Tobacco’s changing fortunes, from the colonial era to date

Nimrod Otia, a tobacco farmer in Malakisi, Bungoma County on his farm on January 27. Since 1990s, tobacco companies have faced a slump in the market for cigarettes due global campaigns against cigarette smoking by the World Health Organisation.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The British colonial State incorporated tobacco into Kenya’s economy during the depression years - the early 1930s.
  • The Department of Agriculture introduced new varieties that suited the tastes of Europeans and Asians, who had until then relied on imports from Britain and the US.
  • Chiefs were instructed to establish communal farms for growers in Vihiga, and later a quarter-acre tobacco farms in parts of Central and South Nyanza to ensure that smallholders produced quality tobacco. 
  • Mastermind was a success story of indigenous entrepreneurship. Later in 1990, Alliance One Tobacco (Kenya) Limited, a subsidiary of Alliance One International based in North Carolina, USA joined the fray and was headquartered in Thika. This fueled rivalry.

Originally an American crop, tobacco was introduced into the East African coast by the Portuguese. The crop then spread into the interior by relay and through regional and long distance trade during the 19th century.

By the time the British colonised Kenya, most communities in eastern, central and western either grew the crop or got it from their neighbours in exchange for iron implements, grain, livestock and pottery.

In the 18th and the 19th centuries, communities in Kenya smoked, chewed and sniffed tobacco for deep reflection.

It was because of its use and exchange value that many communities articulated proverbs around tobacco.

For instance, the Kikuyu believe that tobacco does not become weak to the owner (mbaki ndiricagira mwene).

This means that one is always proud of what he or she owns. The Luo and the Luhya, on the other hand, believe that you better deny someone food but not tobacco.

The British colonial State incorporated tobacco into Kenya’s economy during the depression years - the early 1930s.

The Department of Agriculture introduced new varieties that suited the tastes of Europeans and Asians, who had until then relied on imports from Britain and the US.

It was not until the 1930s that the British American Tobacco (BAT) also supplied Kenya with cigarettes and tobacco from its factory in Uganda.

Communal farms

The British believed that since tobacco was already a popular crop among Africans, its incorporation as a cash crop would pose very little difficulty.

Different provinces in Kenya specialised in various varieties of tobacco. The Golden Dollar, Cash and White stem were tried and found suitable for growing in central Kenya, particularly in Fort Hall (Murang’a).

They were also grown in nearby Embu in Eastern. Western Dark Nyasa, which was brought in from Malawi, was taken to Nyanza.

Turkish leaf was grown in Tana River. These new varieties proved less resistant to occasional droughts and pests than the indigenous ones.

The colonial State was quite authoritarian in the manner it encouraged African smallholders to grow the crop.

Its administrators and agricultural officers believed that for Africans to produce high quality tobacco for export, they had to be closely supervised.

In all the tobacco growing areas, State officials controlled the distribution of seeds to growers.

They also made decisions regarding the establishment of nurseries in government farms such as Bukura and Maseno in Nyanza and at the Plant Breeding Station, Njoro. Growers obtained seeds for planting from these farms.

Chiefs were instructed to establish communal farms for growers in Vihiga, and later a quarter-acre tobacco farms in parts of Central and South Nyanza to ensure that smallholders produced quality tobacco. 

Tobacco buying monopoly

Curing of tobacco leaf was done by fire in temporary grass barns built by growers themselves or permanent ones built by Local Native Council (LNC) funds.

This system produced native cured tobacco. Another method was flue-curing. Generally, tobacco was graded on the basis of how it was cured. Flue-cured leaves earned more money.

Further, the colonial State never allowed market forces to freely determine tobacco sales and prices. Dates for sales and prices were often announced in chiefs’ barazas. Specific companies were licensed to establish monopolies in the major tobacco producing provinces. 

BAT, with the support of Wolfe, Deputy Director of Agriculture (Plant Industry), established a tobacco buying monopoly in Central and Eastern, in Fort Hall (Murang’a) and Kitui, respectively.

The Hoima Cotton Company, later called Kenya Industries Limited (KI), established itself in Nyanza province with the insistence and assistance of the provincial commissioner, S. H. Fazan.

In addition, these companies established their own industries that produced and sold their brand of cigarettes. At its factory at Ndere in Alego, Central Nyanza, KI, for instance, produced Mukono, Kofia and Kali.

Commercial wars then erupted between the two companies. 

Big local market

When BAT attempted to purchase tobacco and also to erect an industry in Nyanza in the late 1930s, Fazan manipulated producer prices to KI’s advantage and also blocked the former’s attempts to establish an industry there.

In the end, however, KI failed to perform leading to the closure of the KI industry at Ndere and demise of tobacco growing in Nyanza by 1939. 

It was not until after Kenya’s independence that BAT revived tobacco growing in Awendo, Migori, Kuria in southern Nyanza and Sirisia in Bungoma.

Meanwhile, tobacco growing continued in Central, Eastern and Coast provinces. During the 1940s and 1950s, BAT, which was better capitalised than KI, collaborated with the government to intensify tobacco production in these areas.

Exports of both fire and flue-cured tobacco increased during the period. BAT funded the erection of flue-curing barns.

There was also a big local market for cigarettes and tobacco particularly in urban areas throughout the country.

It had become quite fashionable and a sign of modernity and power for the elites and leaders to smoke cigarette brands like King Stork or Chapa Ndege, and by women, Ten Cents or Kali. 

New marketing strategies

Later, BAT produced Sportsman and Embassy. Individuals with higher incomes smoked imported varieties like Dunhill, Camel and Grenadiers. Later, BAT engaged local African entrepreneurs in the distribution of tobacco and cigarettes.

Soon, one of its own African employees, Mr Wilfred Murugi, emerged as a competitor. He established Mastermind Tobacco Kenya Limited based in Nakuru, which produced new brands like Supermatch Menthol and Rocket which were exported to the Eastern African region.

Mastermind was a success story of indigenous entrepreneurship. Later in 1990, Alliance One Tobacco (Kenya) Limited, a subsidiary of Alliance One International based in North Carolina, USA joined the fray and was headquartered in Thika. This fueled rivalry.

But since 1990s, the tobacco companies have faced a slump in the market for cigarettes due global campaigns against cigarette smoking by the World Health Organisation.

Kenya’s own Tobacco Control Regulation in 2014 stifled market. These initially influenced the companies to use new marketing strategies.

But when they failed, they minimised tobacco purchases, retrenched employees and withdrew from some growing areas, notably Migori County.

Smallholders in these areas are presently struggling to find alternative means of income and survival.

- peterndege2@gmail.com
 

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