Wheat: Why grain was heavily protected by colonial authorities

Friday January 10 2020
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A household (left) winnows wheat after harvesting and James Mbugua (right) at his wheat farm in Elburgon. The British introduced new varieties of wheat as soon as they established colonial rule in Kenya in 1895. PHOTOS | CYRIL NDEGEYA & JOHN NJOROGE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Wheat growing began in the Mesopotamian Fertile Crescent about 6,000 years ago. From there it spread to the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. The British introduced new varieties of wheat as soon as they established colonial rule in Kenya in 1895.

According to I.D Talbott, an agriculture historian, the crop “was thought by the administration to be an important road for developing the colony along the lines of Australia or Canada in which production of the grain, very much in demand in Britain for the working classes, would assure the prosperity of its European settlers”.

The first varieties of wheat grown during the first few years of British rule were gluyas, thew, bobs and Florence, all Australian hybrids.

Another breed – rietti – was later added. At first, the 1,200 acres grown by Lord Delamere did well. Later, these breeds developed rust which reduced the yield by more than half the earlier quantities.

It was through painstaking and careful breeding by the Department of Agriculture at Scotts Laboratories in Kabete and Njoro that more resistant varieties of wheat were developed.

These included Equator, marquis, golden boll, groot korn, Kenya governor and doop. Each of these breeds had strengths and weaknesses.


Equator was relatively resistant to rust but had to be blended with other varieties to produce good bread-making flour.

Marquis, though too sensitive to weather conditions, was capable of producing more than 10 bags an acre. Kenya governor was the most resistant to drought and rust and yielded 10-and-a-half bags per acre.

These varieties did well in relatively flat areas of high elevation, low temperatures and fertile and well aerated soils.

The best yields were realised in the Kenya Highlands – Nakuru, Molo, Subukia, Mau Summit, Mau Narok and Londiani.

This was followed by Uasin Gishu around Hoey’s (today called Moi’s Bridge), Kipkabus, Turbo, Sergoit and Plateau. Attempts to grow wheat in Kitale and Cherangany failed.


Apart from Lord Delamere and other British pioneer wheat farmers such as Russell Carr, W.G Sewell, A. Cartwright, J.J Toogood and Trevor Sheen, there were more than 50 Boer farmer families who were led by J. Jansen van Rensberg.

Many of these settled in Uasin Gishu. Other Boers who grew wheat were Ben Viljoen, A. Cloete, Jon de Waal and Frans Arnoldi.

Though relatively poorer than most other European settlers, Boers swore not to look back to the humiliation caused to them by the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa at the close of the 19th century. They were determined to make a living in Kenya.

One of the greatest challenges that faced the farmers was the crop’s vulnerability to parasites, including rust, which continued evolving and becoming more virulent.

This necessitated continuous breeding. Unfortunately, the Department of Agriculture was always short of plant breeders.

At first George Windham Evans, who was a self-trained geneticist, occupied that position in Kabete.

It was not until 1921 that Gerald Burton was appointed the first trained and full-time breeder. Breeding required the expertise of a mycologist, who did not come to the scene until 1927.

This was J. Macdonald whose interest in wheat was attracted by the near extinction of the Kenya governor, which became fodder for rust.

For years, farmers relied on trial and error, many on the basis of their prior experiences with the crop. The other challenges included transport and finding a market for their produce. Railway extensions to Kitale and Nanyuki only half-solved the problem.

The cost of transport to Mombasa persisted for a while. The other problem was how to sell their produce for profit.

The efforts of the state to ameliorate these challenges made wheat one of the most protected commodities in Kenya.


In the face of serious revenue shortage, the Economic and Financial Committee was set up in 1922. It promoted exports and reduced imports.

The committee, which was chaired by Sir Charles Bowring and included powerful individuals like Lord Delamere and Ewart Grogan, imposed a tariff amounting to Sh5 per 100 pound bag on imported wheat.

This led to an increase in the growing of wheat from 7,858 acres in 1921 to 43,763 in 1926. As a consequence, the import of wheat and wheat flour declined thus raising local prices.

To meet the local demand, Lord Delamere increased the milling capacity of his Unga Ltd. In 1925, the Kenya Grain Mill was established in Nairobi, spurred by the good market.

The Bowring Committee’s second measure was the manipulation of railway rates to favour certain agricultural products, including wheat and maize.

This policy provided for a reduction in the cost of transport of local European produce whether for domestic market or export.

The favour was not extended to imported goods. Wheat and maize growers now paid a preferential flat rate irrespective of whether their farm was around Nakuru or far away in Kitale.

The policy greatly favoured upcountry European wheat producers whose transport costs were hugely lowered.

When the Great Depression came in 1929, the colonial state protected domestic wheat and wheat flour prices from the low prices prevailing in the world market.

That was done through the enactment of the 1930 Sales of Wheat Ordinance, which protected European growers during the depression and afterwards.


This legislation marked the beginnings of statutory control of the amount of wheat coming into the country. This way, the locally grown wheat sold at Sh6 per 100 pounds at a time the average price of imported wheat flour was Sh9.68 per 100 pounds.

This made locally produced wheat cheaper than the imported one. The effective protection of Kenya’s European wheat farmers at the time of the depression, during the Second World War and afterwards, were due to their organisational strength and control of the Legislative Council.

The Wheat Growers Association, which was formed in 1925 to articulate the farmers’ demands, was later amalgamated with Kenya Farmers Association to benefit from the latter’s virtual monopoly over grain production.

These were the reasons the colonial administration belatedly and reluctantly commenced the expansion of wheat production in African reserves in 1936.

The initial exports of wheat, which began in the mid-1920s, continued significantly up to 1953. It declined during the rest of the decade.

This happened because the agitation for Kenya’s independence, which reached its highest watermark during the Mau Mau period, brought about an exodus of European farmers who had dominated the wheat industry.

With the land transfer to Africans following the Million-Acre programme in the early 1960s, many Africans who bought European farms became wheat producers.

They inherited the crop’s colonial production and marketing problems. And new problems also emerged. They include high taxes and frequent droughts occasioned by climate change.