The Adoption of Maize in Kenya

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The Adoption of Maize in Kenya occurred during the British occupation, from the late 19th century through 1963. In fact, until the 1920s, most of the maize produced by European settlers in Kenya was exported, not eaten domestically. This article tells the story of how maize became the main staple in Kenya.

Introduction of Maize

Prior to the British conquest, the Portuguese had already introduced maize to the coast, where it became common among the Swahili traders. Kenyans incorporated it into their mixed plots and swidden systems.[1]

Preference for White Maize

"Ironically, the preferences of today’s African consumers for white as opposed to yellow grain color began with the influence of the British starch market during these years." That is because North American producers of yellow maize had a "decisive transportation cost advantage" in supplying Britain. As early as 1911, producers in Kenya found there was a price premium for white maize. "Though both white and yellow maize varieties of maize were grown, settler farmers were informed by the Secretary of the London Corn Exchange that exports required better grading and uniformity... Farmers discovered that when yellow and white maize were grown in close proximity and cross-pollinated, the grains of the progeny were mixed in color, rendering it unsuitable for export."[2]

Adoption of Maize as a Staple by Kenyans

During the British occupation of Kenya, "Eventually the domestic demand for maize grew as Africans left their farms to work on settler farms, in mines or industrial plants, particularly in Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe (Mosley 1983; Jansen 1977). Food consumption preferences were influenced by the rations that employers used as in-kind payments. Diets adapted as “people got used to what they consumed"(Shopo 1985)."[2] (According to another source "In the early part of the twentieth century, British settlers started growing maize in larger quantities, and colonial landowners used maize, a cheap food source, as the main form of sustenance for their African farm laborers. During the period from 1900-25, maize gradually became a staple food in the Kenyan diet, which was previously dominated by the millets, tubers, legumes, and kales commonly found in traditional farming systems."[3])

For urban populations, maize "received a boost" (over native millet and sorghum) in the 1920s with the introduction of the hammer mill. "Hammer mills gave a processing cost advantage to maize over small grains, since maize could be dumped into the hopper for grinding, while millet and sorghum husks required de-hulling first."[2]

"The prevalence of large-scale, industrial processors in Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe contributed to preferences, particularly in urban areas, for dent types. The removal of the germ and pericarp makes refined meal look whiter, last longer, and taste sweeter than whole meal. Hammer-milled, whole meal remains the primary staple food in the grain self-sufficient rural areas of these countries."[2]

Marketing Boards

When African farmers began competing with British farmers in growing and selling maize, the white settler farmers successfully lobbied for legislation. In Kenya, the Native Produce Ordinance was passed in 1935. Similar laws were passed in other British-controlled African colonies.

"These marketing acts (1) created state crop-buying stations in European farming areas without parallel investments in African farming areas; (2) enforced a two-tiered pricing scheme with higher prices for settler farmers than for native Africans; and (3) established restrictions on grain movement from African areas to towns, mines and other demand centers. From 1935, the combination of maize legislation, land evictions, and fiscal policies weakened Africans' position in food marketing relative to that of settler farmers in Kenya."[2]

Along with centralized, state maize marketing boards came large-scale grain milling operations. By the 1950s, Kenyan grain millers began using roller mill technology, producing a "refined and more expensive type of meal" and giving them "a de facto monopoly on maize meal sales to cities and grain-deficit rural areas once local supplies were exhausted." As a result of the market regulation, "Settler maize production expanded and producers earned prices that generally exceeded export parity."[2]

Maize Breeding in Kenya

In 1955, the first "scientific" maize research program began in Kenya in Kitale, "the center of maize production in the White Highlands." The first "modern" maize variety was released in 1961. The chief maize breeder, M.N. Harrison, was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to visit Mexico and Colombia in 1958 and he brought maize seed back with him. This resulted in the 1964 release of a hybrid maize made with Kenyan and Ecuadorian germplasm.[2]

Maize Among the Luo

Today, the staple crop among the Luo (and among many agricultural tribes of Kenya) is maize. However, in the past, the staples were sorghum and millet.

According to a 2009 study:

"Some of the crops that the Luos used to emphasize on such as sorghum and millet are also not so much produced by people like was the case in the past, in fact nowadays some people don’t like Ugali prepared from sorghum for example, they prefer maize but maize was not a very important crop to the Luo because at first it was not there and later on when the Mzungus [white people] introduced it, people accepted it and got used to it. These crops were important to the Luo because the harvest from them was good and they were also stored for use during the dry season."[4]

A 1989 book on the Luo of Siaya District includes a section entitled "Maize means hunger." It reads:

"The introduction of maize into the texture of Siaya life has been an ambiguous process. In the twentieth century, the consumption of white maize meal has been associated in Siaya with the process referred to as 'Westernization.' Maize first entered the local economy through the intervention of the colonial government, an intervention that involved pressure. Maize meal was consequently first referred to as kuon ongere, the white man's ugali, or white man's food. Those who went to school (josomo) planted maize almost as if it were part of their given curriculum. They valorized maize, identified with the esteem that they associated with it, and so maize acquired another identity: as kuon jonango, the ugali of the 'clothed' people. So, by a combination of pressure from colonial authorities and their agents in Siaya, and an appropriation of special value to it by those first coming to see themselves as a new elite, maize gradually seeped more broadly into the diet and the production of the people."[5]

Resources and articles

Related Sourcewatch articles


  1. William Collier, "Re-Thinking Biodiversity in Forest and Field: Colonial Maize and Climate: Limits of Agricultural Development for Adaptation in Rift Valley, Kenya," 2010.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Melinda Smale and Thom Jayne, "Maize in Eastern and Southern Africa: "Seeds" of Success in Retrospect," Environment and Production Technology Division, International Food Policy Research Institute, January 2003.
  3. William Collier, "Re-Thinking Biodiversity in Forest and Field: Colonial Maize and Climate: Limits of Agricultural Development for Adaptation in Rift Valley, Kenya," 2010.
  4. Onyango Ochieng Wycliffe, "Cultural Practices in Sexuality and Reproductive Health Among the Luo in Kenya," A Thesis Submitted to: Amsterdam Masters in Medical Anthropology Universiteit Van Amsterdam, 7th August 2009, Supervised by Silke Heumann.
  5. David William Cohen & E.S. Atieno Odhiambo, Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape, Ohio University Press, 1989, p. 64.

External Resources

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