment and luxury travellers to its shores and build its economy beyond the tourism that has been a lifeline for decades.

The Burj Zanzibar, the world’s tallest green building, is the latest headline-grabbing and record-setting project earmarked for construction on the island.

The announcement comes a little over a year after the planned construction of the Zanzibar Domino Commercial Tower, a spiralling skyscraper on a man-made island off the west coast of the archipelago, was announced. In September last year, Tanzania’s AICL Group and Edinburgh-based investment company, Crowland Management unveiled designs for the US$1.3 billion glitzy skyscraper.

Upon completion, Zanzibar Domino Commercial Tower, a 70-storey high-rise, is expected to transform the island and will be the second-tallest building in Africa, after Egypt’s Iconic Tower. It will also be the most expensive single-standing building ever constructed on the continent, just $200 million shy of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, which gobbled up $1.5 billion.

“Burj” means tower in Arabic – and the new building is expected to reach 96 metres in height. However, the tower will be more green than glitz. Christened a “vertical green village”, it would be the first hybrid timber structure globally of such proportions.

According to its designers, upon completion – which is slated for 2026 – the tower will serve as a “mixed-use apartment and commercial building, in a playful beehive style with breathtaking ocean views”.

The design was unveiled to the public in Muscat, Oman on 1 October. Dutch-born architect Leander Moons, responsible for the concept said, “Burj Zanzibar is not just an outstanding building but a new ecosystem for the future of living.”

“The residential tower with 266 residences is to be located in Fumba Town, East Africa’s pioneering eco-town developed by German-led engineering firm CPS. Categorised as a strategic investment and fully supported by the Zanzibar government, the growing city near the capital, where foreigners are allowed to buy, stretches along a 1.5-kilometre seashore on the southwest coast,” according to the developers.

The proposed Zanzibar Domino Commercial Tower.

This luxury development boom is seen as a bid by Zanzibar’s President Hussein Ali Mwinyi to recalibrate the island’s economic model.

A Bloomberg report indicates Zanzibar is touting a $2 billion plan to woo start-ups and shipping, explore for energy and to process seaweed as it seeks to diversify from tourism and boost its blue economy.

This is part of a five-year plan and the government will hire advisors for the financing and debt needed to fund almost two dozen wide-ranging projects with an estimated value of $ 2.4 billion.

New wealth is streaming in from the Middle East (Zanzibar was ruled by the Sultans of Oman from 1698 to 1963) and overseas investors are expected to prop up the archipelago’s real estate sector.

Meanwhile, new road projects have also been scheduled to boost connectivity under the Zanzibar Urban-West roads project including its first flyovers since independence. Mwinyi presided over the signing of the road deal with the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) which promised to do the work within three years.

Construction of flyovers at Amani and Mwanakwerekwe will cost $116 million. Together with the skyscrapers, the island’s new look could begin to resemble the far more glitzy Dubai.

“It is impossible to achieve development goals if we are still using poor infrastructure in the country. We have deliberately prioritised infrastructure development so that we can move forward. I am happy that the road development started, which also includes two flyovers,” Mwinyi said.

In the past two years, his eight-phase government approved the construction and tarmacking of more than 275 kilometres of roads on the island.

In March 2022, President Mwinyi launched an ambitious five-year Zanzibar Water Investment Programme aimed at attracting investment in the production and supply of clean and safe water.

To lure tech companies, Zanzibar is dishing out work visas for relocating tech workers, something that has been problematic in mature markets like Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt and South Africa. Daniel Yu, founder and CEO of Wasoko – a B2B e-commerce platform that connects informal retailers to manufacturers of consumer goods – recently announced that he and the bulk of the company’s tech team has relocated to Zanzibar. Wasoko is a founding partner of an initiative called Silicon Zanzibar, which aims to promote the group of islands as a destination for tech companies and their workers.

Relocating firms will also find available working space and accommodation at Fumba Town, just 9km away from Abeid Amani Karume International Airport.

“Silicon Zanzibar is reestablishing the island as a gateway to the African continent through the transformative potential of the tech industry. As part of Zanzibar’s Blue Economy masterplan to promote sustainable development, the tech sector will play a critical role in expanding the island’s economy while maintaining a low environmental footprint,” reads the Silicon Zanzibar website in part.

Mwinyi’s administration is hoping the new investments and ease of doing business will help boost the appeal of the island.