When rain began beating small pineapple growers

Traders sort pineapples inside a truck at the Elburgon Open Air Market in Nakuru County in this photo taken in July, 2020. Much of the pineapples consumed in western Kenya come from neighbouring Uganda. 

Photo credit: John Njoroge | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Post-World War II period saw Britain put more pressure on her colonies, including Kenya, to intensify production to reduce dependence on fruit imports from the US.
  • The quantities of pineapple exports increased during the 1950s. In 1954, 2,163 acres were under pineapple growing in Kiambu. 
  • Smallholders in Kiambu and Murang’a experienced unprecedented losses and turned to either tea or coffee.
  • The fruits are grown in Kericho (Belgut), Nandi, Bungoma, Nyamira (Ikonge) and Homa Bay (Kochia and formerly Kabondo) without essential extension services. 

Long before the British conquest of Kenya in 1895, the Portuguese had introduced pineapples on the Coast from Central and South America. 

Its cultivation was confined to places like Kilifi and Lamu for over two centuries. It was not until 1904 that Allan Harries, an immigrant from South Africa, planted suckers which he had brought with him to Parklands, Nairobi. 

This initial attempt failed. Later, trials by Harries’ son, Aldred Ivan Harries, who joined him in 1912, were quite successful. 

The younger Harries had settled at Karamaini (later Thika) in Kiambu. During this early period, many Europeans planted pineapples and other imported fruits like apples, oranges and lemons for their own consumption. 

Africans in Kiambu and neighbouring Fort Hall (Murang’a) started to grow the fruit in the 1930s.
During the depression and the Second World War, the colonial state attempted to expand production to other areas in Kenya including Nyanza. 

The State’s primary aim was to expand the country’s agricultural base through the promotion of horticulture.

The Department of Agriculture transported thousands of suckers from Kiambu for distribution in Nyanza. 

The efforts failed as farmers in the province were also being encouraged, actually forced, to grow cotton for export.  

The post-World War II period saw Britain put more pressure on her colonies, including Kenya, to intensify production to reduce dependence on fruit imports from the US.

In 1949, Teita Concessions Limited acquired 12,000 acres to grow pineapples and several smallholders supplied the fruits to traders in Mombasa. 

Global overproduction

Lillywhite and Gibson established a pineapple factory in Kilifi. In 1950, a British firm, Pickering and West was allowed to enter a partnership with local European fruit growers, including Harries, to establish Kenya Canners to purchase and process and export the fruit. 

In addition, the 1954-55 Swynnerton Plan arranged to assist African smallholders with titled lands and loans for the purpose. These efforts paid dividends though briefly.

The quantities of pineapple exports increased during the 1950s. In 1954, 2,163 acres were under pineapple growing in Kiambu. 

Total pineapple sales to the canning in 1954 were 5,272 tonnes valued at £ 60,627. By 1957, the total acreage increased to 7,000. 

Some 25 per cent and 75 per cent of the acreage were under European and African growers, respectively. The country exported 5,150 tonnes of pineapple juice valued at £ 584,000. 

Unfortunately by 1960, pineapple production and export were beset by a major decline in export prices due to global overproduction. 

This flooded the European and the British markets. Kenya Canners, which was over-dependent on the colonial state for a variety of infrastructure such as water supplies, roads, reduced freight rates and electricity and tariffs against imports could not cope with this development. 

The downturn in prices forced it to stop purchasing pineapples from both European growers and African smallholders. 

The colonial government was forced to purchase the whole crop from Europeans to rescue them from imminent ruin.

Left on their own, African smallholders sold their produce to fellow Africans at throw away prices.  

Meanwhile, the colonial State’s attempt to rescue Kenya Canners in early 1961 was unsuccessful until the appearance of California Packing Corporation (Calpak), later renamed Delmonte, around 1965. 

Large acreage leases

This multinational firm possessed better experience in terms of scientific expertise. Moreover, its operations and market access were global.  

It had for many years processed, dried and canned fruits in the US, Canada, Mexico, Britain, Italy, Venezuela, and pineapples in particular, in Hawaii, the Philippines, Costa Rica and Guatemala.

The firm’s possession of immense capital enabled it to buy out Kenya Canners in 1968.

Delmonte changed strategy, it preferred estate rather than smallholder production, as had been the practice since the 1950s. 

This enabled the firm to grow and process its pineapple. It rejected African-grown pineapples, particularly those planted beyond a prescribed altitude as being of undesirable quality, including high sugar content, and stopped purchasing them.

Smallholders in Kiambu and Murang’a experienced unprecedented losses and turned to either tea or coffee.

The firm convinced the Kenyan government that its own style of pineapple production and processing was the best. 

Its large acreage leases firmed their monopoly position in pineapple processing and export. These concessions were not in line with the provisions of Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965. 

Among them was that the government would encourage African pineapple growers through advancement of loans and provision of extension services.

The government’s arrangements with Delmonte continue to date, placing pineapple growers in a precarious situation.

The fruits are grown in Kericho (Belgut), Nandi, Bungoma, Nyamira (Ikonge) and Homa Bay (Kochia and formerly Kabondo) without essential extension services. 

In the long run, practices such as mono-cropping and failure to use fertiliser have led to diminishing yields per acre. 

Attacks by mealy bugs and fungi have worsened the situation. It is unsurprising that much of the pineapples consumed in western Kenya come from neighbouring Uganda. 

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