Home GENERAL NEWS The pioneers: Rise and fall of profitable cotton farming in Kenya

The pioneers: Rise and fall of profitable cotton farming in Kenya

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In 1902, the manufacturers of cotton textiles in Britain established the British Cotton Growers Association. Its main function was to promote cotton production in British colonies wherever local conditions suited the crop.

The primary aim of cotton growing in Kenya, as in other British colonies, was to assist Britain to minimise its reliance on foreign, particularly the United States sources of cotton for her textile manufacturing industries. The US source had become unreliable since the civil war in the 1870s.

The association was ready to provide the colonies with necessary scientific research, develop suitable varieties of cotton seeds for distribution and the necessary capital for the enterprise.

The colonial government in Kenya was expected to identify areas where cotton would be planted and to establish infrastructure such as roads and markets to facilitate the production and sale of cotton.

This arrangement suited the colonial state, which believed that agricultural production, including cotton growing, would help it defray the cost of the Uganda Railway, which had reached Kisumu in 1901. Exports of cotton would also pay the cost of administering the colony and benefit the motherland.

The early years of cotton growing were full of trial and error. Since most colonial administrators hardly possessed the requisite agronomic knowledge before the establishment of the Department of Agriculture, they often relied on inaccurate guesses to determine areas suitable for the crop.


They made many mistakes. Eventually, cotton was introduced among the Luhya communities bordering Uganda and among the lakeside Luo of both sides of the Nyanza gulf. Cotton growing was also carried out in Lamu at the Coast and in Kirinyaga in the drier parts of Central Province.

Initially, the British East African Corporation Limited, the Association’s subsidiary, obtained cotton seeds from Egypt to be distributed in Nyanza and other parts of Kenya for trial. Apart from cotton seeds, the colonial administration introduced new technologies of production to the cotton growing in these areas. These consisted of imported jembes and ploughs.

Local oxen were trained to assist with ploughing. In 1910, the British East African Corporation established a ginnery at Kisumu to semi-process cotton produced in Uganda.

In later years, many more Indian-owned ginneries were established in all the cotton growing areas, including Sio Port, Nambale and Malakisi in Busia County; Ndere, Asembo and Rang’ala in Siaya; Kibos near Kisumu; and in Kendu Bay and Homa Bay in the present Homa Bay County.

From the outset, division of labour based on race characterised the cotton industry in Kenya. Africans grew cotton.

Indians bought it from them and ginned it. British companies bought the lint and exported it home for the manufacture of textiles.

They then imported the manufactured textile and other items back to Kenya for sale. This arrangement was strictly adhered to.

Initially, cotton growing was not readily accepted by Africans. Cotton was inedible, entailed too much work in comparison to the traditional crops to which Africans were accustomed.

It was also vulnerable to very many bacterial, fungal and viral diseases. Heavy hailstorms often destroyed the entire crop. Very great care had to be taken to pick the ripe cotton at the right time and to ensure that the cotton lint was not soiled.

The colonial state, therefore, used chiefs to force Africans to grow cotton. In many cases, the chiefs themselves became the crop’s pioneers and demonstration farmers.

Cotton in a farm and (left) a farmer sprays
Cotton in a farm and (left) a farmer sprays cotton crops in a farm in the coastal Kenya region. As the government tries to revive the cotton industry as part of its Big Four Agenda, including introduction of Bt Cotton, the reasons for the crop’s checkered course in the country’s agricultural history should be very carefully analysed, meaningful policies formulated and translated into sustainable practice. FILE PHOTO | NMG

They mobilised their subjects’ labour. In Nyanza Province, such chiefs included Amoth Owira of Alego and Paulo Mbuya of Karachuonyo.

Mbuya is credited with the establishment of group or communal farms which instilled a spirit of competition among cotton growers.

He rewarded individuals whose plots did well. Another individual who promoted cotton growing in Busia was the Anglican Church leader, Canon Jeremiah Awori, uncle Moody Awori’s father.

He planted the crop in his shambas that straddled the Kenya-Uganda border. He sold most of his cotton in Uganda, where prices were relatively higher, rather than at the buying post at Nambale.

Cotton growing faced many internal and international problems. Internally, the British economic policy in Kenya invariably favoured European coffee, tea and maize farmers who were supplied with cheap labour, infrastructure, marketing facilities and finances.

This continued unabated even when attempts should have been made to also assist African agriculture as was advocated by the dual policy of the 1920s.

Moreover, the period between 1929 and 1934 were years of heavy rains, drought and locust invasions, which led to bad and almost no harvests of cotton and other African grown crops like sorghum and maize.

Commodity prices dramatically fell. Shortages of revenue led to retrenchment of both administrative and agricultural staff, particularly in African reserves.

Many European settlers left the country. Many others significantly reduced labour and production on their farms. For the first time Africans sought but never secured employment in European farms. Paradoxically, these were the very factors that forced many Africans to try their luck with cotton.

Even as many Africans were increasingly forced to undertake cotton production, the First World War, 1914-1919 and the Second World War, 1939-1945 disrupted international shipping and forced Britain to reorient her domestic economy for the immediate requirements of the two wars. In Kenya, the colonial state mobilised the local administration to recruit Africans to serve in the wars.

Most administrators were also withdrawn from the cotton growing districts to serve in the war. Moreover, the colonial administration during both wars requisitioned African-owned livestock and grains for purposes of feeding soldiers.

Then there were two major depressions during the years between the two wars. These were equally disruptive of the cotton economy.

To save the situation, the colonial state enacted very stringent cotton rules that regulated growing, sale and ginning, first in 1926 and later in and 1936.

Throughout the colonial period and afterwards, cotton production and exports were therefore characterised by a lot of instability due to changes in its production and vacillations in its external demand.

Cotton prices were either lowered or remained constant. In view of these vicissitudes, African peasants therefore grew cotton primarily as a means of coping with the economic exactions of colonialism: taxation, paying fees for their children and purchasing few imports that increasingly became necessities.

African members and leaders of the Native Chambers of Commerce and the Local Native Councils often pleaded with the colonial state to improve conditions of cotton growing.

For instance, they demanded that cotton prices be increased and that Africans also be allowed to establish ginneries.

Canon Awori added his voice to these requests through letters to the colonial administration. As expected the colonial state hardly heeded to such requests.

The story of rise and fall of cotton as a cash crop demonstrates the folly of having primarily relied on the external market for Kenya’s agricultural development.

With time, the market contracted as cotton was replaced by synthetics. Large quantities of second-hand or cast away clothes were and are still being imported into the country.

Today, the old ginneries have become rustic and covered with cobwebs. Textile factories like Kisumu Cotton Mills and Raymonds, now Rupa, either serve as go downs or lie in utter waste.

As the government tries to revive the cotton industry as part of its Big Four Agenda, including by introduction of Bt Cotton, the reasons for the crop’s checkered course in the country’s agricultural history should be very carefully analysed, meaningful policies formulated and translated into sustainable practice.

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