Scramble for Del Monte land: Politics, outright lies and the history

It’s the land everyone wants — it’s prime, it's worth billions of shillings, and its lease will expire by June 2022. The stakes are high and the question is, who will ultimately get the Del Monte land in Thika?

On the land is one of Africa’s largest pineapple plantations that earn the country, together with some other fruit exports, Sh9 billion in foreign exchange annually. The amount almost equals the Sh10 billion that the Nairobi County government collected in the 2018/2019 financial year from all its revenue streams.

Whether Del Monte, an American conglomerate, continues to grow pineapples in a plantation that straddles both Kiambu and Murang’a now depends on whether the two counties will agree to renew the leases for a company that employs about 6,500 workers.

Informing debate

As the scramble for the Del Monte farm starts in earnest, local politics, historical distortions and outright lies appear to be informing the debate.

In 1965, when President Jomo Kenyatta allowed the California Packers (Calpac), an American company, to occupy the failed Anglo-French Company Limited sisal and coffee farm, his vision was for a fourth cash crop that would be grown by the large estate and smallholders. The others were coffee, sugar and tea, which were starting to earn the country foreign exchange.

It was a delicate moment and Kenyatta was trying to woo the white commercial farmers, then the bedrock of the post-independent economy, to stay on. However, some of them had abandoned their ventures hoping for a government buyout or for the emerging elite to buy the farms, either by themselves or through organised land-buying firms.

Del Monte Kenya Managing director Stergios Gkaliamoutsas. DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION

Initially, the Kenyatta government had targeted the Anglo-French farm to settle squatters, but this was quickly abandoned, according to archival records, and the matter ended in court with a government victory.

It’s now known that the Kenyatta-era elite wanted this land too, which was ideal for coffee and pineapples, and that is why the lease agreements took long to sign — 1970 for the parcels within Kiambu and 1973 for the Murang’a side.

As the leases expire, it appears that the pineapple farm may witness another scramble.

At the moment, lease for about 35 per cent of the plantation — about 3,168 hectares on the Kiambu side — has expired. This is what led to a tussle between Del Monte and former Kiambu Governor Ferdinand Waititu and which saw the company cede 600 hectares before the county agreed to renew the lease.

“We are an easier target because our lease is about to expire,” said Del Monte Managing Director Stergios Gkaliamoutsas. “But we have agreed to part with 600 hectares.”

Murang'a Governor Mwangi wa Iria. FRANCIS NDERITU | NATION

With the Murang’a County lease about to expire, Del Monte has been left to fight a battle that now tests the future relationship between big land owning foreign firms, county and national governments.

Already, Murang’a Governor Mwangi wa Iria is on record as demanding 3,000 acres from Del Monte to develop a city on the Thika-Kabati highway — a prime land that is opposite the Thika Greens golf housing project.

Also, Del Monte is already in court with Murang’a billionaire Peter Munga, who has occupied some buildings within the property and started the privately-run Pioneer Girls School on 75 acres allegedly without the authority of the company. While a lower court had ordered him to vacate and found him to be in contempt of court, Mr Munga — the founder of Equity Bank — is still fighting to stay on.

Residents' association

Elsewhere, 5,000 residents of Kandara have been organised into a lobby known as Kandara Residents Association, which local politician Philip Kamau leads. They have been demanding the land, claiming that the former inhabitants were “herded into concentration camps” to give way to Del Monte.

No records exist to show that such camps existed when the Kenyatta government gave out the land. Last year, the association petitioned MPs to have the firm surrender all the land for use by locals on grounds that it was “irregularly acquired”. They argued that they used to own the land on which Del Monte grows the pineapples.

Human occupation

Unlike the tea farms in Kericho, where there is archival evidence of previous occupation by the Kalenjin, there is little or no evidence of human occupation by Kandara residents on these plains made famous by colonial writer Elspeth Huxley in her book, The Flame Trees of Thika.

In the epic book, Huxley always wondered why her parents, Major Joscelin and Mary Grant, decided to buy land in Thika, which she described as “five hundred acres of scrub land, infested with ticks and white ants and quavering with heat.” When the land was first adjudicated, early records indicate it was an uninhabited swathe of bushland teeming with dangerous wild animals — lions, buffaloes, hyenas and leopards. One of the early owners of land here was Maj Grant who bought the land ''across the bar of the Norfolk Hotel from a man wearing an old Etonian tie'' — and for four pounds an acre.

Theodore Roosevelt

It was in these plains — from Juja to Makuyu — that former US President Theodore Roosevelt hunted during his epic African safaris on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution.

Early hunters vividly remember the Thika terrain as the camping ground for lion hunters. Even today, the Smithsonian Roosevelt African Expedition is believed to be the biggest such safari.

It was on this land that early Boers escaping from the South African upheavals were settled. In the heart of the expansive Del Monte pineapple plantation is a lone cemetery of some heartbroken white farmers — mostly South African Boers — who died while trying to make sense out of a harsh terrain.

The other settlers are buried at an unkempt cemetery near Mt Kenya University, some tombstones reflecting the failed farming enterprise they engaged in. It’s these South Africans who introduced pineapple growing in Thika — accidentally.

The story of pineapples in Thika is the story of Russell Bowker, a farmer who had arrived from South Africa after the Second Boer War of 1899. After the Boers resisted British domination in South Africa, some farmers like Bowker fled north, settling in Thika, while others settled in Eldoret. It is said that Booker was motivated by then Governor Charles Elliot, who allowed hundreds of speculators to come to Kenya but fell out with London, which claimed to be concerned about Maasai land rights. In essence, however, British Foreign Secretary Lord Lansdowne was more concerned about the Boers’ arrival and wanted a British syndicate to be favoured.

Sir Charles refused to obey the orders and wrote: “Lord Lansdowne ordered me to refuse grants of land to certain persons while giving a monopoly of land on unduly advantageous terms to the East Africa Syndicate. I have refused to execute these instructions, which I consider unjust and impolitic.” He resigned.

A speculator

Allen Harries, whose house had been burnt in South Africa during the Boer War and was struggling to feed and bring up seven children, was one of the speculators who followed Russell Bowker’s advice and applied for land in Thika.

The Harries walked thousands of kilometres to Limuru, Makuyu, Ruiru, Nyeri, Nanyuki and Timau. They then took off towards Kericho and Sotik before picking the land between Ndarugu and Chania rivers in Thika.

The condition: That “no African was living on it, they were to put in pegs and a government surveyor would be sent out and would intimate in which direction from this peg Harries would have his farm,” according to Errol Trzebinski in her book The Kenya Pioneers.

'Kept awake'

The plains were not for the faint-hearted: “The countryside was absolutely wild. At night the children were kept awake by the roaring of a lion circling round their flimsy bedrooms … crops were not proven in that district until 1908. Harries tried to grow wheat, coffee and potatoes and to raise cattle, ostriches and sheep at Karamaini. Disease, theft and lions played havoc with livestock … they survived by living simply … catching ostriches for their feathers (while) two elder sons working in South Africa sent money to help …”

That was before the pineapple experiment. With no proper income, Olivia planted fruits in Thika to supplement the family income. Her son-in-law had imported some pineapples from South Africa to plant in Parklands, Nairobi. But after they failed, he uprooted them and threw them over the fence.

Industry born

Olivia heard the story and took her donkey to Parklands and carried back all the unwanted suckers, which she planted in Karamaini, Thika.

They thrived and with that a pineapple industry had been born. By 1955, she had 200 acres of pineapple … and another 200 acres of other fruits.

Many other farmers soon followed her success. Many pineapple farms were thriving around Thika, and that is what led to the establishment of Kenya Canners factory — to process all these fruits.

African farmers started growing pineapples with the Swynnerton Plan of 1954, which gave the loyalists rights to grow cash crops. It’s these farmers and other out-growers who the Kenyatta government wanted to start a formidable pineapple industry in the country, leading to the signing of the California Packers deal.

California Packers were not interested in coffee.

Parliament was told in 1969 that when the pineapple deal was signed with the Kenyatta government, the US company “would be producing [its own] pineapples and that the African out-growers and other planters would also sell [to Del Monte] their own quota for processing and sale.”

Some MPs were wondering why the government did not invest in the old colonial-era Kenya Canners company and form a parastatal to process pineapples, and why California Packers was not interested in continuing with growing coffee.

“California Packers were not interested in coffee. When Government bought this land for £300,000, we handed it over to them in terms of the agreement. Then the question of what to do with the coffee came up and we said within government that it was no use if they uprooted about 500 acres of coffee because it would take them quite a lot of time,” the then Agriculture Permanent Secretary Joseph Kibe told a Parliamentary Accounts Committee.

'A sideline'

A government attempt to run the 500-acre coffee farm failed. “We got involved in the coffee purely as a sideline, we wanted to save an asset,” Mr Kibe told the House team.

Elsewhere, the Jomo Kenyatta government was busy investing in the now moribund sugar companies in western Kenya, cotton mills in Nyanza and a cashew nut factory in Kilifi. But the California Packers’ experiment was to be different since pineapple outgrowers would supply their produce to the private firm and get paid on delivery. But the pineapple smallholder experiment — as archival documents indicate — failed in Kiambu, Murang’a and Nyeri. Del Monte (as California Packers would later be known) was left to turn the Thika plains into a profitable farm, and on their own.

Agriculture minister

Unknown to many, Del Monte was not a colonial venture. It had been lured into the country after independence by former Agriculture Minister Bruce McKenzie and asked to buy a stake at the Thika-based Kenya Canners Limited factory, which was processing pineapples for local consumption and a little for export.

Kenya was desperate to enter the international pineapple market and the Agriculture ministry asked CalPac to expand the processing unit in Thika and use its Del Monte label to market Kenyan fruits. They agreed — on condition that they also got a farm to grow pineapples.

Initially, part of the Anglo-French land was to be taken over by the Kenyatta government by force through a Management Order issued by McKenzie, but this was later revoked and the government agreed to make an outright purchase of several parcels that now form the pineapple plantation. Whether the government intends to continue with the Jomo Kenyatta project will be known after the lease expires in 2022.