History Kenya

The Department of Agriculture during the Colonial Period in Kenya


In 1903, the Settlers set up the department. Its priority was to draw a map of ecological zones and isolate regions that were of high potential. The settlers had noted that Local Farming did not yield as much as it could have.

The department set up two farms as demonstration centers and to provide better quality seeds. It then crafted a policy to improve what it described as “Native African Agriculture”. The policy was to produce many local agricultural instructors. The department envisaged a time when Kenya’s agriculture would yield enough for export.

Although the Europeans started appropriating land by 1906, the First World War marked a turning point in Agricultural Production in Kenya. Indeed, the Colonial Government gave returning European Troops Farms.

The Administration set up an Organization. Production board, whose responsibility was to ensure that the country produced enough to feed soldiers fighting on the sides of the British in the First World War, hundreds of thousands of Italian Prisoners of War, evacuees from Ethiopia and an expanding population of Kenyans.
Major Cavendish-Bentinck, who later became the first minister for agriculture, was the chairman of the board.it created an Agricultural Machinery Pool from which European Farmers leased machinery when it was in short supply. Italian Prisoners of War (POWS) were used to repair the machinery and build roads.

When the war ended, the Colonial Government decided to acquire land in the so-called White Highlands to settle Hundreds of British Ex-Servicemen.

Land Grabbing

The land grab that followed was epochal in many respects. First, it heightened the Interests in land among Europeans.

Two, it heralded new thinking about agriculture in Kenya, which made the Settler Community turn to Estate Farming. The rationale was that Capital (or plantation) Farming was cheaper, but productive.

Three, the administration in London Pressurized the Settler Community on which the future of Kenya would survive and for the Colony to create wealth to be repatriated to Britain to pay for the expenses of building the railway. To the British Government and the settler administration, Commercial Farming could achieve the objective. However, the quest for this disregarded one fundamental thing: Kenya did not have Skilled Labour, Technology and Finances. As a result, many farms could not even use half of the available land.

By 1939, when the Second World War began, thousands of acres of land lay fallow. At no time in this period was more than 10 percent of the alienated land under Cultivation. In fact, less than half of the so-called white highlands was under crop by 1932.

Yet in the 1930s, the highlands were owned by a mere 2,000 settlers. Most of them had seized land for speculation and acquisition of capital.


The major headache for European Farmers was to identify the most suitable crops and livestock. By 1939, they had identified Coffee, Maize, Tea, Sisal and Pyrethrum. But Kenyans were asked to plant Beans and Maize, and Rear Livestock.

Maize became the crop of choice chiefly because it took little time to mature and demanded less skill and finances. The Europeans embraced it as a stop-gap measure to earn them money as they waited for sisal and tea to mature. At one point, half of the estates were under maize cultivation.

Once the crops had been identified, another problem arose: whether to maintain estate farming or give room to small holder farming. Agriculture was highly subsidized following a recommendation of the Bowring Committee of 1922.

It is instructive to note that Subsides and tax rebated only DE franchised Kenyan Farmers. They could not access credit because it was earmarked for Large-Scale Farming that demanded Heavy Capital.

Kenyan farmers, therefore, resorted to Beans, Maize and Livestock that hardly demanded skills and heavy finances. Indeed, Small-Scale Farms did not benefit from any Formal Credit System. Take the 1920s for example. The Beneficiaries of Government Expenditure were Europeans, whose population was just 15,000 against 3,000,000 Kenyans who paid taxes.


As early as the mid-1920s, the settlers had formed cooperatives where they sought farm inputs and sold their produce. Interestingly, some of the Organizations, including the Kenya Farmers Association (KFA), went beyond that objective. They were political vehicles that linked the settlers and the colonial administration.

In 1936, Kenyans’ Maize Farming surpassed that of the settlers, earned more money and maize exports were higher than ever. The Colonial Government moved to Suppress Kenyan Farmers. A marketing law was introduced, forcing the Kenyan Farmers to market their produce through KFA. In essence, this prevented Africans from exporting their produce and be paid high prices.

The legislation also directed that maize from Kenyan farmers be graded so that the business could tilt in favor of the settlers. This illustrates the length to which European producers were ready to go discriminate against Kenyans. Both Kenyan and European producers grew the same maize crop, but the latter ensured that their produce was exported in the 1920s and still be sold in the local market in the 1930s.

This discrimination was possible because the settlers had direct access to the Political Machinery. But this was not limited to Maize. This discrimination was used to give European production an edge.

Consequently, the malpractice pushed Kenyans out of cash crop production and reduced them to wage Labour. By 1938, the colonial government had decided that Kenyans be discouraged from commercial farming and instead encouraged to grow only food crops.

The director of agriculture had directed that “Natives should be encouraged to grow food crops and not commercial crops.”

Earlier, in 1934, the DC in Keiyo had directed: “it is useless, I think, at the present stage, to try to introduce cash crops except among the few progressive (natives). What we have to aim at for the present is to introduce gradually alternative food crops in order to do away with these periodic famines.”

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