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Pioneer farmers: Rise and fall of pyrethrum as top-earning cash crop

Saturday January 25 2020

Hellen Mokeira on her pyrethrum farm in Kisii County.

Hellen Mokeira on her pyrethrum farm in Kisii County. The crop's fortunes have continued to dwindle even after the government pumped plenty of cash into the sector. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

PETER NDEGE
By PETER NDEGE
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W. J. Dawson, a European settler, pioneered pyrethrum growing in the country on his farm in Njoro, Nakuru County, in 1927. He brought pyrethrum from its original home on the Dalmatian coast in southern Europe.

Pyrethrum growing quickly spread to other European farms in Bahati, Molo and Nyahururu. The settlers were attracted to the crop because its substance – pyrethrins – was an insecticide against the flea, which caused jiggers, bugs in bedding and cockroaches in buildings.

More importantly, pyrethrins were also used on farms to kill maize, coffee and tea pests. The crop found favourable conditions in the Kenya Highlands at 6,000 feet and over. These areas were sufficiently cool and the soils were fertile.

Another favourable factor was the little capital investment it required. African squatters on the farms provided supplies of cheap and reliable labour.

Further, Kenyan pyrethrum contained higher quality pyrethrins than varieties grown elsewhere in the world.

In addition, its quantity per hectare, which was one tonne, was the highest in the world. Lastly, pyrethrum growing freed the European farmers from the hazards of maize mono-cropping.

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As a consequence, pyrethrum production increased phenomenally during the 1930s in spite of low prices. Exports of dried pyrethrum flowers, which commenced in 1932, increased from 14.5 to 2,000 tonnes in 1934 and 1938, respectively.

During this period, European pioneers formed the Kenya Pyrethrum Growers’ Association to assist in the production and sale of the crop. They contracted Kenya Farmers’ Association as their marketing agent.

The increase in international demand for Kenya’s pyrethrum influenced the colonial state to take an interest in the crop and to promote its growing as part of its official policy to stimulate production of exportable crops.

In 1938, the government enacted the Pyrethrum Ordinance to control the crop’s production and marketing. By this ordinance, the government established the Pyrethrum Board of Kenya to control the production and marketing of the crop. D. H. Pell-Smith, one of the pioneer pyrethrum farmers in Molo, was appointed chairman of the institution.

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 affected the crop negatively and then positively. For instance, during the first years of the war, some European farmers were recruited into the King’s African Rifles.

ALSO COVERED OTHER ESSENTIAL CROPS

This diverted their energies from pyrethrum and agricultural production. Furthermore, Germany’s blockade of the seas and the use of British ships to transport soldiers and other war material caused acute shortage of space for agricultural exports from Kenya, including pyrethrum. These factors led to reduced production. Only briefly, though.

Soon, the war itself increased demands for pyrethrum as insecticides were required for use in military operations and particularly in the tropics because of the conditions there that were conducive to breeding by pests.

Besides, supplies from Japan, which was now allied to the Axis powers, and Yugoslavia in the Balkans, were out of reach. Britain and the US, therefore, turned their attention to Kenya for supplies.

In 1942, the British ministry of supplies contracted the colonial government in Kenya to supply all the pyrethrum produced in the country until 1947.

For its part, the colonial government in Nairobi enacted the Increased Production of Crops Ordinance of 1942, which, apart from pyrethrum, also covered other essential crops such as tea, coffee and sisal whose production was intended to increase through guaranteed prices, minimum returns and additional payments to farmers who broke new ground.

Since the exports of dried pyrethrum flowers were now considered wasteful because of the limited shipping space, Mitchell Cotts & Company was invited into the country in 1945 to establish an extract plant in Nairobi.

It did so through its subsidiary, the East African Extract Corporation. For strategic reasons the British ministry of supplies, through a section of the British army, took over the corporation’s operations, which it only relinquished after the war. It then returned the plant to Mitchell Cotts’ subsidiary.

These efforts led to the stabilisation and increase of pyrethrum production and exports until synthetic insecticides invaded the global market from the late 1940s.

But pyrethrum soon survived the impact of synthetic insecticides. It was immediately discovered that most disease pests developed immunity against the alternatives.

It was further found out that natural pyrethrins were potent enough against the disease pests and also sufficiently safe for humans.

Demand for Kenya’s pyrethrum, therefore, soared during the post-war period, particularly when Africans were finally allowed to grow the crop from the mid-1940s.

Smallholders in Kiambu, Nyeri, Murang’a, Embu, Meru, Gusii and Taita were the crop’s pioneer African growers.

DELAYED PAYMENTS

Initially, most Kikuyu squatters who had been evicted from European farms through a process called fagio, detested pyrethrum since they were forced to weed European-owned farms and pluck and dry its flowers as a means of survival.

They perceived the crop as a cause of their suffering. But once they found it to be highly profitable, they planted it with much enthusiasm and became the largest producers in the country.

Elsewhere in Gusiiland, individuals like Zacharia Angwenyi, the chief of Kitutu location and others around Kiamokama in Nyaribari, also anticipated the crop’s commercial value and commenced growing it alongside coffee.

After the ban against African pyrethrum growing, the colonial government restricted the sizes of pyrethrum holdings to between half and one acres.

The situation changed with the formulation of the Swynnerton Plan in 1954 and land and agricultural reforms in subsequent years.

These policies greatly increased the proportion of pyrethrum grown by African smallholders. For instance, in 1950, Africans produced only 0.7 per cent of all pyrethrum in the country.

In 1957, the proportion of African production increased to 6 per cent and to 14.8 per cent in 1960. By 1968, African smallholders produced 90 per cent of all the pyrethrum produced in the country.

Exports of pyrethrum extracts continued to increase in subsequent years before declining phenomenally since the 1990s.

The main reason for this decline was that the pyrethrum subsector became a victim of the many challenges, which also bedevilled the rest of the agricultural industry.

First were the delayed payments to producers due to PBK’s inefficiency. Second were the deteriorating terms of Kenya’s external trade, which led to deficits in the country’s balance of trade and payments.

Other challenges included poor infrastructure and extension services; expensive inputs, including high fertiliser costs; continued use of outdated technology and climate change.

As a consequence, most smallholder peasants exited pyrethrum growing to engage in the production of better-paying alternatives like Irish potatoes, onions, tomatoes and vegetables.

Consequently, production of pyrethrum, the protector of people and other plants against attack by pests, has declined inexorably, with little being done to restore the lost glory.

Prof Ndege teaches at Moi University,
[email protected]