Trans Nzoia Settlers and Roses

The further we go up this road, the more the poverty. Martin is shocked that Kenyans still live like this – women and children collecting water in Mutumgi (jerrycans) beside cattle drinking the same water. Primary school children are playing on a small bare earth playground beside a mud-built school. I see only brick buildings sponsored by safari.com and Coca-Cola, all the rest are traditional mud houses standing under trees surrounded by straw-coloured grass. The rainy season, called the long rains, are due to start in about four weeks. There is a glimpse of crops in the shamba at the back of the photo and the people look well-fed.

Familylife-ShuamArea1The road is black-top up to Endabess, but then red Murram. This is not good news, we are late for the meeting. Martin drives faster. On some parts of the road, the road has a steep camber on both sides of its pebbly pitted surface so a preference track has of course emerged which all cars and Matatu (minibus) use – vehicles coming from both directions.  If the preference track is on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, we lurch across at the last minute with the car pitching and bucking as if a ship on choppy water.

A red dust cloud burls down the road towards us and turns briefly into a Matatu as it passes us and is swallowed back into dust. Inside the bus I glimpse grimy people lurching like red anthills dancing. Martin grabs his phone to take a photo. “My friends won’t believe they still have Matatu ‘face me’s’ here.” The name describes the seating arrangement perfectly.

This is not a great idea, Martin needs both hands to hold the car, so Colin says: “You drive, I’ll take the picture.” Another ‘face me’ swoops at speed behind us, swaying drunkenly. There’s a man on the roof luggage – incredibly he’s waving at us.
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Three kilometres from the Uganda border we reach the rose farm to meet long-term settler, Bob Andersen. My grandmother had all her roses grown by his grandfather Robert Akele for her horticultural business. Roses were his specialty. Bob gives me a catalogue from that time detailing dozens of roses for sale – as well as fruit trees. I have catalogues of my grandmothers dated 1936, 1937 and 1938 with a large section on roses to0. They are probably his.

The parallels of Bob’s Swedish grandfather Robert Akele time in Kenya and my grandmother’s are strong. Both came from famous horticultural families: my grandmother from Sutton Seeds and Robert Akele from five generations of famous horticulturists farming 1000 acres in Jonkoping, Sweden. They both chose their farms at altitudes around 6000′ – 6400′ in the Trans Nzoia because it has an ambient daytime temperature of 26 C – 28 C all year round and fertile volcanic soil offering a near perfect environment to grow fruit, roses, coffee, maize, pyrethrum and vegetables. Also the summer in Sweden lasts only three months. Robert Akele came with 45 different plants from Jonkoping and Emilie May was sent bulbs and seeds from Suttons Reading as well as Suttons India in 1920’s. They both sank their money into their venture, and like everyone else at the time, they all lost it all.

In the early days settlers were optimistic that fortunes could be made; coffee and maize prices were high – it seemed no one could lose. Robert Akele was one of those first settlers when The Kenya Colony was considered the destination for people with initiative. By 1923 he was propagating and exporting 60,000 roses. He was innovative and a visionary. He went to California and Mexico and brought back avocados, Fuerta and Pueblo, wrapped in hessian gunny bags, watering them all the way back to Chepata Farm. In the 1960’s and 1970’s they were the cash crop on the farm. Not everything was successful, he sent a drum of passion fruit to London and Sweden in 1930 but was told they would never catch on.

The 1920’s were the good years, then came the Great Depression in the 1930’s, plagues of red locusts flew over the land and the rains failed in some years. Prices halved for maize and coffee. Coffee rust saw 2000 acres of beans drop to the ground. No one had any money for roses. Most farmers went bankrupt and left, but Robert Akele sold the Swedish farm. Surely things could improve – but they didn’t. Drought came in 1953, destroying 1000 acres of wheat and maize. He lost everything. It broke Bob Andersen’s grandparents and his father inherited the farm. By 1960 the roses were grubbed out and avocados became the cash crop – which was successful until South Africa emerged from sanctions and subsidized farming.

Robert Akele and Emilie May were years before their time. Not for them the modern access to markets and refrigeration, they were at the mercy of hail, disease and locusts – quite apart from the world commodity price collapse. They were though quite right about the soil, the altitude and the climate – except that Bob told me that KK was in a microclimate hail belt of Mt Elgon.

Nine decades on, roses again bloom and avocados ripen on the tree on the Andersen farm. Flowers picked in the morning can be in the great Amsterdam flower markets within 24 hours. Roses, fruit and vegetables have become big business in Kenya with huge greenhouses, with misting systems and protection from the midday sun, block views of Lake Naivasha.

Settlers like Robert Akele and Emilie May had made this possible. They stumped out the trees, they built the murram roads, lived in mud huts while their houses were being built. And crucially, they put in their money, passion and hard work to try for that perfect bloom.

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