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How Kenyatta PS caused failure in small-scale pineapple farming

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How Kenyatta PS caused failure in small-scale pineapple farming by Kenyans247(m): Sat 21, March, 2020 08:35am
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 Mr Kariithi then ordered the intended notices withdrawn until an alternative (cash) crop was identified.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
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
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.


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