How Kenyatta PS caused failure in small-scale pineapple farming

Geoffrey Kariithi. FILE | NATION

When Geoffrey Kariithi was appointed the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, he confronted the outgoing colonial director of the docket on the decision to limit the growing of pineapples to above altitude of 5,500 feet.

To him, this was akin to sabotage, and an attempt to stop the Jomo Kenyatta government from expanding pineapple growing to the upper parts of Kiambu and Murang’a.

Initially, the colonial officers had recommended that notices be erected, marking the elevations above which no pineapple should be grown. This had followed some scientific concerns on the quality of pineapples grown at elevations above 5,500 feet. Mr Kariithi then ordered the intended notices withdrawn until an alternative (cash) crop was identified.

This was supported in November 1963 by the new chief agriculturist, P.T. Mirie, who said: “I can see no point in putting up restriction notices in the middle of the rainy season, as farmers have already planted.” He then said that the phasing out of pineapples from high altitudes should be gradual “according to our ability to find the means and ways of establishing the same acreage in the lower areas of Gatundu and Fort Hall”.


It was the Canning Crops Board, a settler-dominated body, that was pushing for the quest for quality.

On his part, Mr Kariithi said “much of the view of the Canning Crops Board derives from the views of Thika producers (the White Settlers) and the experiences of Kenya Canners Ltd”.

Defying the scientific evidence, he termed the decision to limit the pineapple growing as “provocative” and convinced Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta that the intention was to restrict pineapples to large farmers.

As far back as September 1962, the Thika-based Kenya Canners Ltd had complained to the Horticulture Research Station that a Kenya pineapples report from the Tropical Products Institute (TPI) in London, which was part of the British Ministry of Overseas Development, “does not indicate that it is a very good quality”.

“The problem as we see it, appears to centre on the lack of fibre in the high altitude fruit,” he said in a letter also copied to Bruce McKenzie, the minister.


The Horticulture Research Station had become the port of call for research on the pineapple industry and it was also involved in conducting trials in Meifa Hagr, Aden (now part of Yemen), where the Smooth Cayenne variety grown in Thika was undergoing a field test. As such, it was the principle authority on pineapples.

On the other hand, the TPI was the barometer used to enter international markets and Kenya did not seem to have a chance — unless it sent its best fruits to that market.

In the letter to the scientists, Kenya Canners wrote: “The request has been made that we should devote some time… to try and persuade African (farmers) to grow better quality pines. The main complaint appears to be that (local) farmers are inclined to leave suckers on old plants and allow two or three heads to develop which results in a greater number, but poor quality fruits”.


A later government report based on the TPI research and written by the Director of Agriculture L.H. Brown, singled out “poor quality, pale coloured, poor flavoured pineapples coming from upper Kiambu” as the problem.

But the Kiambu farmers — former loyalists — who had grown pineapples from 1954 when they were finally allowed to plant cash crops under the Swynertton Plan, did not want to be lectured on quality.

“Kiambu growers consider that they already know all that there is to know about growing pineapples, as they had already been in production for a number of years before we came to the scene,” a letter dated September 28, 1962, written by T.H. Jackson, a senior horticultural officer to the director of agriculture said.

Jomo Kenyatta. FILE | NATION

Previously, the canneries were not concerned about quality as they had enough local market. The fear was what would happen if Kenya Canners started to select pineapples based on quality. It was suggested, early enough, that if expansion of pineapple production was carried out in Thika and the outlying areas, the canneries may refuse to buy poor quality fruits from the higher areas of Kiambu.

Shortly after Kenyatta was sworn in as the Prime Minister, scientists had identified three farms for the development of smallholder pineapple projects. These were the Sukari Ranch, where Kahawa Sukari Estate stands today and part of the land owned by the Kenyatta family, where sugar cane had been grown under irrigation. The other was the land between Ndarugu River in Thika and the Thika River up to Ol Donyo Sabuk and Ithanga area in Makuyu, including the Mwea-Tebere region.

While there was a proposal to include Machakos in the project, Mr Jackson, the man behind the pineapple research in Thika, asked the bureaucrats in Nairobi to investigate the irrigation potential for Machakos first.
“In view of the fact that future development of pineapple in the Thika area is recommended to be under irrigation, it is unlikely that economic development of pineapples in Machakos will be possible without the same facility,” he said.


A working party on food processing had identified the new Maragua settlement in Murang’a as a potential production area for pineapples. Although the area was dry, scientists said it was ample for irrigation — or if the planting season was to be synchronised with the onset of rains.

But according to archival records, the Maragwa Settlement Scheme came a cropper after the director of agriculture ruled out the area since the farmers did not have title deeds — and would only access them after repaying their loans to the Settlement Fund Trustee. It was a Catch-22 situation. The government had sold the land to the poor farmers and they were being denied a cash crop by the same government until they repaid the loan.

The Canning Crops Board had also recommended that a tenant farming scheme — similar to the Mwea Rice Irrigation — be opened “in the vicinity of Thika and under irrigation” and which was to produce up to 20,000 tons per year. The reason for that was transport cost to the Cannery was eating most of the profit.

But for two years, as Mr Kariithi defied scientists, the new farms that were opened up in the upper parts of Gatundu and Murang’a, Kahawa Sukari and adjacent farms were taken over by politicians.

Pineapples on a Del Monte farm, in Ol Donyo Sabuk, Machakos. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO

Research done by the Horticulture Research Station a few months to independence had indicated that the plantation yields could be doubled by growing pineapples under irrigation at close spacing — unlike the spacing done by small-scale farmers, which was not economical.

Only this way could the right quality be found.

The Agriculture minister Bruce McKenzie desired to have Kenya enter the international market with quality pineapples. Kenyatta had trusted McKenzie, who also doubled up as a British and Mosad spy in the Cabinet. It was McKenzie who flew to California where he convinced one of the leading labels, California Packing Corporation (Calpak), to invest in Kenya and help it penetrate the international market with the Del Monte label.


The quality problems, which scientists had warned about, emerged as soon as Calpak applied its specifications for export. In a letter dated September 6, 1965, the Kenya Canners managing director C.M Hall told Mr Christopher Manavu of the Canning Crops Board that when Calpak agreed to use its Del Monte trade mark to market the Kenya Canners pineapples, “we thought the quality problem was two-fold: Insufficient ripeness and dull knives on the peelers and slicers”.

But as they later found out, after investing in new peelers and knives, only those fruits grown below 5,700ft could be packed under the Del Monte label.

Mr Manavu had to tell Mr Kariithi those hard facts that the Pineapple Project — as it was known in the government circles — could not be commercially sustained above altitudes of 5,700ft. “Not all high altitude pineapple suffers from these faults — but a very high percentage does and there is no way of telling which fruit is likely to be fragile until processing has begun and the raw material has been paid for,” he wrote.

“In the opinion of Mr Hall (Kenya Canners MD), lower grade packs are not economical to export in view of the great quantities of low grade canned pineapple dumped on world markets by several other producing countries,” reported Mr Manavu.

One of the proposals put on the table was that the government should stop any further planting above 5,700ft and that Kenya Canners only purchase the fruit planted for the 1965 crop. The expansion plan was now in limbo and everyone in the government was scared about the impact the elimination of planting above 5700ft would have on pineapple projections.

A letter to Mr Kariithi dated September 26, 1965, from the Canning Board, indicated that “a vast majority of smallholder farmers engaged in the planting of pineapple are situated above the 5,700ft and it is therefore likely that a very high percentage of all existing smallholder production will have to be redirected to lower levels”.

But there were no smallholder farmers in those elevations and it would have required huge investments to undertake commercial growing of pineapples. That letter to Mr Kariithi was crucial and it informed how the project would advance from there and the future of the pineapple industry in Kenya.

Mr Kariithi finally agreed. The attempt to have smallholder farmers grow pineapples was abandoned and those who had ventured into farming were left to look for local markets.

In a note titled “pineapple expansion”, Mr Kariithi instructed all ministry officials that all farmers who are commercially growing pineapples above 5,700ft should be told that “the policy will be to phase them out and plans should be made now to offer them alternative crops”. He suggested macadamia or vegetables.

Shortly after, a notice was drafted by the canning board “reminding” pineapple growers that no licences would be issued to those with crops above 5,700ft. The note explained that Kenya risked losing her markets for canned pineapple if it sent unsuitable quality abroad.


Besides quality, the government seemed to have no money to run the pineapple project. By December 1965, the Director of Agriculture James Mburu started complaining to AFC that the continued delay in releasing funds into the pineapple account had brought the entire project into a “standstill because of lack of operating capital”.

“The problem of supplying the planting material is an acute one in that no single contractor can supply the 13 million plants required,” Mr Mburu said. That delay, as a result of bureaucracy in Nairobi, became yet another problem. At times, the smallholder farmers were given the plants with no fertiliser, and vice-versa.

A project with high potential and which could have become a major cash crop was having a stillbirth.


As the New Year of 1966 checked in, the canning board admitted to Kenya Canners that the project was six months behind schedule and that planting materials would not be available in sufficient quantities.

“The board is also aware that certain agreements which have been signed between the Califiornia Packing Corporation and the government… include an undertaking by the Kenya government that certain tonnages of pineapple would be available to the factory by an agreed date,” said the board chairman, M.C. Phillip, in a letter dated January 7, 1966.

In his reply, the Kenya Canners boss C.M. Hall said: “I must admit I am rather disappointed that such a small portion of the target was achieved… it seems there are factors in operation, which are beyond the control of planners and ordinary men”.

Mr Hall had arrived in Kenya with an intention of turning the pineapple industry into a promising venture. As the first person sent by Calpak to manage the fledging canners factory, he thought the June 1965 agreement between Calpak and the government and which covered a £5 million investment in industrial expansion, would bear fruits immediately.


The agreement was to not only lead to a huge expansion of the smallholder plots, but also attain the quality desired for the international market. But after hardly one year, Kenya Canners was forced to cut its workforce due to a fall in production.

The first phase of the production was supposed to raise the intake of pineapples from 20,000 tonnes a year to 35,000. There was to be an experimental programme to see whether the production could be raised higher.

There was the challenge on the distribution of planting materials, as well as quality. This was resolved later when Kenyatta allowed Calpak to take over the Thika farm to grow its own pineapples to support its factory, create employment and earn Kenya foreign currency.

The first lease for Kenya Canners was signed for 22,347 acres but another lease was signed in 1970 and 1973 after the Calpak agreement was actualised.


The government had two options: miss the opportunity to have a cash crop that could bring export earnings and decrease reliance on tea and coffee or let smallholders supply the market with substandard pineapples and forget about the international market.

A similar scenario had been painted in the sugar sector where the government was warned against smallholder schemes, which could not be mechanised. Today, the smallholder schemes have become expensive to run and the millers have been running out of cane.

Back to Thika, the pineapple strategy appears to have led to heavy mechanisation of Del Monte farms and the production was geared towards market demands.

In public, Kenyans were told that it was the farmers who stopped delivering their fruits to Kenya Canners due to poor payment — and after they found that their fruits could fetch better prices in the domestic market.

It was a lie because officials did not want to admit that they had lured some of the farmers to grow pineapples at the wrong altitudes.


Today, remnants of these farmers — in the right altitude — sell their fruits to local markets and are competing with imports from Tanzania and Uganda. Local politicians have always raised this question, but the truth has never come out.

In 1980, for instance, the then Juja MP Gitu Kahengeri asked the Agriculture minister “whether he knew that many small-scale pineapple farmers who used to sell pineapples to Kenya Canners were put out of business when Kenya Canners started their own pineapple plantation”.

In his reply, the minister said “small-scale pineapple farmers in the area prefer to sell pineapples to fresh fruit markets where the returns higher. Since pineapple growing still continues in the area, we cannot agree that they have been put out of business”.

But when the minister told Parliament that Kenya Canners was willing to purchase an additional plant to process additional pineapples, Mr Kahengeri shot back: “I do not know where the minister got that information from. This is because all the farms in that area have been abandoned”.

Actually, the government was lying and in parts of Gatundu North are remnants of these farms, which still grow pineapples for the local market.


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