Politics of vegetable farming in colonial era

Friday June 19 2020 img

Emily Kemboi harvests traditional vegetables in a farm in Sugoi, Uasin Gishu County. Studies by Prof Mary Oyiele Abukutsa-Onyango of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology reveal that most indigenous vegetables possess higher contents of essential nutrients such as protein, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Hundreds of years before colonial authorities introduced European varieties of vegetables such as cabbages, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, radish, carrots, tomatoes, turnips, English potatoes, onions and chillies, Africans already possessed their own indigenous vegetables.

Prof Patrick M. Maundu of the National Museums of Kenya, in his well-researched publication, Traditional Food Plants of Kenya (1999), identified more than 80 indigenous African varieties.

Some were cultivated. Few were picked from the wild. Examples that have survived the colonial onslaught and are consumed in many communities include amaranth, African eggplant, spider plant, pumpkin leaves and common bitter leaf.

Studies by Prof Mary Oyiele Abukutsa-Onyango of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology reveal that most indigenous vegetables possess higher contents of essential nutrients such as protein, calcium, iron and vitamins A and C.

This is why many communities in Kenya feed some of them to expectant women before and after delivery. Some of them are detoxicants and heal stomach ailments.

Prof Abukutsa-Onyango adds that because indigenous vegetables possess a wide genetic base, they are quite resilient against harsh climatic conditions and disease pests.


They also take only three to four weeks to be ready for harvesting and are usually intercropped with other plants.

Colonial authorities ignored the vast repertoire of indigenous African vegetables in spite of these positive qualities. Instead, they encouraged people to grow imported varieties which appealed to European and Indian tastes.

The other reason was that these vegetables had potential export value. The Department of Agriculture made a lot of effort to influence Africans, particularly in Nyanza, Central, Eastern and Coast provinces to grow European vegetables.

This was done through propaganda by colonial agricultural officers with the help of colonial chiefs. Agricultural officers gave seeds to chiefs who in turn distributed them to their subjects.

In addition, Christian missionaries who grew the vegetables on their mission gardens transformed their converts’ tastes for European vegetables in the course of proselytisation.

In Luo South Nyanza, for example, the Seventh Day Adventists printed many translated copies of Elen G.White’s dietary guide, which they issued as Ngima en Mwandu, (Life is Wealth).


Expectedly, the first Africans to grow European vegetables in the area were SDA mission converts and educated elites around Gendia and Kamagambo Mission stations.

This also happened around the Presbyterian and Scotland Mission stations in Kiambu and the African Inland Mission station in Ukambani. 

Exotic vegetables eventually eclipsed indigenous ones during the colonial period. Nonetheless, some women in the rural villages continued, without government assistance, to grow indigenous vegetables.

They selected, at harvest, the best seeds for growing during the next season. Women often gave their visiting relatives some of the seeds. This was an old practice in plant husbandry.

For their part, colonial authorities were determined to introduce the new varieties of vegetables for the domestic and export markets.

In 1932, the Director of Agriculture complained in his report that, apart from few people in Dagoretti, Kiambu District, no other Africans were interested in growing European vegetables.

This was blamed on “primitive” African dietary habits. As already stated above, this allegation was groundless as most Africans continued to consume their own indigenous vegetables.

It was not until the late 1930s that reasonable quantities of European vegetables were produced. In 1938, for instance, Central and Nyanza provinces produced vegetables valued at £6,000 and £5,000, respectively.

The bulk of the vegetables, particularly kale and cabbages, from Central Province was produced in Kiambu and found ready market in Nairobi.

In Nyanza, the Luo and Luhya grew kales and cabbages for sale in Kisumu and at the gold mine in Kakamega, respectively. Africans in Taita Hills, Karatina and Kerugoya soon joined the ranks of vegetable producers.

Vegetables from Taita Hills served the rapidly expanding market in Mombasa. The ones from Karatina and Kerugoya were used to feed labourers in European farms.

The surplus was taken to Nairobi, where large numbers of African migrant labourers, given their little wages, survived the week on kale.

That is how kale ultimately earned the sobriquet “Sukuma wiki”. Some quantities of cabbages and kale were exported to neighbouring Tanganyika (Tanzania) and Uganda.

The war period, 1939-45, dramatically increased demand for European vegetables in Kenya and overseas, particularly to feed soldiers.

Because insecurity at sea made seed imports difficult, the Department of Agriculture contracted some European farmers to produce both vegetables and seed.

The government offered them guarantees as demanded by European-dominated Seed Growing Association, which was established to represent their interest in vegetable growing.

Cooling stores in Nairobi and Mombasa were quickly expanded. Vegetable dehydration facilities were installed in Kerugoya and Karatina.

The government further established a vegetable seed production branch in the Department of Agriculture.


A seed specialist trained in Britain was put in charge. Samples of vegetable seeds from Kenya were taken for laboratory tests at the official seed-testing station in Cambridge and the Royal Horticultural Society’s Garden at Wisley.

The tests were found to be quite satisfactory. Wholesale orders of vegetables and vegetable seeds from Kenya were made immediately. 

As a consequence of these actions, the acreage under vegetables increased tremendously between 1945 and 1952.

Vegetable and seed production thus became big business, mainly owned by international firms. These included Kenya Orchards Limited and Kenya Caners.

Generally, during the 1950s, small holder African farmers, unlike the international companies, faced very many problems.

These included lack of extension services, poor marketing due to transport problems, poor storage, poor quality seeds, costly fertiliser, low and seasonally fluctuating farm gate prices, and pests and diseases.

They never had access to sufficient extension services from the Department of Agriculture which paid closer attention to the European growers and international firms. 

In Central Kenya and some parts of the Rift Valley, vegetable growing was further affected by the Mau Mau uprising, government counterinsurgency measures and the resultant widespread insecurity.

The immediate consequence was a drastic reduction in production. The Swynnerton Plan of 1954 was designed to ameliorate this situation.

Through this plan, the government wanted to intensify agricultural production, including that of vegetables. The plan involved land consolidation and the disbursement of loans to Africans for commercialised farming.

Unfortunately very few colonial government “loyalists” benefitted. They managed to secure titled plots and access to loans but preferred to grow pyrethrum, tea and coffee. The majority were held in the rehabilitation villages, their farms having been confiscated.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, vegetable growing became a highly specialised and costly undertaking that required relatively high capital investments and close agronomic attention.

International firms, few European and African farmers in Kiambu and Machakos increasingly became the large-scale producers of high quality European vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, radish, carrots, tomatoes and turnips.

Small holders who ventured into vegetable growing either became their out-growers or sold their produce, mostly sukuma wiki and cabbages, in the local trading centres and the roadside stalls.

Today, as in the past, the major challenges facing commercial vegetable producers and others in the horticulture sector include scarce financial, transport, marketing, storage facilities and unstable prices.

Horticultural experts continue to sideline traditional vegetables. It is high time they used a mixture of indigenous and modern scientific knowledge to incorporate them within the sub-sector.

Prof Ndege teaches History at Moi University, [email protected]