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The True Beauty of Nairobi

Tribe KV

Words Ken Baron and Steph WadeImages Lucy Deverall

Shamim Ehsani is not afraid to look the unfamiliar in the eye and take a bold leap, given that he founded Tribe hotel in Nairobi with his brother Hooman—a distinctive art-filled hotel that celebrates culture, food, and life—without any previous experience.

“My brother and I had never done a hospitality venture before we conceived Tribe,” Sham admits. “I was only 27 years old and we had zero idea what we were doing! But we saw an opportunity—there were no high-quality hotels in the area at the time. We intended to do a 60-room property, but we kept expanding our plans and everything got bigger until, well, today Tribe is a five star, 128-room hotel.”


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Sham’s parents fled persecution during the Iranian Revolution. Sudden upheaval thankfully led to advancement for the family in new careers, new friends, and a new way of life in Kenya. “Coming from outside the industry enabled us to have a fresh perspective,” Sham says. “My brother and I had traveled quite a bit, and we compiled a list of 20 things we hated about staying in hotels. That list became our North Star for what we wanted Tribe not to be”.

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“Coming from the outside enabled us to have a fresh perspective. People were looking for a new kind of African experience, so we set out to meet that need”.

What were the things you hated about hotels back then?

Some were obvious: not enough water pressure in the shower, having to pay for WiFi, disputes with the front desk about the minibar. But some were more philosophical in scope. We wanted to get away from the colonial style of service that existed in Nairobi, which felt very subservient, very dated. We saw that there was a different way of doing things that really appealed to us and to those of new generations and diverse cultures.

Nairobi seems to be a cultural melting pot.

Absolutely. It is very welcoming. Pretty much everyone speaks English, and people are worldly, well-informed, and curious about international politics and culture, even people who have never left the country. In the rural areas you can easily meet a Maasai who knows more about politics in France than most of my French friends.

Tell us about the Maasai?

It’s a beautiful culture and, in many ways, it has become synonymous with Kenya because of their colorful clothing and beadwork, which is frequently photographed. But you have many different languages, cultures, and tribes here, each with their own character. 

Is that why African art is so prominently placed in the hotel?

Absolutely. Plus, art is very important to my family. My dad had the idea of a Maasai market in the large shopping center that he developed here. It’s a place where artists can exhibit their work in a high-end setting. We wanted to continue that concept at Tribe, and showcase the richness and creativity of African and local artists, and not have it be like a Disneyland or a caricature of the continent, but rather something that reflects the true beauty of Africa.

You mentioned that your mother chooses most of the art for the hotel. Do you ever disagree with her about any of her selections?

No, I wouldn’t dare! But also, we share ideas. It’s a very collaborative thing. We work very closely together.

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Sham’s mother at the Massai Markets

The weekly Massai Markets were founded by Sham's father

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Artefacts and artworks stand prominently throughout the hotel

You founded Tribal Chic, an annual showcase at the hotel for up-and-coming African designers. You seem to be on a mission to capture and celebrate the African spirit of creativity.

We are trying to show the cool, urban, cosmopolitan side of life here. Nairobi has an outdated reputation as being a dangerous city or a boring place with nothing going on, but it is very far from that. It’s a truly vibrant place. Thus, we put on fashion shows, concerts, and film events at Tribe, and we buy and display local and pan-African artwork. But also, we try quite literally to capture and promote the flavor of Africa through the culinary side of things.

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“We are trying to show the cool, urban, cosmopolitan side of life here. Nairobi has an outdated reputation as being a dangerous city or a boring place with nothing going on, but it is very far from that”.

How did your foodie passion come about?

When we developed Jiko (the first of three restaurants at Tribe), we realized that very little of what we consider indigenous Kenyan food is from the continent; much was brought in by colonizers over the last 200 years. So, local foods that Kenyans think are native were actually introduced by Italians, Portuguese, or Arabs. Jiko tries to address this by using ingredients and methods that are indigenous.

Your chefs got chosen to represent Kenyan cooking in a food contest. What happened?

Our chefs from Jiko were selected as one of six hotel restaurant teams from around the world to participate in Gulfood’s YouthX Chef Challenge competition in Dubai. Jiko represented Africa in the global competition for chefs under 30 years old. Other participating teams included Four Seasons Riyadh, Grand Hyatt Gurgaon, Atlantis The Palm Dubai, SLS Dubai, and Rosewood Phnom Penh. The competition was tremendous exposure for our team, none of whom had ever been on a plane before this opportunity.

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What are 3 landscapes one can’t miss when visiting Nairobi?

Firstly, the Karura Forest, one of the largest urban forests in the world. Secondly, Nairobi National Park, the only national park in the world within a capital city. Lastly, the tea fields of Kiambu—beautiful rolling hills with tea and coffee farms on the outskirts of the city.

Describe yourself in three words?

Adaptable, resourceful, and optimistic.

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Featured Hotels

T Generic 01 Tribe Hotel Nairobi Kenya

Tribe Hotel

Nairobi, Kenya

Featured Hotels

T Generic 01 Tribe Hotel Nairobi Kenya

Tribe Hotel

Kenya, Nairobi
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