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How Kateeba’s ‘idle’ floating island turned into Shs 800m project

Top of the floating island

Top of the floating island

Never blame the skeptics who were adamant about getting onto James Kateeba’s floating island back in 2017; seven years later in 2024, even after passing the structural integrity tests, all The Observer’s photographers declined to come with me over ‘safety’ concerns – never mind that we have pursued this story for nearly a year without success due to the unfavourable wet conditions and non-rhyming schedules.

“I will give you the cameras and you take the pictures or videos yourself. I’m sorry but I’m not going. But also, the company should guarantee in writing the camera replacement in case your so-called floating island splits in the middle and my cameras fall into the water,” said one of the nudged photographers.

Even the in-house designer who usually looks forward to such field assignments, this time declined the offer. Not even the free fish offer could convince him to tag along. Nevertheless, my convictions about the island were clear, but their sham warnings invoked a tiny doubting streak within.

Although floating islands and cities exist elsewhere, in the East African region, Kateeba who possesses no engineering or architectural background, says his was the first of its kind.

The 250 square meters island ‘built’ in only six months in 2017 out of ‘idleness’ and lies on a foundation of now 700,000 (and still counting) plastic bottles, is stationed or rather anchored by a leash at Luzira and can float with the winds in any direction if released.

The island, according to Kateeba, a former tourism and travel agent, can hold up to 120 people at a go. Kateeba, who once worked for Afrique Voyage, Afri Tours, and Gorilla Resort in Bwindi, says he was rendered jobless and idle in 2013/14 due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa which scared off nearly all tourists.

It was during this transition period as he calls it, that he read about a fishing community on Lake Kyoga, who, in the 1950s would build rafts out of bamboo and papyrus to give the rafts buoyancy and go fishing for weeks and months being moved about by the lake winds.

“In 2017, I thought let me try out something with plastic that floats on Lake Victoria. Out of idleness. And as a way adding my little effort in cleaning up the environment, because four million plastic bottles are discharged into the lake every day. People thought I was crazy and wanted to kill them. That I wanted to drown people,” Kateeba says.

“When I wrote to NEMA [National Environmental Management Authority] they were like; are you sure this thing is possible? Has this been done before? Where did you see this from? I was like; ‘here is my proposal’ and we started from there. They promised to send me officers to guide me, which they did and we started. It was passion for doing something to be impactful; the rest came in much later from people; like, we needed drinks. Get us food and drinks. Initially, it was a place of relaxation; come in the evening and let go of the stress.”

Entrance to the island is free even for events and parties, if you find it still anchored, that is; Kateeba says they expect support in the form of buying drinks and food on board. The prices are above average but not over the top. Already he has sunk in Shs 800 million and says it would be great if partners came on board to chip in.

STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY

A few weeks ago, Kateeba ‘harvested’ another 2600sq meters of straying floating island, complete with their trees and papyrus vegetation, using mooring blocks and added that to the original floating island.

The recently harvested floating island
The recently harvested floating island

The new addition, however, is stationary and as you walk over it, the bubbling and wavy movements indicate the unseen 12 tonnes of plastic bottlework underneath.

“Can’t the island split up like many people fear?” I ask.
“Never! I’m never worried that it can split up - the entire structure is held by the roots and the foundation we have built we keep replacing. No chance really! This place [Luzira] has ever been hit by a storm that took down some houses in 2021 and we [the floating island] went out of here and almost got to Ggaba and came back in one piece. That is how I tested the integrity. We left at 3 am and by 11 am we had been towed back to the same place. Intact!” he says with a sense of pride.

FLOATING EXPERIENCE

Amazingly, even the resident staff (four women and three men) still get mesmerized like giggling little children by the floating experience, which goes for Shs 200,000 per hour or Shs 10,000 per person for 20 people.

The staff, like the tourists, get astonished by the 360-degree movement of the island deep into the lake. Getting it off the mainland is no easy task, but getting it back is even harder. Wearing a life jacket is a must during the floating.

Going off the mainland may take five to 10 minutes because the winds always blow away rather than towards the mainland. There is a boat that also doubles as the wake boat (waves creator) to pick anyone off the island who wants to get back to the mainland earlier.

Getting back in location can take as much as 30 minutes or even more with lots of side knocks and head-ons. The crackling sound of plastic bottles tied into fish nets and woven by tree roots being knocked by the wake boat in the desired direction may evoke feelings of fear.

Three to four strong men and a pulling and pushing boat are needed to push it off the mainland but getting back to the mainland requires more technique and precise calculations.

SANITATION

The floating island has fully functional male and female flashing toilets and urinals for men. Do they pump the waste into the lake?

Absolutely not, says Kateeba. There are two holding tanks for the washrooms, which are emptied once a month. He says there are future plans of adding a black and grey water treatment plant to recycle human waste and immediately put the water into reuse.

He also wants the island to thicken and grow into a natural forest which he says will be possible in the next two years. Kateeba warns those encroaching on the lake by building hotels that eventually the lake will reclaim its own as evidenced by the sunken structures of the area once neighbouring former Miami beach, Samaki City Hub beach, Peninsula Crescent.

Indeed when The Observer visited, even far-flung houses were submerged and some had deployed water pumps to pump out the lake water. But the smell of rotting algae and vegetation was unbearable for a beachfront experience.

“All the areas in Entebbe, Ggaba, Luzira are flooding due to the rising water levels but for us we’re never affected by the conditions. We rise and go down with the water levels. Probably in future and with climate change, this is the way people will be living next to the lake and other water bodies. Structures like this are not affected by water levels,” he says.

“Hotels, instead of encroaching on the lake should make larger floating platforms. Not necessarily with plastic bottles; ours was purely environmental. For business probably they can find other materials,” he adds.

fkisakye@observer.ug

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