How Africans got a taste of sweet coffee exports cash

Friday March 13 2020
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Government officials inspect coffee grown in the Kamuthanga Cooperative Society farm in 1966. The quality of African-grown coffee equalled and sometimes surpassed that of their European counterparts. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


The Church of Scotland and the Holy Ghost Fathers were the first to grow commercial coffee in Kenya. In the early 1890s, Clement Scott bought 3,000 acres around Thogoto in Kiambu to grow cash crops, including coffee. This was to help make the church self-supporting in terms of food and finances.

The Holy Ghost Fathers carried the crop from Reunion and grew it on their farm at Saint Augustine’s Mission near Nairobi for the same reasons.

The missionaries believed that the most effective way of converting Africans to Christianity was to discipline their minds through work. Most Africans who planted coffee were Christian converts.

But why did Britain, the colonial government in Kenya, the European settler community and Africans also take an interest in coffee growing?

Faced with serious coffee shortages from her traditional sources like Ceylon and Brazil towards the end of the 19th Century, Britain decided to explore the possibilities of establishing reliable coffee exports from her colonies like Kenya.

And so, between 1905 and 1907, it encouraged the Department of Agriculture to collect samples of coffee and send them to London for evaluation.


The results were so impressive that London requested Nairobi to encourage European settlers to increase acreages under coffee.

Apart from furthering Britain’s imperial needs, the colonial state encouraged coffee growing as a means of expanding its own revenue base.

For the settlers, coffee promised financial gain. Consequently, coffee growing spread to settler farms in Kikuyu, Thika, Murang’a, Nyeri, Nakuru, Trans Nzoia, Kericho, Nandi, Machakos and Taita Hills, where soils, altitude and climatic conditions favoured the crop.

On the other hand, Africans planted coffee because they found it much more profitable than most other export crops.

However, it was not until 1934 that Africans were allowed to grow the crop. This delay was primarily caused by the government’s and European settlers’ fear that if Africans grew coffee, they would be too rich to provide them with cheap labour.


Surplus coffee from Kenya was soon exported to Britain where it was sold as “Nairobi Coffee” in Mincing Lane, London.

Here, all buyers from all over the world congregated and competed for their supplies. Many Europeans yearned for Kenya’s Arabica coffee because of its high quality and distinct acid flavour.

They blended it with others of inferior quality. However, during the early years, European coffee growers faced a number of problems, including developing the most suitable varieties, high incidence of pests and diseases like the mealy bug and black berry disease, very limited extension services, coffee thefts and ineffective marketing.

The government responded by providing the Department of Agriculture with staff and funds to breed suitable coffee varieties and fight diseases.

In 1918, the government enacted the Registration of Coffee Plantations and Coffee Traders’ Ordinance, which provided for the compulsory registration of coffee estates and the recording of coffee sales and purchases.

This ordinance was meant to prevent coffee thefts between the farms and the export point in Mombasa. It also protected European farmers from African competition since administrative and agricultural officers were instructed not to issue licences to Africans who desired to grow the crop.

Finally, the government later established a land bank, which advanced loans to European farmers. As a result, the acreage under coffee appreciably increased before the advent of the depression in 1929.

Meanwhile, as coffee growing showed good prospects, many European companies invested in the crop as processors and traders, and sometimes as growers.

Among them were Leslie and Anderson, Naumann Gepp, Dorman and Company, Baumann and Company, Gibson and Company and J W Milligan and Company. These dealers wanted to control the entire coffee industry from production to export.


The government was reluctant to allow them get their way because such an undertaking required big capital investment and high technical expertise. The home government and the colonial state were not so sure they would manage.

More seriously, allowing private entrepreneurs to be in charge of all aspects of the coffee industry would compromise the quality of exports.

The government decided to establish statutory control over the coffee industry. In 1934, it established the Coffee Board whose functions included the licensing of coffee production and establishing an institution for coffee research.

Meanwhile, the onset of the Great Depression caused serious problems to the coffee industry as prices fell. This forced Britain and the government in Kenya to lift the ban against African coffee growing.

The main reason was that African smallholders would not need high amounts of capital as the settlers. To increase the quantities of coffee exports from the country, Africans were permitted to grow coffee under the Native Coffee Growing Rules of 1934.

The rules empowered the Director of Agriculture to declare areas that were suitable for coffee growing in African reserves and to issue licences to the prospective farmers. Africans were initially allowed to grow the inferior Robusta coffee on an experimental basis in Meru, Embu and Kisii.

In Kisii, for instance, as historian Robert Maxon, who is based in West Virginia University in the USA points out, the District Commissioner, Clarence Buxton, took the personal initiative to introduce coffee against the Department of Agriculture’s prevarication.

He established an experimental farm for coffee trials. Musa Nyandusi, a Seventh Day Mission convert and prominent chief of Kitutu, and the father of Simeon Nyachae, the former Cabinet Minister, allowed the government to use his own farm for experimental purposes.


Later, he secured a huge acreage, planted coffee on it and became a major farmer in the district. Other chiefs and mission converts in the then South Nyanza district and elsewhere pioneered coffee growing.

Being members of the Local Native Councils, they pressed for the establishment of coffee cooperatives to assist in processing and marketing the crop.

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 intensified marketing problems for coffee and other export crops in Kenya.

As a consequence, in July 1940, the government declared the Supply Board of Kenya the sole buyer of coffee. Immediately after the war in 1946, the government established the Coffee Marketing Board, which bought and marketed all produce, supervised all curing, classified and graded samples.

Later in 1960, the Marketing Board became the chief adviser of the Director of Agriculture on matters related to the issue of licences to dealers, brokers, millers and warehouses.

It was not until after the introduction of the Swynnerton Plan in 1954 that coffee growing appreciably advanced in many African reserves.

This was because of the colonial policies of land consolidation, which transformed African land ownership and use from communal to individual ownership. This led to a dramatic increase in the quantity of coffee produced and exported from the country.

In 1953-54, African farmers produced only three per cent of all the coffee grown in Kenya. In 1960, they produced 23.5 per cent of total production.

In 1968, 133,000 Africans grew the crop on 270,000 acres, over 75 per cent of them in Central province.

The quality of African-grown coffee equalled and sometimes surpassed that of their European counterparts. This debunked the colonial lie that Africans were incapable of growing the crop.

Besides, African participation in coffee growing made the crop the backbone of the country’s economy.

Prof Ndege teaches at Moi University; [email protected]