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The genesis of maize farmers’ woes

Friday January 03 2020
IM maize

Farmer tilling his farm.PHOTO|FILE

By ODHIAMBO NDEGE

Maize was originally grown in central and southern America.

The early speckled variety was introduced at the Kenyan Coast by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it diffused into the interior through the Arab-Swahili long distance slave and ivory trade.

In the early years of colonialism, the Department of Agriculture imported new maize varieties from South Africa. These were later developed into more resistant and high-yielding varieties at the Njoro Plant Breeding Station, the Scott Agricultural Laboratories in Kabete, and at the seed station in Kitale to better suit local conditions.

Distribution of new maize seeds

Early colonial administrators, including Charles Eliot and John Ainsworth, believed that European and African grown maize would be complementary. The government distributed the new maize seeds to European and African growers. The crop quickly found ready market as it was purchased and distributed as posho for African railway and government workers as well as wage labourers on European farms. It was also used as a livestock and poultry feed. Its germ later provided the raw material for the manufacture of corn oil. Surplus maize was exported.

To tap the internal and external markets, many European immigrant farmers bought land around Nakuru in Subukia, Rongai, Molo, Solai and Njoro. They were immediately joined by groups of Boers from South Africa who settled in Uasin Gishu and Trans Nzoia.

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First maize farmers

After World War I, many ex-soldiers were settled in these areas, which would, in later years, become Kenya’s maize granary. Prominent among the pioneer maize growers is Lieutenant-Colonel George Griffiths. Initially, he worked in his father’s estate in New Zealand before serving in World War I. He, thereafter, bought 10,000 acres in Turbo.

Like other farmers in the area, he first experimented with flax but abandoned it in favour of maize. Many pioneer European maize farmers kept livestock as well. Between 1928 and 1942, Griffiths was Kenya Farmers Association’s (KFA) managing director and was the first chairman of the Maize and Produce Control in 1942. He used these positions to further the interests of European maize growers.

Maize growers were not rich

Michael Blundell, another European farmer started his career in 1925 as a farm manager in a European’s farm, also in Turbo. Later, he become a successful maize farmer in Subukia. He was a member of the Legislative Council, 1948-1962 and was detested by fellow European leaders for advocating multiracialism during the constitutional negotiations for Kenya’s independence. He was appointed minister for agriculture, 1955-59, and in 1961-1962. He effectively used these positions to influence agricultural policy during this critical period in Kenya’s history.

Most of the other pioneer European maize growers were not rich. They lacked scientific knowledge of farming as they neither rotated maize with other crops nor used fertilisers. They often planted maize in one place until its soil was completely exhausted.

Then they moved elsewhere in their large estates. With such practices, they were initially unable to utilise the large acreages of land they owned to capacity. With time, it was because of their persistent determination, effort and government assistance in the form of loans, reduction of the cost of rail transport and extension services that they succeeded as farmers.

Challenges

Other problems that the early European maize farmers faced were low prices and high transport costs. The latter problem persisted until railway extensions were constructed from Nairobi to Nanyuki and from Nakuru to Uganda via Eldoret and Kitale. Before this, maize growers used ox-driven carts to transport their produce to buying stations often through very treacherous paths. The local market was usually oversupplied leading to exports at any price.

To solve such problems, European farmers formed the British East Africa Farmers Association around Nakuru, the Plateau Maize Growers Association in Uasin Gishu and the Trans Nzoia Maize Growers Association. These associations were eventually amalgamated into the giant KFA with headquarters in Nakuru and branches in Kitale, Eldoret and Mombasa where facilities for storing, drying and milling maize were also erected.

African maize farmers

The association advised its members on how to produce high quality maize. It helped them purchase farm inputs. It also established monopolistic control over maize marketing in many buying agencies in African reserves. KFA bought African maize cheaply and exported it expensively when domestic prices were low. Finally, it negotiated cheaper freight rates for maize transportation.

But what factors influenced Africans involvement in maize production? First, maize cultivation easily fitted their annual work cycle. Second, maize was easily incorporated into their diets as Africans soon improvised many ways of consuming it: roasting or boiling it on the cob, making ugali and uji, mixing it with beans and other vegetables to prepare the popular githeri, and preparing different types of alcoholic brews.

Finally, they sold surplus maize for cash to pay taxes and school fees for their children and to purchase imported goods like clothes, ploughs and bicycles.

Africans cultivated maize in Kericho, Nandi, Bungoma, Kisii, parts of Luo Nyanza and in many areas in Central Province where high elevation, suitable soils, adequate rainfall and right temperatures favoured the crop.

African farmers faced more serious agronomic, transport and market problems than their Europeans counterparts. Nonetheless, few African producers used proceeds from maize growing to venture into entrepreneurship. They erected water-powered mills along perennial rivers in the maize growing areas. The mills ground maize and other cereals into flour for sale in local markets.

Diesel and electric engines

These mills were later replaced by those driven by diesel and electric engines. These activities enabled some individuals to build brick houses and purchase motor vehicles without much assistance from the colonial state. However, the majority of Africans, including those whose lands were alienated to European, remained poor.

Maize growing had another bad side. Its mono-cropping led to massive soil erosion, attacks by the stalk borer, white blight, ear and foot rot, rust, head smut, and also striga and the Black Jack weeds.

The colonial state belatedly responded to these problems during and after the World War II. It did so through draconian measures, including the digging of trenches and the eviction of many squatters from European farms. Africans interpreted these measures as part of colonial oppression, which led to protests, including Mau Mau.

African growers and traders also struggled against the ways European farmers and the state controlled the sale of their maize. The struggle reflected the racial configuration of the maize production and marketing chain. The colonial state often took the side of international capitalists and local European farmers.

Market control systems

It established statutory market control systems such as the Maize Marketing and Control and Maize Marketing Board, which set quality standards, prices and quantities for local sales and export. Sometimes these measures affected the food situation in Kenya. For instance, the massive maize exports from Kenya in 1941-42 contributed to serious food shortage in 1943 and led to Col. Griffiths’ resignation as Maize Controller. Most witnesses, including European farmers, testified against him during the Food Shortage Commission of Inquiry, which was set up to investigate the situation.

African maize traders formed the Native Chambers of Commerce to assist them negotiate for better prices and facilities. These efforts yielded little success.

This led them to subvert settler and state controls by selling their maize in parallel or black markets within the country and in neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania. The market wars persist today between peasant and large-scale farmers and traders, including the political class. As in the colonial past, the wars often led to food insecurity.

Prof Ndege teaches history at Moi University. [email protected]

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