Forgotten green gold that helped Murang’a elbow Kiambu out of Nairobi

Thika Produce and Traders Supply directors in 1951. These men, now deceased, watered the trees of entrepreneurship long before uhuru. [PHOTO: COURTESY OF JOSEPH KIMURA]

How did entrepreneurs from Murang’a (or Fort Hall) come to dominate Nairobi, elbowing out Kiambu businessmen, who were much closer?

The first suspicion would be politics, but that can’t be — Kiambu was more politically connected and has given us two presidents.

The reason might surprise you. Wattle trees!

This was the first cash crop introduced in Murang’a and surrounding regions in the early part of the last century to stop the destruction of the natural forest and, at the same time, make money for the wazungu settlers.

Wattle bark produces tannin, which is used in the leather industry. The rest of the tree makes good charcoal, and can be used in making adhesives, dye, corrosion inhibitors and pharmaceutical products, as well as preserving ropes and nets.

Wattle trees provided locals with money for building schools, educating children, fixing roads and building mud houses (instead of the traditional ones that used expensive off-cuts from indigenous trees).

There were three major periods of intensive wattle development in Kenya, which corresponded with periods of rising market prices for tanning extracts: 1921 to 1929; 1935; and the late 1940s, the Food and Agriculture Organisation says.

Much-needed financing

Wattle tree farming proved to be far more successful and lucrative than expected. In fact, it produced the first batch of tycoons who built stone houses in Thika before the Emergency. These tycoons also provided much-needed financing for the Mau Mau freedom war.

The topic of financing the Mau Mau war has been left alone by economists, yet it cost the British government some £55 million. Was there inflation during the Emergency due to restrictions in movement and disruptions of supply chains? Did Mau Mau leaders borrow money? Was there a dip in economic growth? Was it a recession?

Wattle trees mature in about seven years, leaving wattle tree planters with plenty of time on their hands. They looked for jobs in Nairobi where they had to pay rent, much unlike Kiambu men and women who could easily go home in the evening. They still do. Is it true that this proximity to home makes Kiambu women powerful in courtship and marriage?

Tired of paying rent, Murang’a farmers started looking for their own houses. That is how they starting buying real estate, including around River Road, now dubbed ‘Little Murang’a’.

They seem to have been the first to form chamas, which helped them buy up many commercial buildings in Nairobi. The chamas included companies like Thika Produce & Traders Supply Co Ltd formed in the 1940s.

But when the colonial government realised wattle was producing tycoons, it brought in restrictions on planting, transportation and even sale. That killed the goldmine.

However, some had already made money from it, like Jogoo Kimakia of Thika who once owned the largest fleet of buses plying the Nyeri-Thika-Nairobi route and beyond.

Prof Joseph Kimura, whose father grew wattle trees around Ndakaini, informed me that even the amount of money a native could hold in a bank account was restricted. You had to get a permit from the District Commissioner to have more than Sh50,000. But that did not stop one Kairu Bernard from accumulating a reputed Sh250,000 in his account — an astronomical sum in those days.

Kairu was an interesting man. He used to carry food from home to avoid hotel expenses when he went to sell wattle bark in Thika. He came from around present-day Ndakaini Dam.

We are investigating what happened to his money after he died — out of curiosity, of course.

During the Emergency, the government decided wattle trees should be replaced with coffee in the lower parts of Murang’a, Nyeri and Kiambu, and tea in the upper parts.

Wave of tycoons

But individual farmers were restricted in the number of trees they could grow. Both crops proved very successful until the 1990s when coffee died, just like wattle. Coffee and tea did not produce the next wave of tycoons because of these restrictions.

Some see parallels between the deaths of the two crops. They were a source of power, and killing them reduced economic and political power. Some have argued persuasively that the death of coffee spawned the financial sector-based tycoons with roots in Murang’a, like Peter Munga and James Mwangi of Equity Group, and Jimnah Mbaru.

Others argue that the shortage of land, because of reduced infant mortality, forced Murang’a people to become entrepreneurs.

What is fascinating is how an innocent crop introduced from Australian by Rev Watt and first planted in Murang’a in 1898 could change the economy of a region and the nation so much. It seems to me that wattle tree seeds were also the seeds of entrepreneurship.

A curious observation is that as Murang’a tycoons invested in real estate in Nairobi, those from Kiambu followed the railway into the Rift Valley. A century later, we can ask who made the better economic decision.

Is it true there is a Little Murang’a in Baltimore, USA? The last time I was there, I ate nyama choma at Kamaus .... What created tycoons in other counties?

The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi.

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