Contents - Previous - Next


Chapter 5: The case of black wattle


5.1 The introduction of black wattle
5.2 The political economy of early wattle production
5.3 Soil conservation and wattle in the 1940s
5.4 Consolidation and the post-independence wattle economy
5.5 Current wattle planting practices
End notes


Black wattle (Acacia meansii) is a species indigenous to Australia and is widely grown in a number of countries because of the high tannin content in its bark which is processed into tanning extracts. This was not, however, what brought about its introduction as a farm tree in Kenya.

5.1 The introduction of black wattle

It is likely that black wattle was first introduced into Kenya by the Reverend Stuart Watt, an early missionary, who brought wattle, eucalyptus and grevillea seeds from Australia where he had lived before coming to Kenya in 1885 (Stuart Watt undated) (Trzebinski 1985:23, Maxon 1980:34-35). Black wattle was introduced into Murang'a District in 1898. During the time of the great famine of 1898, a mercenary, merchant and adventurer named John Boyes settled in Murang'a. Boyes acquired some wattle seed from a seed merchant and planted it on a plot he had been given by Karuri (KNA 1933: AGR/4/526). The plot was eventually given to a Catholic mission.

By 1919, around 4,000 ha of wattle plantations had been established on European farms, and a factory was built in Njoro to process the bark from these plantations (Huxley 1935:167). The 1919 Economic Commission which was set up to explore commercial opportunities for the colony noted with regard to wattle that "the industry requires very little labour and its prospects are excellent." (Government of the United Kingdom 1919).

The Administration first began actively encouraging farmers in Nyeri District to plant wattle and eucalyptus trees around 1911, and later in Murang'a from 1917 (Cowen 1978:61,69). At first, the Administration's objective was to reduce pressures on the indigenous forests for fuelwood and building timber which had greatly increased since the demarcation of the boundaries of the Forest Reserves on the eastern slopes of the Aberdares between 1900 and 1910. A push by the Administration to encourage the planting of trees on farms began in earnest in 1921, but was widely resisted.

By the late 1920's, the situation had radically changed when wattle was being widely planted as a response to the bark trade. As noted in two Forestry Department Annual Reports.

"In Kikuyu, small black wattle plantations are numerous and in more accessible areas, their increase has been encouraged by the trade in wattle bark." (FD 1928:18)

"There is no organized planting, but the planting of black wattle is extending rapidly and thousands of small wattle clumps are quite rapidly changing the appearance of many parts of the Reserve." (FD 1930:16)

Within a few years, the Forest Department claimed that "the afforestation problem had been solved" in Kikuyu Province╣.

There was limited rapacity to process the bark at this early stage in the development of the industry, and most of it was exported. Extracting factories were opened in Limuru and Thika in the early 1930s. The Limuru facilities were largely dependent on wattle produced by European farmers, while the Thika factories were almost entirely dependent on smallholder production. In order to ensure that the facilities in Limuru and Thika had sufficient bark to operate, a vigorous marketing network was established. Increased access to markets for bark, which accompanied the establishment of these factories, greatly contributed to the popularity of wattle as a smallholder crop. The Native Affairs Department reported that in 1935 the total area under wattle had nearly doubled since the previous year (from 18,000 ha to 40,000 ha) and that there were plans to add another 20,000 ha the following year (Native Affairs Department 1935:100, Kitching 1980:64). By 1937, it was estimated that there were nearly 18,000 ha of wattle in Murang'a District alone (compared with 9,700 ha in Nyeri and 6,100 ha in Kiambu).

Fig. 5. 1 Black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) woodlot.

Photo: Dewees

There were three major periods of intensive wattle development in Kenya which corresponded with periods of rising market prices for tanning extracts: from 1921 to 1929, in 1935, and in the late 1940s. Although the earliest campaigns were directed at a relatively small class of educated elite, later programmes were much farther reaching and introduced wattle to the widest possible economic range of farmers. Wattle production came to be concentrated on the holdings of the middle peasantry, primarily because it produced a broad range of household commodities (fuelwood, charcoal, building poles, wood for the construction of farm buildings and cattle enclosures, and so on) while generating income for the household at the same time (Cowen 1978:190-191).

5.2 The political economy of early wattle production

Wattle production in the late 1920s was especially profitable. Africans were excluded from the production of other cash crops, and returns to food crops such as maize and potatoes were, by comparison, quite low. In 1934, the Nyeri District Commissioner J.W. Pease noted that

...at the moment, the price of a tonne of chopped wattle bark is about the same as the price of a tonne of native maize. If this continues I shall anticipate a much greater increase than 50 percent in land under wattle in this district; it might easily be doubled in the next 10 years (Pease undated:1061).

The situation remained very much the same until the late 1950s.

The emergence of wattle as a cash crop in Kikuyu areas had a number of immediate and long-term impacts. When wattle was first cultivated in Murang'a, in the 1920s, it was most widely adopted by chiefs (who were compelled to plant it by the Administration) and by the emerging class of relatively educated elite Africans who had gone to mission schools and who had jobs as school teachers or as clerks, traders, or businessmen (Cowen 1978:72-75). From its very beginnings as a cash crop in Central Province, wattle was grown primarily by absentee sub-clan right holders.

Fig. 5.2 Wattle bark stacked for drying, Thika.

Photo: Dewees

The need for labour to strip and plant wattle contributed to the introduction of new forms of labour organization. The chiefs were able to use compulsory labour to strip bark from their trees, retaining profits from the sale of the bark and timber for themselves. For the educated elite, however, with no access to compulsory labour, existing forms of labour organization - primarily communal labour as well as work groups - were not able to provide enough labour inputs for wattle cultivation. As a result, they became dependent on an emerging wage labouring class for wattle woodlot cultivation and management (Cowen and Murage undated:41).

Wattle enabled sub-clan right holders to maintain their rights to sub-clan land, as absentee land users, without being dependent on temporary or resident tenants or on redeemable land sales to cultivate their plots. Tenants, on the other hand, could more firmly establish long-term rights to land on which they had planted permanent crops. The emergence of wattle as a permanent cash crop brought about a round of litigation as right holders sought to evict their tenants, and as tenants, in effect, sought to ensure their long-term rights of use, de jure.▓

By the late 1940s, wattle production had been adopted by a broad spectrum of farmers, on the smallest holdings to the largest. Many of the processes - land litigation, development of small businesses and shops, urban employment, and so on which had characterized the earliest stage became much more widespread. Between 1945 and 1955, the production of wattle extract more than tripled and had become the colony's largest source of earnings from exports to the United States (Cowen 1978:265).

Part of the appeal of wattle was also that it generated income while freeing household labour to develop businesses elsewhere. As Cowen has suggested, during those lengthy periods when landowners... were engaged in wage employment outside of the reserve, the irregular seasonal application of labour permitted the production of wattle without the continuous presence of labour power (Cowen 1978: 191).

At the same time, expanded peasant production of wattle, and the labour strategies which accompanied it, reduced the supplies of wage labour which this class had formerly provided and which were necessary to strip the trees. Felling and stripping tasks were undertaken by household labour in the absence of wage labourers. By the early 1950s (before the villagization programme), women had largely become responsible for stripping the bark from household wattle woodlots although men were responsible for felling.

Wattle also contributed to the development of political processes in Central Province during the late 1940s. The ability to articulate disaffection rested with those who were educated and with those who had economic power, rather than with the Administration-controlled chiefs. These were frequently wattle growers. A number of wattle producers' societies were formed, such as the Central Province Wattle Growers' and Producers' Association, the Wattle Bark and Native Produce Cooperative Society, and the Murang'a Wattle Growers and Sellers Association and they developed close working links with political organizations such as the Kenya African Union (KAU). The Kenya Fuel and Bark Supplies Company, formed around 1945, negotiated the purchase of a building in Nairobi, Kiburi House, (unheard of at the time for an African-owned company) that eventually housed the offices of the KAU as well as most of the trade unions which had existed before the Emergency. Kenyatta maintained offices there as well. It still houses the headquarters of the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals, and Allied Workers Union (Ngugi 1988:24).

The Administration associated the development of the wattle industry with political movements of one form or another. These were in turn associated with the growth of "individualism" and the demise of Sir Philip Mitchell's vision of a communal Africa. One response was the introduction of fairly strict controls on the trading of bark, introduced by the Marketing of Native Produce Ordinance of 1935. Licensing was coupled with strict quota arrangements which, at least in theory, limited the income any single producer or trader could make from the sale of waffle bark. In practice, both trading licenses and quotas were widely circumvented.│

5.3 Soil conservation and wattle in the 1940s

In some respects, black wattle is an ideal agroforestry species because it can be easily incorporated into farming systems, it is nitrogen-fixing, it produces wood-based products for the household, it is easily grown and can generate income from the sale of bark. The Administration mounted all of these arguments in favour of waffle during its planting programmes (Lick undated:55).

Fig. 5.3 Stacking of wattle logs for burning into charcoal. Murang'a District, 1989

Photo: Dewees

However, the Administration's concerns about the growth of individualism in the Reserves took form in its soil conservation programmes of the mid-1940s and wattle became a target. Arguments against wattle were generally made in the context of the soil conservation debate. These arguments posed some interesting contradictions. In the mid-1930s, the Department of Agriculture recommended that "all cultivated land should be planted under wattle to prevent declines in fertility." (KNA 1934: AGR/4/525). By the mid-1940s however, Norman Humphrey, whose opinions on the state of African agriculture bore tremendous weight, noted that

experience showed that under certain conditions wattle, far from improving the soil, can become a potent factor in increasing soil erosion. As a result steps have been taken to lessen the acreage under this crop, whilst greater control of self-sown plantations, all too often overcrowded and neglected, will have to be ensured if wattle is to take its rightful place in the farming economy (Humphrey 1945:25).

5.4 Consolidation and the post-independence wattle economy

The bottom line, however, was that wattle was frustrating the Administration's efforts to strengthen tribal authority within some sort of communal framework because of its role in income generation and differentiation, and because it enabled individuals to embark on land litigation often at the expense of this authority. From around 1940, the Department of Agriculture, rather than arguing for improved general management practices, campaigned against the planting of wattle on slopes greater that 15 percent. Considering the ridge-valley topography of the most heavily settled areas of Central Province, the Department's campaign affected most of these areas.

By this time, however, other income-generating land use opportunities, such as pasture development, were possible, and waffle production in many areas was abandoned. Farmers who felled their wattle woodlots the late 1940s were able to greatly benefit because of peak post-war tanning extract prices. They contributed to the "individualism" which the Administration so greatly feared.

The abandonment of wattle cultivation on a large-scale was precipitated by the Emergency. The creation of a large number of Emergency villages resulted in the clearance of large areas of wattle for building timber and for village fortifications. The trade in waffle bark became concentrated in the hands of loyalists who were the only persons able to get trading licenses and they greatly benefited.

As a result of consolidation and the Swynnerton Plan, wattle lost favour as a cash crop. Land reform made wattle less appealing. It guaranteed private land ownership, reducing the threats of litigation while eliminating customary tenancy arrangements. Consolidation changed patterns of labour organization by freeing up household labour that had formerly been used to cultivate dispersed fields. Finally, the removal of controls on the smallholder production of coffee and tea and other cash crops presented an entirely new set of income-generating strategies with which wattle could only compete with some difficulty..

Although there were early efforts to incorporate wattle into farm planning exercises, nothing came of them. The price of wattle extract fell sharply between 1955 and 1960, and a strong case for continued or expanded plantings could simply not be made. Between 1951 and 1962, African production of bark fell from 74 percent of the total to 36 percent (Colony and Protectorate of Kenya 1962). The balance of production shifted from smallholders, to estates operated by the tannin extract companies.

Even after prices slumped however, wattle was still widely grown, but not necessarily for bark. In Nyeri in the mid-1950s, for instance, trees were cut in large quantities for poles, but the bark was not being stripped from them (KNA 1955: AGR/4/343). Most estate producers would have gone out of business had they been dependent on bark production alone. Stems can be harvested, at virtually any rotation length. The decision to harvest at any particular time during the growth cycle will depend on the household's need for capital or wood-based products like fencing or building material, as well as on the prevailing prices for charcoal, fuelwood, building poles, and stakes and on access to alternative supplies of capital. All of these factors were acting to divert bark supplies from the tannin factories. At the same time, the presence of a huge range of possible uses for wattle ensured that it remained a popular on-farm tree.

5.5 Current wattle planting practices

Where wattle has been cleared in Central Province, land has largely been used for the planting of coffee, tea and for pasture development. Between 1957 and 1968, the area under smallholder coffee in Central Province increased from just under 5,000 ha to around 40,000 ha (Thurston 1987:132, Kitching 1980:318). In comparison, the area under smallholder tea (which had not been planted prior to around 1959) increased to around 10,000 ha in Murang'a District by 1985 (Kenya Tea Development Authority Annual Report 1985). Wattle still accounts for around 6,000 ha of agricultural land in Murang'a. In some areas, it covers as much as 20 percent of farmland. There are still a number of very large woodlots in the district -some as large as 15 ha.

End notes

1. FD 1932, p.16. In the same breath, however, it was noted that the "inculcation into the natives of an interest in tree planting makes only slow progress." This is an interesting and fundamental contradiction which is as common today. It is widely acknowledged that farmers have planted many trees on their farms, but it is still claimed that farmers know little about the subject, are unable to plant enough trees to meet their needs, and must be taught to do so and provided seedlings by the extension services.

2. Wattle was nowhere as popular a farm crop as in Kikuyu areas. At the same time as wattle was being promoted in the 1930s, a programme involving the widespread distribution of eucalyptus seedlings was underway in Kisii and North Kavirondo (Kakamega) District. Like wattle, eucalyptus provided a fast-growing source of construction timber and fuelwood at a time when the Forest Department was restricting access to the natural forests (Kitching, 1980: 102).

3. See also, KNA AGR/4/220, 21 August 1945, memorandum from G.J. Gollop, Assistant Agricultural Officer, Kiambu to the acting Senior Agricultural Officer, Kiambu, "Wattle Rules and Marketing, 1942-46".


Contents - Previous - Next