In Summary
  • The first varieties of wheat grown during the first few years of British rule were gluyas, thew, bobs and Florence, all Australian hybrids.
  • These varieties did well in relatively flat areas of high elevation, low temperatures and fertile and well aerated soils.
  • Though relatively poorer than most other European settlers, Boers swore not to look back to the humiliation caused to them by the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa at the close of the 19th century.
  • To meet the local demand, Lord Delamere increased the milling capacity of his Unga Ltd. In 1925, the Kenya Grain Mill was established in Nairobi, spurred by the good market.

Wheat growing began in the Mesopotamian Fertile Crescent about 6,000 years ago. From there it spread to the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. The British introduced new varieties of wheat as soon as they established colonial rule in Kenya in 1895.

According to I.D Talbott, an agriculture historian, the crop “was thought by the administration to be an important road for developing the colony along the lines of Australia or Canada in which production of the grain, very much in demand in Britain for the working classes, would assure the prosperity of its European settlers”.

The first varieties of wheat grown during the first few years of British rule were gluyas, thew, bobs and Florence, all Australian hybrids.

Another breed – rietti – was later added. At first, the 1,200 acres grown by Lord Delamere did well. Later, these breeds developed rust which reduced the yield by more than half the earlier quantities.

It was through painstaking and careful breeding by the Department of Agriculture at Scotts Laboratories in Kabete and Njoro that more resistant varieties of wheat were developed.

These included Equator, marquis, golden boll, groot korn, Kenya governor and doop. Each of these breeds had strengths and weaknesses.

Equator was relatively resistant to rust but had to be blended with other varieties to produce good bread-making flour.

Marquis, though too sensitive to weather conditions, was capable of producing more than 10 bags an acre. Kenya governor was the most resistant to drought and rust and yielded 10-and-a-half bags per acre.

These varieties did well in relatively flat areas of high elevation, low temperatures and fertile and well aerated soils.

The best yields were realised in the Kenya Highlands – Nakuru, Molo, Subukia, Mau Summit, Mau Narok and Londiani.

This was followed by Uasin Gishu around Hoey’s (today called Moi’s Bridge), Kipkabus, Turbo, Sergoit and Plateau. Attempts to grow wheat in Kitale and Cherangany failed.

MAKE A LIVING IN KENYA

Apart from Lord Delamere and other British pioneer wheat farmers such as Russell Carr, W.G Sewell, A. Cartwright, J.J Toogood and Trevor Sheen, there were more than 50 Boer farmer families who were led by J. Jansen van Rensberg.

Many of these settled in Uasin Gishu. Other Boers who grew wheat were Ben Viljoen, A. Cloete, Jon de Waal and Frans Arnoldi.

Though relatively poorer than most other European settlers, Boers swore not to look back to the humiliation caused to them by the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa at the close of the 19th century. They were determined to make a living in Kenya.

One of the greatest challenges that faced the farmers was the crop’s vulnerability to parasites, including rust, which continued evolving and becoming more virulent.

This necessitated continuous breeding. Unfortunately, the Department of Agriculture was always short of plant breeders.

At first George Windham Evans, who was a self-trained geneticist, occupied that position in Kabete.

It was not until 1921 that Gerald Burton was appointed the first trained and full-time breeder. Breeding required the expertise of a mycologist, who did not come to the scene until 1927.

This was J. Macdonald whose interest in wheat was attracted by the near extinction of the Kenya governor, which became fodder for rust.

For years, farmers relied on trial and error, many on the basis of their prior experiences with the crop. The other challenges included transport and finding a market for their produce. Railway extensions to Kitale and Nanyuki only half-solved the problem.

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