How family acquired land in Thika for pineapple empire

Del Monte Kenya Canners workers inside the factory in Thika 1990s. [File, Standard]

Kandara is pregnant with expectation, Murang’a County is cheering on, hopeful that at long last a historical injustice will be corrected. Across the Chania Bridge in Kiambu, there is grumbling, gnashing of teeth and guarded optimism. At stake is a prime piece of 7,300 acres of land which has been released by a giant multinational, Del Monte, after the expiry of its lease.

After waiting for 119 years, the locals feel that it is time to reclaim part of the ancestral land they lost to colonial settlers.

It has been a long journey where their sons and daughters have been scarred not just by the spines of the juicy pineapples but by the whips of the guards and the paws of the guard dogs whenever they stray into the plantations.

The antagonism between the locals and the settlers started in 1904 when a family of British pioneers went around the country in search of land where they could settle. On reaching Chania Bridge, one of the men simply put a peg near Ndarugu and instructed the surveyor to measure four pieces of land.

“Father told the surveyor that he wanted four 5,000 acre farms, two for himself and two for his son-in-law, Herbert Cowie, Mervyn Cowie’s father. The dividing line between his and his son-in-law’s farm had to be a straight line from the peg to the Aberdare. Father’s two farms were from the left of the straight line,” writes CWP Harries in an article, A long Walk to Karamaini in a series, History of Thika Town.

After securing this vast land, Harries explains how his mother experimented with crops such as wheat, which failed dismally and potatoes which had no market until she accidentally stumbled on 200 pieces of pineapples plants which had been uprooted by a disappointed farmer in Nairobi.

The plants which had originally been imported from South Africa were transported on a donkey cart to Thika, a journey that took two days.

A lot of water has passed under the Chania bridge and the pineapple plantation has become a global brand although some of its workers’ inequities have hit headlines on the international stage.

The land that was appropriated by Harrie’s father and his peers in Thika seems to have increased from the original 10,000 acres to 22,000 acres which is now owned by American multinational giant, Del Monte.

As the two counties squabble over who should take back the land amidst grand talks of establishing a city on the land, the descendants of original claimants through Kandara investment hope that they will ultimately get 5,110 acres.