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How bid to set up small pineapple farms failed

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How bid to set up small pineapple farms failed by Kenyans247(m): Sat 21, March, 2020 08:46am
On the outskirts of Thika, fruit vendors eke out a living selling pineapples on the roadside at Sh100 a piece. Most of the fruits come from Kiambu, where remnants of the smallholder farms still exist after a Jomo Kenyatta-era experiment collapsed. Pineapples sold in other towns come from Uganda and Tanzania.

What went wrong, and how was a cash crop that was to lift thousands of families out of poverty left in the hands of a giant corporation? Newly- released archival documents reveal the intrigues that prevented hundreds of farmers from selling their fruits abroad, and why Del Monte was left as the major exporter.

It is the untold story of how powerful Agriculture Permanent Secretary Geoffrey Kariithi pushed his officers to start smallholder pineapple farms at a time when scientists at the ministry had advised against growing the fruit at more than 5,700ft above sea level. Such politically instigated projects usually go wrong, and this one went south fast.


The documents are an indictment on policymakers who urged farmers to invest in the new cash crop only to later abandon them. As a result, despite its good weather, Kenya imports pineapples from her neighbours, who ironically got their first suckers from Thika in the 1960s.

“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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