Diplomacy / Nairobi
France’s embassy in Kenya was built with the climate in mind. But does it serve its primary purpose: to foster ties between the two countries?
An embassy is commonly a fortress or museum but in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, the French mission is a total manifestation of diplomacy: soft power in the hard form of timber, stone and concrete. It was designed with the environment in mind but also with aesthetics and, of course, security as priorities. The quiet compound sits on a hilltop between two valleys sloping towards the narrow, murky Getathuru river and, beyond that, Nairobi’s Karura Forest. The embassy’s lawns and stands of mature bombax, cedar, cypress, fig and jacaranda can make it feel more like an extension of the woodland sanctuary than a seat of international diplomacy.
Since brokering the Paris Agreement in 2015, France has played a crucial role in the global effort to fight climate change. The Nairobi embassy, says ambassador Aline Kuster-Ménager, is evidence that France can walk the talk. “This embassy is a good tool for promoting climate and the environment, and showing that we put our words into action,” she tells monocle during a tour of the outpost.
Besides being France’s envoy to both Kenya and neighbouring Somalia, the career diplomat represents her country at the UN Environment Programme. Kuster-Ménager calculates that the environment occupies perhaps a quarter of her time. “When I started as a diplomat in the 1980s in Congo-Brazzaville, the big topic was the cold war,” she says. “Climate was an issue for scientists.”
But that began to change at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and gathered pace after the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. By the time of the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, Kuster-Ménager was working in the French environment ministry. Copenhagen, she says, was a disappointment: a failure for the climate but also of diplomacy; two issues that, for her, are entwined.
Climate change is “a world of experts, each with an issue,” she says. “But you have to reconcile this with a bigger diplomatic picture; there has to be a result.” This was rectified six years later when France brokered the Paris Agreement, later ratified by 189 countries, which pledged to limit the rise in global temperatures to less than 2c compared to pre-industrial levels.
Global action necessitates co-operation. For Kuster-Ménager, concern about the climate crisis “has revamped diplomacy” and provided France with an opportunity. “The image of France is through our embassies and it’s also a political message,” she says. “People are struck when they come here: it’s modern, elegant and very different. And I like it.”
The previous embassy occupied the top two floors of a 16-storey building near the US embassy, which was bombed by al-Qaeda in 1998. More than 200 people died in the incident and, after the attack, every foreign mission rethought its exposure.
The French presence in Kenya was scattered, with the embassy in one high rise, the economic and trade mission in another and the ambassador’s residence in a fading neighbourhood. France had a long lease on two villas on the site next to Karura Forest. In 2015 they were demolished for the new €12.3m campus. Paris-based architecture firm Terreneuve won the competition to design and build the new embassy. It sought to present “an open design that is closely tied to the surroundings, both protected and welcoming”. After the metal detectors and reinforced glass at the security office, visitors to the embassy are greeted by two connected buildings linked by an outdoor atrium resembling a dhow’s upturned hull; the economic and cultural missions are housed in one, with diplomacy and defence in the other.
The reinforced concrete buildings were sunk into the soil. The exterior walls are enveloped in an undulating curtain of pine slats that protect the concrete from the equatorial sun. The roofs are planted with succulents and grasses for insulation and waterproofing. The result is that they stay cool; air conditioning is not required even in summer. Sensor-operated lights and solar water heaters help to reduce electricity consumption. Rainwater is collected in underground cisterns for watering the gardens and flushing toilets.
Still, Eugène Schumacher, France’s regional properties manager for eastern and southern Africa, says that more can be done. His list includes establishing beehives and planting a vegetable garden. The latter might prove challenging. Kuster-Ménager and her husband attempted to grow a vegetable patch when they arrived nearly three years ago but the acrobatic vervet monkeys that are the scourge of Nairobi gardens got the better of them. “I have monkeys knocking at my window,” she says. “They eat everything.”
Primates aside, the embassy residences have the feel of a lush oasis. Inside Kuster-Ménager’s house, an immense picture window looks out from the lounge onto the forest. “I like that you can be inside and outside at the same time,” she says. Adjoining the main lounge is what she calls her “salle d’oiseau”, where she holds private discussions, which is decorated with painted birds – helmeted guinea fowl, malachite kingfisher and a hoopoe.
As much as the embassy is a statement of France’s environmental ambitions, it is an expression of Gallic design and construction nous too. Kuster-Ménager hopes that it is also an inspiration to others in Nairobi, a city that rarely takes the time to weigh aesthetics or sustainability against profit when it comes to building. “This is a model of what can be done in Kenya,” she says. “It’s a broader idea of promoting clean building and new techniques, and that there is business in this – but also that environmental constraints are not always a negative.”
Three more embassies that sell their nation’s environmental prowess
The Finnish embassy in Washington
This trailblazer for sustainable diplomacy opened in 2008 and was the first embassy in the US to receive the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design award. It was upgraded from a gold to a platinum ranking in 2015 thanks to smart energy-consumption monitoring and free bicycles for employees. An exterior living wall signals its sustainable credentials, while a wood-panelled interior captures a Finnish emphasis on handsome natural materials.
The UK embassy in Montevideo
Became the first consulate in the world to achieve carbon-neutral status in 2020. The team removed all single-use plastics, installed solar panels, enforced strict recycling rules and created an organic garden. The structure retains a British charm, showing that you don’t need entirely new buildings to make an embassy eco-friendly.
The Norwegian Royal embassy in New Delhi
Hailed as the first “green embassy” in the smoke-choked city when inaugurated by Norway’s prime minister in 2019. Up to 95 per cent of the materials used to construct it were procured at New Delhi’s markets. The building’s solar panels provide the lighting and hot water, and rainwater is repurposed using underground reservoirs. Strict rules manage the building’s waste, which is sold to recycling companies wherever possible.