Simsim: The golden crop that failed to thrive

Friday May 22 2020
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Farmers harvest simsim at the Aresa Irrigation Scheme in Mandera County. It is possible to revive simsim growing in the country. This can be done by strengthening the local market and its vegetables and oil can be processed in western Kenya and the Coast and sold to other counties that do not grow the crop. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Simsim, also known as sesame, is indigenous to Africa. According to Christopher Ehret, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, simsim was first domesticated in the Sudan region sometime before 3000 BC.

It then spread eastwards, reaching India before 2000 BC and China some years later. From the Sudan, it spread to many parts of Africa. The Bantu, the Nilotes and the Cushites brought it to Kenya during their migrations and settlement.

The crop widely spread during the pre-colonial period because it is tolerant to diverse weather conditions and types of soils.

Heavy rains with hail stones are one of its enemies. Since it is a short rain crop, people planted it as a pure stand on freshly cleared land or on land where other food crops had been harvested.

Some communities used its leaves as a vegetable and its seeds as a source of oil. Many others used it only as a source of oil. It was a highly revered crop.

The Luo, for example, attached ritual importance to simsim. They used it in marriage rituals. A newly married bride usually went back to her maiden home after a stay with her husband for a day or two.


The purpose of this visit, among other things, was to prove to her parents that she had maintained her virginity as required by custom. She was accompanied by her female escorts.

“The women in the bride’s home met the maids at the gate with songs and ululations. The wife of the bride’s brother smeared oil and sprinkled simsim seeds on the necks of the maids, who had brought the good news.

The parents of the bride were exceedingly happy that their daughter had been successful. …” writes Jane Achieng in her 2001 translation of Ker Paul Mboya’s, Luo Kitgi Gi Timbegi (A Handbook of Luo Customs, 1938).

The sprinkling of simsim seeds on the maidens’ necks signified deep acknowledgement of respect for cultural practices around marriage.

When the British established colonial rule in Kenya in 1895, simsim was among the few indigenous crops that were immediately commercialised as a cash crop.

In Nyanza, for example, John Ainsworth, a provincial commissioner encouraged Africans to grow more of it for sale in the domestic market and for export as a means of generating revenue for the State.


It was for the same reason that other administrators encouraged people including in central and North Eastern, and Coast provinces to cultivate the crop.

In the end, Nyanza produced and exported the largest quantities of simsim followed by Coast province. It was never adopted in other provinces, including North Eastern in spite of the Department of Agriculture’s efforts to encourage its production there.

In Nyanza, Africans opted to grow more of the crop because it fit into their labour time. They also grew it to get cash to pay taxes rather than to sell their livestock for the purpose. Further, there was a big market for it.

As early as 1906, Italian Trading Company was already purchasing many bags of simsim from South Nyanza, through Indian middlemen.

This was for sale to European markets where it was used for the manufacture of cooking oil and soap. In 1913, an Indian firm established an oil pressing plant in Kisumu, which extracted simsim oil for sale to Europeans and Indians in the country.

The outbreak of the World War I in 1914 led to a decline in simsim exports from Kenya but increased its demand within the country.

This was because it became an essential commodity for feeding soldiers, including the African Carrier Corps. Its demand as a raw material for making soap also soared.

The war boosted simsim sales so much that the Department of Agriculture was determined to transform it from a “miscellaneous” crop, as it was referred to at the time, to a major export crop.

Consequently, from the late 1920s, the Department of Agriculture carried out simsim seed trials on its own farms, and on Local Native Council seed bulking plots in Nyanza and on the Coast.

This was aimed at breeding seeds of high-yielding variety and colour: brown and white, which Europeans preferred to black.

Kabarani was the seed distribution centre in the Coast region while in Nyanza, it was Bukura and later, Maseno. The problem with these new varieties of simsim was their vulnerability to a mosaic leaf infection.


The advent of the Great Depression in 1929 dashed the government’s high hopes regarding simsim’s big export potential.

The crop was an immediate victim of the steep fall in world commodity prices leading to a drastic decline in quantities that were exported from the country. For example, while in 1927 Kenya exported 76,000 tonnes of simsim, in 1930, exports dropped to 27,500.

The government belatedly attempted to improve the quality of simsim grown as a way of increasing its export. It promulgated the Simsim (Marketing) Rules in 1930.

Even though the director of agriculture reported in 1933 that as a result of the legislation, the quality of simsim from Nyanza was very high, and that this was appreciated by the big buyers, his optimism was short-lived.

Nyanza farmers never benefited from the extra burden of ensuring that their high quality produce passed the Inspection Rules. Simsim prices remained very low, only increasing by 9.50 to 10 cents in 1937 over the 1936 price, which was Sh2.50 per frasila.

During the 1930s, therefore, simsim exports increased but only slightly. They generally remained below the pre-depression quantities except in 1935 and 1936 when they reached 94,486 and 81,756 tonnes, respectively. South Nyanza produced more than three quarters of the increased exports.

The major reason for the continued fall in price was that most European countries were increasingly shifting to synthetic sources of oil. Simsim farmers in Nyanza increasingly shifted to the production of cotton and maize.

Thereafter, production in the entire province and the Coast sharply declined, never to recover until today.

It is possible to revive simsim growing. First, this can be done by strengthening the local market and its vegetables and oil can be processed in western Kenya and the Coast and sold to other counties in Kenya that do not grow the crop.

Through this processing, Kenya can create a large domestic market for the growers as well as add value to this crop.

To control the production, processing and marketing of simsim, producers should establish cooperatives. This is what Makueni County has done with mangoes.

Prof Ndege teaches at Moi University, [email protected]