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Kenya: Colonial-Era Citrus Fruit Crisis That Troubles Farmers to Date

Citrus fruits include oranges, lemons, lime and tangerines. They were introduced in Kenya during the early years of the 20th century.

The fruits are native to South and East Asia, where they were domesticated about 3,000-1,500 years before the Christian era. They then reached Europe through trade and Kenya during British colonial rule.

Like other exotic fruits that were introduced in the country, citrus fruits are valued for their citric acid, pleasant flavour when eaten fresh, drunk as juice, used in bread as marmalades and in cooked dishes. In particular, lemons and lime are used in cooked fish and meat. They are also added to tea, hot water and strong alcoholic beverages.

Citrus fruits are an excellent source of vitamins A, B and C. The last two enhance the body’s immune system.

Citrus fruits are also rich in potassium, phosphorous, magnesium and copper. They further have other vital health uses in the human body, including anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects.

Apart from being a source of fibre, citrus fruits are known to reduce the risk of kidney stones, assist in the fight and protection against cancer and boost the health of the heart.

Multiple values

It was because of their multiple values that many pioneer European settlers grew many varieties of citrus fruits on parts of their expansive farms in the country.

Kenya Highlands and the Coast became home to varieties of oranges such as Washington Navel, Parramatta, Golden Nugget and Seville from Australia, South Africa and Southern Europe.

As for lemons, the Lisbon variety was the most extensively grown. Lime varieties like Limetta from the West Indies and the small sweet type from India also did well. Tangerines also thrived in very limited quantities where climatic and soil conditions permitted.

Because of the insatiable domestic demand for fruits, the colonial state permitted the importation of large quantities of fresh, canned and dried citrus fruits.

Many packages of fruit trees were also imported before the Department of Agriculture set up its own farms.

Here, the department grew fruit seedlings for distribution to both European and African growers. In 1938, a total of about 450 bags of orange seedlings each weighing 200 pounds were distributed in Central Province for distribution.

In addition, 50 bags of rough lemon seedlings were distributed to farmers in the province from the Local Native Council (LNC) fruit seedling farms.

It was not until after the World War II that many Africans in Fort Hall (Murang’a) and Kiambu took keen interest in fruit growing.

In 1945, it was reported that 20,000 orange and 3,600 lemon trees respectively were grown in the two districts.

The colonial State made similar but very limited attempts to encourage citrus fruit growing in Nyanza, the Rift Valley and the Coast.

Great potential

By 1950, it was reported that the introduction of citrus fruits in Nyanza had been going on in a small way and that the results were hardly noticeable while fruit growers at the Coast continuously struggled to meet the demand for oranges in Mombasa, this was “at prices in excess of what the produce was really worth”.

In Taita Hills, a cooperative society planted and sold substantial numbers of citrus fruits in Nairobi and Mombasa.

In 1952, the director of agriculture reported that “the potential fruit, vegetable and flower production of the African areas could be increased many-fold under sound guidance and by providing and selling planting material”.

He further lamented the fact that the amount of fruits produced did not meet demands in major towns like Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, which continued to be met by imports.

The major problems that citrus, as well as other fruits, faced despite their great potential in many parts of the country, included the disproportionate preference the colonial State gave to traditional export crops such as tea, coffee and wheat, mostly grown by European farmers.

The other reason was the low quality of fruits in relation to the price its few growers, private canners and bottlers demanded.

Further, the Department of Agriculture was for many years unable to employ a sufficient number of agricultural officers to offer extension services particularly in African Reserves.

Lastly, grown citrus plants were also infested by aphids, whitefly, and scale insects and infected by some types of bacteria and virus.

Diverted the attention

It is, therefore, notable that, after much procrastination, the colonial State designed plans for improving horticultural African areas from the early 1950s.

This included the appointment and training of five assistant agricultural officers and 25 African instructors at the Molo and Matuga stations.

These “experts” were to be posted to the plum and citrus industries in Muranga, Taita Hills and Nyanza. Once trained, these officers were required to work under the respective provincial agricultural officers. But this ameliorative measure was too late and too little.