Widely known for their business and professional activities, which include commerce, money-lending, medical and clerical services, the role of Asians in Kenya’s colonial agriculture has never been appreciated.
Their industry earned them the sobriquet dukawallahs, with their activities supporting both settler and African agriculture. Few Asians became farmers though or shambawallahs in their own right.
Asians mainly occupied the middleman position in Kenya’s economy. They bought or bulked African-grown crops such as maize, millet, cotton, groundnuts and sesame in their shops, which also served as go downs and sold them to European export firms.
They then bought manufactured imports from European firms and sold them to Africans. They also established industries that were essential to European and African agriculture. For instance, they established and ran ginneries close to where cotton was grown and produced cotton lint for export.
They extended credit to European and African farmers because European commercial banks failed to satisfy farmers’ demands for capital and Africans were prohibited from borrowing more than Sh100 from the banks.
Asians are believed to have visited the East African coast as early as BC1000 as participants in the trans-Indian Ocean trade.
However, their presence increased dramatically during the Omani conquest of the coast and the commencement of the long-distance trade in slaves and ivory and the production of cloves in Zanzibar.
Asians acted as bankers who financed the trade. Larger numbers arrived during the commencement of the construction of the Kisumu-Mombasa Railway in the 1890s as the Imperial British East African Company recruited them for the work as indentured labour.
They were then allowed to stay to continue with the maintenance of the railway and start business.
Soon, after the establishment, Asians demanded to be allocated land like the European settlers. After much dispute that involved the British governments in London and India and the colonial state in Kenya, it was decided that Asians be given land in areas of low elevation between the coast and Kiu, and between Fort Ternan and Lake Victoria.
They rejected the former areas and settled around Kibos, a railway station close to the railway terminal in Kisumu.
Four Punjabi immigrant families were the first to settle at Kibos. They commenced the growing of cotton, sesame and linseed and also kept livestock. Soon after the First World War, they were joined by more Asian immigrants, including Ismailis.
LITTLE CAPITAL INVESTMENT
By the early 1930s, the Asian population and the acreage of land they occupied totalled close to 11,000 acres around Kibos.
By 1963, Asians owned 60 farms which ranged from 50 to 1,000 acres. The Asian settlement now extended to Muhoroni.
Although the Asian farmers had earlier planted cotton, linseed and sesame from the late 1920s, they changed to sugar cane growing, aping their compatriots in Uganda where the crop was doing quite well.
The Punjabis in Kibos grew sugar cane mostly for the production of jaggery, a type of unrefined sugar, called ‘guru’ in Hindi. The Asian farmers preferred using sugar for making jaggery for two major reasons. First, they were already familiar with sugar growing and the manufacture of jaggery as this was common practice in India.
Second, jaggery’s uses were many. Indians in Kenya mixed jaggery with groundnuts, sesame and condensed milk to make traditional desserts and candies as was done back home. They also used it to prepare alcoholic drinks, a practice that Africans borrowed from them to make chang’aa or Nubian gin, as it was the Nubians who lived near Kibos who were the expert brewers.
Indians and Europeans also used jaggery for sweetening tea and coffee. Indians had also used the product as a laxative. Moreover, molasses, a by-product of the jaggery, was mixed with hay and used as cattle feed. So, there was a ready local market for jaggery as demand for it was high among Asians, Africans and European settlers.
Finally, growing sugar cane and making jaggery needed little capital investment. Cane took six to eight months to mature.
This meant that the supply would be continuous throughout the year if planting was well-spaced. Asians used simple crushers to squeeze out the sugary juice.
The crushers came from India and were manually operated with the help of the locals, who were also farm labourers. Teams of oxen provided the power to drive the crusher.
The sugary juice obtained was then boiled in a flat metal container until the juice crystallised into yellowish dough, which was then transferred into conical containers to cool and solidify. The jaggery took the shape of the containers, which was the measure that was used to fix the product’s price.
REQUIRED BIGGER CAPITAL
It was for these reasons that Indian pioneer farmers in what is today called the sugar-belt specialised in the growing of the sweetener and producing jaggery. Most outstanding among the sugar cane farmers were Hasham Jamal and Devjibhai Kamalshi Hindocha.
Jamal had earlier worked for Allidina Visram, the famous Indian entrepreneur whose commercial empire extended across the width and breadth of East Africa. Jamal, who became a large-scale businessman in his own right, later decided to venture into agriculture.
He bought 200 acres in Muhoroni and planted sugar cane to produce jaggery, which he sold to the Indian population in nearby Kisumu and other towns in the country, and to European settler farmers in Fort Ternan, Uasin Gishu and further afield.
It was because jaggery paid well that another Asian, Prahlad Singh bought a European sugar factory at Kibwezi, among the Akamba and produced jaggery instead.
Hindocha ventured into growing sugar cane and also built a factory. Unlike jaggery production, this required bigger capital which was out of reach for small-scale farmers.
Earlier, he had been a partner of the Madhvanis with shares in Vithaldas Harridas and Company that operated in both Uganda and Kenya.
When this company was dissolved two years after the Second World War in 1947, Hindocha bought Miwani Sugar Mills Limited and the 4,500 acres of sugar cane plantation that fed it. He later bought more land that adjoined the farm and increased its size to 15,000 acres.
He had a labour force of 4,200 people and was able to produce over 20,000 tonnes of sugar. He thus became a large-scale grower and manufacturer of sugar which he sold locally and outside the country.
After Kenya’s independence, Miwani Sugar Mills was transformed into a parastatal and renamed Miwani Sugar Company.
It initially ran efficiently but soon ran into perennial problems in the way of the other mills in the country. The reasons for this are a story for another day.
Prof Ndege teaches at Moi University and can be reached at [email protected]