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How Kenya braved the great depression of the 1930s

Old matatus along Landhies Road, Nairobi, in the 1970s. [File, Standard]

Kenyans are living on the horns of dilemma. On one hand starvation and possible death is beckoning some of the five million people who have no access to food and water.

On the other hand, is a raging debate about cheap imports of genetically modified maize which to some critics also comes with some inherent danger. 

Perhaps the last time Kenya was this desperate for food was during the great recession of 1930s. During that period, farmers could not sell their crops and the price of maize plummeted to a record low of Sh3.50 per bag.

One of the hardest-hit sectors was the hospitality industry. So desperate was the situation that hoteliers were offering their investments at throwaway prices. Claremont hotel was offered at £6,000 (about Sh871,835). The owners of Limuru-based Holmes Hotel were also willing to sell it at £15,000 (Sh2,179,589).

Naivasha hotel was being offered for £3,000 (about Sh435,917) while the management of Mombasa Club too was willing to sell it. And just like today when the iconic Hilton, Intercontinental Hotel closed, businesses were forced to quit because there were very few investors willing to pump money in such an environment.

The prices of other farm produce and livestock had fallen to ridiculous levels and well-bred steers were occasionally auctioned during impromptu roadside auctions for as low as Sh7.50 while heifers could be bought at Sh25. But very few people had the money.

Some deep-pocketed predatory conglomerates which were looking for businesses they could snap up at bargain prices. Others, mainly from Europe sought to flood the country with cheap imports in the hope that they could suffocate the local businesses that were already suffocating from liquidity problems.

It was around this time that South African Breweries made an offer of £60,000 to buy Kenya Breweries Limited but the board rejected the overtures. It took the South Africans seven decades to assert themselves in Nairobi by dislodging the local brewer, a move that resulted into the beer wars that rocked Kenya in 1998.

However, instead of bowing to the multinationals, some Kenyan companies like KBL took their competitors head-on and even took the battle to the enemy. The most memorable fightback was however staged in 1952. However, when EABL’s sales manager Brian Hobson went on market research,  he discovered the region was dominated by German and Australian beers leaving no space for Tusker and Jumbo brands.