Tesco suspends avocado supply from Kakuzi Kenya on rights concerns

A sign is pictured outside the entrance to a Tesco supermarket in Liverpool, north west England on October 7, 2020. 

Photo credit: Paul Ellis | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Britain's biggest grocery retailer announced the move after law firm Leigh Day said Sunday it had initiated legal action against UK firm Camellia, whose subsidiary runs the site.
  • The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 79 Kenyans at London's High Court, accuses the subsidiary Kakuzi of employing security guards alleged to have perpetrated horrific abuses since 2009.
  • Tesco’s move is expected to rally other retailers in dumping Kakuzi, whose parent firm Camellia risks paying billions owing to a class action suit by 79 Kenyans who were assaulted, raped or had their relatives murdered in the Murang’a plantation.

UK retail chain Tesco has suspended the purchase of avocados from multinational Kakuzi and its majority shareholder Camellia Plc, following a class action suit levelling accusations of gross human rights violations in and around their 42,000-acre Murang’a plantation.

Britain's biggest grocery retailer announced the move after law firm Leigh Day said Sunday it had initiated legal action against UK firm Camellia, whose subsidiary runs the site.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 79 Kenyans at London's High Court, accuses the subsidiary Kakuzi of employing security guards alleged to have perpetrated horrific abuses since 2009.

They include killings, rape, attacks and false imprisonment.

Leigh Day said former Kakuzi employees at the 54-square-mile (140-square kilometres) plantation in central Kenya, which is also a major source of macadamia nuts, pineapples and timber, are among the 79 claimants.

Britain's Sunday Times newspaper, which first reported on the legal action, said Kakuzi supplies avocados to several UK supermarkets, including Sainsbury's and Tesco.

A Tesco spokesperson said: "Any form of human rights abuse in our supply chain is unacceptable.

"We have been working closely with the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), alongside other ETI members, to investigate this issue and ensure measures have been taken to protect workers.

"However, in light of additional allegations published, we have suspended all supply whilst we urgently investigate."

Sainsbury's told the Sunday Times: "We continue to work closely with other UK retailers and the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) to urgently investigate and address these reports."

Chain reactions

Tesco’s move is expected to rally other retailers in dumping Kakuzi, whose parent firm Camellia risks paying billions owing to a class action suit by 79 Kenyans who were assaulted, raped or had their relatives murdered in the Murang’a plantation.

Tesco is one of Kakuzi’s biggest clients as it sources thousands of the Murang’a-grown avocados every year. The supermarket said it does not condone any form of human rights abuse in its retail chain and that it has been working with various authorities to weed out any such actions by its suppliers.

Details of the class action suit were first published by The Times, a UK paper, on Sunday. The court papers paint a gory picture of horror and impunity, as security guards in the plantation seemingly did whatever they wished to Murang’a residents as police officers covered up any attempts to bring culprits to book.

In 2013, a 51-year-old woman was collecting firewood in Rwanda Forest within the 42,000-acre plantation when she was stopped by a security guard who accused her of theft.

The security guard tried to grab a rope the woman had, and while they were still struggling, he kicked her and she fell to the ground. The guard then removed her clothes and raped her before leaving her on the ground.

The woman tried to report the matter to the police, who asked her to go home and return the following day. When she returned, she was told to come back the following day.

Eventually she asked the officers why they were reluctant to take up the case and she was told it was her fault she was raped because she “was disturbing Kakuzi”.

Feeling helpless the woman went home and dropped her quest for justice. A year later, she started feeling unwell and went to hospital where she was diagnosed with HIV.

Four years later, a 58-year-old woman found herself in a similar situation after walking for 45 minutes to Rwanda Forest. She met two security guards who demanded a bribe to let her continue collecting firewood.

When the woman said she had no money, they took turns raping her before ordering her to leave. Just over a month after the incident, the woman sought medical assistance and was also diagnosed with HIV.

At least 10 other women also contracted HIV in similar circumstances, documents filed in the UK courts and seen by the Nation reveal.

Kakuzi’s response

On Monday, Kakuzi Plc issued a statement insisting that very few of the 79 claims had been reported to local authorities and that the publication of a story by The Times is part of a smear campaign against it and its clients.

The firm says it has asked Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji to order an investigation into the claims. Camellio’s sister companies Linton Park Plc and Robertson Bois Dickson Anderson Ltd have been enjoined in the suit as they provided managerial support to Kakuzi.

At least seven Kakuzi Plc workers are among claimants in the suit.

The workers were accused of theft, beaten brutally before being taken to the police station and finally, court. Even though the cases against them collapsed, they incurred heavy medical bills to treat the effects of the violence.

Kakuzi is registered in Kenya, with Camellia holding a 50.7 per cent stake. Camellia, a global conglomerate which employs 78,000 people worldwide, said in a statement it bought that stake in Kakuzi in the 1990s but that it did not have "operational or managerial control".

"Kakuzi is investigating the allegations so that if there has been any wrongdoing, those responsible for it can be held to account and if appropriate, safeguarding processes can be improved," it added.

Kakuzi was initially served with a demand notice indicating that the Kenyan operation would be enjoined in the suit, but the 79 claimants eventually opted to only go for Camellia, Linton Park and Robertson Bois Dickson Anderson.

UK-based law firm Leigh Day is representing the 79 claimants, with the support of the Kenya Human Rights Commission and the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO).

The law firm filed the case on June 27, 2019 and served the documents on Camellia on July 10, 2020.

Camellia and its sister companies are yet to file responses. After being made aware of the intention to sue last year, Camellia and Kakuzi sought an out-of-court settlement on condition that the identities of the complainants were revealed.

It also insisted that all cases must be withdrawn before the parties pursue alternative dispute resolution processes.

After Camellia claimed that Leigh Day and its clients rejected alternative dispute resolution, the law firm said that the British multinational is the one unwilling to use a process that will be safe to the complainants.

“Second, it is the victims who have insisted on anonymity since they fear reprisals by Kakuzi guards and others. They have offered to disclose their identities to the defendants in a manner which allows the claims to be investigated but which meets their security concerns. Camellia has flatly refused this and insists that the identities of the victims should be disclosed without any safeguards,” Leigh Day said in a statement.

Lease controversy

The UK lawsuit has reopened the controversy into Kakuzi’s land lease, which expires in 2022. Kakuzi has filed a case to stop the National Land Commission’s (NLC) historical land injustice committee from looking into eight complaints filed by different groups against its leases.

The NLC committee suspended hearings pending the outcome of Kakuzi’s case, but ordered that the lease not be renewed until the complaints are determined. Kakuzi has challenged the NLC order as well in court.

Murang’a Governor Mwangi wa Iria said the legal provisions spelt out in the Constitution must be adhered to in granting lease renewals in the county, saying the current stalemate that involves Del Monte has to be settled through an all-inclusive dialogue.

Land rights crusader Phillip Kamau, who chairs the Kandara Residents Association, said Kakuzi occupies 42,000 acres of prime land, whereas Del Monte occupies 22,500 acres, all committed to 99 years lease.

“Kakuzi has since gone to court to restrict our agitation to auditing its lease even when we are aware that it has 20,000 of the holding being idle. We have leased land to them, which they do not require … the same case with Del Monte which does not utilise 12,000 acres,” he said.

bwasuna@ke.nationmedia.com newsdesk@ke.nationmedia.com

Additional reporting by AFP