Karen Blixen's coffee farming trials

Wednesday December 04 2013

Karen Blixen was right at home in Ngong Hills, although many kept wondering why she did not want to return to her country after years of struggling to get a high yield from her coffee plantation. Photo/FILE


Karen Blixen came to East Africa from Denmark in 1914 to meet her husband just as the First World War was breaking out. 

Like the European settlers who had grabbed the fertile lands in the country for large-scale farming, Baron Karen Blixen, together with  Baroness von Blixen, purchased some land at the Ngong Hills of Kenya to set up a coffee plantation.

The Blixens had planned to raise dairy cattle, but developed their farm as a coffee plantation instead.

In 1917, they bought a farm house, which was built by Swedish Engineer Ake Sjogren, in 1912, and it became the farm house for their 4,500 acre farm of which 600 acres was put under coffee.  The farm was set at the foot of Ngong Hills, south of Nairobi city.

The Ngong Hills  gave a unique view – to the south the vast plains of the great game country that stretched all to Mount Kilimanjaro; to the east and north the park like country with the forest and undulating land of the Kikuyu reserve which extended to mount Kenya a hundred miles away.

European settlers who had an experience with the land advised her that the black cotton soil was not the right one for coffee.


With her zeal to cultivate and harvest coffee, she did not listen to them, and went ahead to plant the coffee bushes.

Their friends told them that the land was too high above sea level and that the market was too unstable for coffee.

The farm was managed by Europeans, including, at the start, Karen’s  brother. However, most of the labour was provided by “squatters”.

The combination of the marriage and the farming was too much of a challenge to Baron Blixen, who grew impatient with his investments.

This caused them to separate in 1921. Karen was left to manage the farm. Her husband lived the life of the idle rich until his money ran out. He is said to have died later, suffering from syphilis.

Karen, being a hard working woman, did not give up. She opted to remain behind on the plantation at Ngong Hills, struggling to grow and keep up with the coffee, while trying to survive on her own.

Unlike the other European settlers, Karen Blixen made good relationships with the community around her farm. A clan of the Maasai tribe that ruled central Africa would assist her in most of her farming work.


Karen Blixen was right at home,  although many kept wondering why she did not want to return to her country after years of struggling to get a high yield from her coffee plantation. That never came to pass.

Although in a foreign country, she was at home in the arms of British adventurer named Denys Finch-Hatton, who swooped her into the sky in his biplane and taught her to fly, showed her the vast, unspeakable beauty of an Africa that no longer exists.

By 1930 the global depression reached Africa, forcing a large  number of Kikuyu community members to move to cities of Nairobi and Mombasa to find work.

Denys Finch-Hatton, who was the only European friend to Karen Blixen, was killed in an airplane crash, leaving her to grieve. 

Karen loved the land, but the climate and soil of her particular tract was not ideal for coffee-raising.

The farm endured several unexpected dry years with low yields, and the falling market price of coffee worsened the prospects.

The processing plant she had built burned, leaving her frustrated. In the end, she had nothing to do and in 1931, she sold the farm and went back to Denmark.

In 1937, Karen came back to Africa, and She wrote her book Out of Africa, which  was first published in the same year. She died in 1962 at the age of 77, suffering from malnutrition.

The farm house later gained international fame with the release of the movie Out of Africa, an Oscar winning film based on Karen’s an autobiography by the same title.