Before water from one of their dams killed more than 40 people on the night of Wednesday, very little was known of agribusiness and salt mogul Perry Mansukhlal Kansagra, who was until 1992 known as Perry Mansuklal Patel.
Mr Kansagra is the CEO of Solai Group of Companies which comprise the Patel Coffee Estate, where the killer dam was located. Here, he — and his extended family — grows flowers for export under the brand name Solai Roses continuing a long tradition of his great grandfather, Shantilal Nathabhai Patel, who had settled in Solai in 1930s — first as an employee and later as a manufacturer of Indian sweets. He also operated Solai Stores on LR 6540/1 and was later associated with growing coffee in Solai which means ‘garden’ in India’s Tamil language.
There is a history to it.
During colonial days, the British government lured many young Indians to take up jobs in Kenya to create a middle class. While the Shahs were given an opportunity to trade, given their merchant background in India, the Patels were basically farmers and they were settled in less attractive parts of the Rift Valley, Coast and Nyanza where they did expansive farming of sugarcane, cotton and coffee.
The Indians who had followed the railway branch towards Mile 21J — the first name of the Solai station in old railway maps – later called the bushland Solai.
But parts of Solai were during those days the preserve of British settlers —Michael Blundell, a moderate settler politician and author of A Love Affair with the Sun: A Memoir of Seventy Years in Kenya, was one of the most famous residents — plus many South African Boers.
The farmers had little peace here and it was in this valley that coffee leaf blight, mainly associated with a mild form of dieback of shoots, was first reported in the country as white farmers experimented with various cash crops. For many years, scientists referred to it as the “Solai-Elgon dieback” and struggled to find a prevention formula.
As independence approached in 1963, Kansagra’s grandfather was one of the Asians who took advantage of the leaving white settlers to expand his business in the Rift Valley.
Today, the small confectionary venture that he started has grown into a multibillion business with coffee, flowers and macadamia, a dairy farm, an iodised salt factory and ceramics trade. Solai Group operates in about 14 countries including the UK and India.
His other businesses include Thika’s 65-hectare Enkasiti Flowers which produces 50 million stems of roses per year, Nairobi’s Rak Ceramics and a company known as Supplies and Services Ltd.
The family also owns Malindi-based Kensalt which was once a parastatal known as Salt Manufacturers Kenya Limited, by then a partnership between the government through Industrial Commercial Development Corporation (ICDC) and Saltec International — an Italian firm.
When it started the salt company had been given 6,000 acres of land in Gongoni and a permit to extract 80,000 tonnes of raw coarse salt from the sea water near Malindi. But after being mismanaged — like many other parastatals in the 90s — the company was sold to Saltec through a pre-emptive right; a privilege given to other shareholders to buy shares of a leaving investor.
Today, Kensalt is Africa’s second largest producer of salt with an estimated annual output of 1 million tonnes. Besides that, Kensalt controls 75 per cent of the salt market in Kenya and 50 per cent in Uganda.
As the damage done by the Nakuru dam is computed, Mr Kansagra — who holds both Kenyan and British citizenship — will find the next few months hard and it may not be easy for the London-trained economist to overcome the many challenges the way he in 2004 became one of the first flower farms in Kenya to use natural enemies to replace pesticides at a time when an estimated 10 million mites were attacking every hectare of roses.
The family has left the farm’s general manager Vinoj Kumar to handle the briefings and he has blamed the disaster on massive rainfall in the forest above the dam.
But why a dam was built on the upper side of the farm is not clear and officials of the National Environment Management authority — who did nothing to drain the dam — have termed it illegal, albeit in a case of too little, too late.
But Mr Kumar is not taking that accusation lying down: “How can they say it is illegal?” He told Reuters. “It was not built today or yesterday. It was built 20 years back.”
Mr Kumar explained that the dam broke due to the intensity of the rain. He said “rain was high and the water started coming down carrying boulders and roots which damaged the wall.”
For years, the Solai region has seen the building of irrigation reservoirs — both legal and illegal — to meet the demands of coffee and flower farms which take advantage of the rich volcanic soils in the valley. It was therefore a matter of time that one of them gave way.
Those who know Mr Kansagra say he is a “nice and quiet man” — a man who has used some of the proceeds from his farms to help the community.
He has built a well-equipped clinic in Gatanga. But as the media sought to find him after the collapse of a dam that catapulted his family’s enterprise into the public, Mr Kansagra may have remembered a piece of advice that his father gave him: “You’ve got to be educated in the university of life.” These are words of wisdom he once recalled during a TV interview some years back.
He said: “I have been able to go through the university of life and maybe attained a lower second class degree, I am still working to get an upper second…”
How he handles the new Solai challenge will determine the future of this successful enterprise which is in the eye of a political storm with the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) ordering an investigation. But it is not the first time that the family is facing a backlash.
In 1980, the then local MP Koigi wa Wamwere accused Solai Stores in Parliament of blocking the flow of a river in the area in order to irrigate a coffee farm.
He said that Solai Stores was pumping water from a dam to its Patel Coffee Estates, denying the residents of Bomet, Marigu and Ndabibi any water. Ngengi Muigai, then an assistant minister for Water Development promised to investigate the matter.
In Solai, the group has 3,500 acres of land where they also grow coffee and macadamia. They also keep some dairy cattle on a part of the farm known as Tindress Farm where cows are played soul music during milking time.
Tindress Farm was during the colonial times known as Milton’s Sidings, a railway stopover named after Joseph Milton, a settler farmer who owned a part of the Solai Escarpment and ran Solai Stores until 1930s. A siding, in railway terminology, is a line off the main railway and Milton Siding was used by farmers to load their harvest.
Today, Solai Stores is listed as among the businesses of Solai Group of Companies.
Before disaster struck, little was known of this dairy farm which produces some 2000 litres of milk per day— and is one of the single largest suppliers of milk to Brookside Dairies.
Although visitors and locals are prohibited from entering the farm — unless they get permission from Nairobi — we now know that it has a total of 208 Fresian cows which graze on 250 acres of land. This is in addition to eight acres for feeding, milking and resting.
On the part of the farm with splendid manicured gardens, the Solai Group has a beautiful picnic site with a myriad of Hindu statues in the gardens and a temple known as Shantilal Kansagra Temple.
Here groups of worshippers converge every weekend to while away the time and hold parties — away from the hustle and bustle of urban areas. The walkways are lined with palm trees and flowers — a little solace within Solai.
But what attracts many visitors here is the 800-acre conservancy with more than 200 wild animals. As a safe haven, this is one of the remaining sanctuaries in the region which is surrounded by former settler farms now divided into smallholdings.
It was in one of the farms bought by Nyakinyua dancers after independence and on the lower parts of the Solai valley that the deaths took place. The government has said that the owners of Solai farm should have drained the water in good time and that those found culpable with face legal action. “There will be consequences,” said government spokesman, Eric Kiraithe.
And there goes a reputation built for the last 70 years.