Politics of groundnut farming and sale during colonial times

Friday June 05 2020
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Pauline Mwita on her farm in Kuria where she grows groundnuts as well as pigeon peas. When groundnuts were introduced in Kenya, Nyanza Province became the major producer of the crop in the country. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea) originated in South America and were spread across the world by Portuguese conquistadores.

They planted the crop in their colonies in Africa, including at the Coast in Kenya, towards the end of the 16th century.

It spread fast westwards into the rest of country until after the establishment of colonial rule in 1895.

Initially, the department of agriculture distributed groundnut seeds for trials in all provinces. The government distributed more quantities of seeds to the dry areas of the North Eastern province and Turkana in the hope that its growing would incorporate the predominantly pastoral communities into Kenya’s agricultural economy. Ultimately, Nyanza Province became the major groundnut producer in the country.

This is because the region possessed ideal conditions for growing, which are sandy soils, temperatures ranging between 20-30 degrees Celsius and 500 to 600 millimetres of rainfall. But even in Nyanza, areas in Homa Bay and Migori counties, in particular Karachuonyo, Kasipul and Kabondo, were the largest producers.

Asembo, Uyoma and Buholo in Siaya County also produced huge quantities. The Wanga, towards the south of Mumia and the Marachi, were originally the producers in what was then called North Kavirondo before the Bukusu around Kimilili added it to maize, which was their major cash crop.

Many people in Nyanza were initially reluctant to grow groundnuts when the crop was first introduced in 1908, because this was the same time that venereal diseases were rampant.

In South Nyanza, in particular, they were quick to establish causal relations between the two. Others elsewhere preferred maize and simsim.

But soon after the World War I (1914-1919), many people warmed up to groundnuts because of their many uses as food.

They could either be eaten raw, roasted, cooked on their own or with maize, or ground and mixed with fermented milk, particularly among the Luo, to make ogira to be eaten with sweet potatoes or ugali. In the US and Europe, groundnuts were used for a variety of purposes: its oil as a lubricant, as margarine for cooking and also as a feed for livestock.


Groundnut production and exports grew rapidly during the Great Depression (1929-1939) though most commodity prices, including those of the produce, seriously plummeted.

But it was also during this period that the colonial government in Kenya appreciated the necessity of stimulating commodity production in African Reserves alongside European settler agriculture.

So it pushed the production of groundnuts and cotton in Nyanza. Faced with the obligation to pay taxes and purchase imported goods, including farm implements such as jembes and ploughs, and household goods like sauce pans and knives, and of course clothing, peasant families had to either grow the crops or seek employment, which was quite limited at the time.

To illustrate this increase, the colonialists in 1932 exported only 24 tonnes of groundnuts, valued at £1,200 but by 1936, the quantity of exports increased to 2,503 tonnes valued at £32,857.

South Nyanza produced the bulk of the exports as lot of what was produced was also sold and consumed locally.

Pests and diseases, low prices, competition from cotton and the colonial commodity marketing system were some of the challenges farmers grappled with.

The diseases included rosette, leaf spot and rust while the pests were aphids, beetles, ants, ant bears and rodents. With time, the soil could not take groundnuts anymore because of lack of crop rotation while diseases became more ravaging. This problem persists to date.

During the depression, cotton was groundnut’s major competitor. It so happened that the colonial state, as a result of pressure from the Cotton Growing Association in Britain to increase supplies to British industries, pushed farmers in western Kenya to grow the crop.

This coincided with the opening of the cotton ginneries in Kendu Bay and Homa Bay. Greater concentration on cotton led to the decrease in acreages under groundnuts, particularly after 1937.


It is notable that during the period, prices of groundnuts were lower than they had been in earlier years, ranging between Sh2 and Sh3 per kilo from 1934 to 1938 in Homa Bay, Kendu Bay and Kisumu.

The production of synthetic oils in Britain in the late 1930s was responsible for the drop as it reduced demand for groundnuts.

Efforts to improve domestic groundnut sales and marketing achieved very little, despite the formulation of the Groundnut (Marketing) Rules of 1927 and the Marketing of Native Produce Ordinance of 1935, both which were intended to establish an efficient marketing system that ensured that only quality groundnuts were marketed at officially established prices and by licensed dealers.

Unfortunately, the first objective was hardly achieved. Most growers continued to shell groundnuts by beating the pods producing a mixture of husks and broken nuts. They did very little to separate the husks from the nuts as the Indian middlemen did not pay for the extra labour.

Indians’ domination of groundnuts marketing led to the emergence of African petty bourgeois traders. In Nyanza Province, the individuals formed the Kavirondo Native Chamber of Commerce whose leaders included John Paul Olola and Zabulon Aduwo Nyandoje from Central Nyanza, Daniel Ojijo Koteko and William Odidi from South Nyanza and Habil Ndagalo of Vihiga and Pasacal Nabwana of Bungoma.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, they articulated African grievances, petitioning the government, and even sending memoranda to the colonial secretary in Britain, regarding the low prices of African-grown commodities, including groundnuts and the licensing system, which was skewed in Indian traders’ favour.

It was this commercial consciousness that fed into struggles for political independence, first through the Kenya African Union in the 1940s and the Kenya African National Union in the early 1960s. In between was Jaramogi Oginga Odinga-led Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation.

Today, groundnuts production continues to face agronomic and marketing challenges similar to those that the colonial government failed to resolve. Nyanza’s potential has not been fully exploited since the colonial period.