How coffee boom brought out the best in friendships

A worker sprays foliar feed to improve the quality of coffee on a coffee plantation in Nyeri. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Agricultural policy in the Kenya Colony began with the realisation that the Mombasa-Kisumu railroad could not be operated profitably with freight from Uganda alone.

The success of the British endeavour in East Africa hinged on the profitability of the railroad, and European settlers were seen as the only group that could generate enough commercial activity to make it economic.

Consequently, agricultural policy during the first half of the 20th Century was predicated on support to European producers. Although not intended to serve Africans, the institutions and infrastructure built in the settler period became the basis of policy and development in post-independent Kenya.

One such institution was the Land and Agriculture Bank, which had been established in the 1930s. During the first years after independence, the government sought to redistribute the land on which most of the agricultural exports were produced to indigenous Kenyans.

The Agricultural Finance Corporation (AFC) was formed in 1963, as a division of the Land and Agriculture Bank for the purpose of providing concessionary loans (funded by the British government) to Kenyans to purchase land from European settlers who were leaving the country.

By 1964, my father was working in the new government and his friend Douglas Njiiri Karago (after whom I am named) persuaded him to buy a coffee farm known as Karugu Estate. His friend was interested in another nearby coffee farm known as Karoa Estate.

They both went to see the farms and my father was surprised to see that Karugu Estate was the actual farm where he used to pick coffee in 1936 and 1937 as a young boy. He went to see the owner, Allan Bockett, who told him the farm was going for Sh140,000.

My father was not very keen because he did not have that kind of money and he was nervous about taking a loan, but his friend Njiiri Karago proceeded to pick up two application forms (at Sh1 a-piece) from the Land and Agricultural Bank.

His friend filled in the two forms and my father reluctantly signed his copy. The next morning Njiiri Karago submitted the forms to the bank.

Surprisingly, my father’s application was approved but his friend’s was declined.

The bank, however, was only to assist my father to the extent of Sh100,000, so he had to look for the extra Sh40,000. He went to see Bockett who kindly allowed him to have the farm on condition that after my father had sold the standing crop, Bockett would take 50 percent of the proceeds until he paid the remaining Sh40,000.

Fortunately, the first harvest was enough to repay the balance and my father took possession in May 1964. In the meantime, Njiiri Karago was disappointed. Karoa Estate was purchased by his friend and workmate, Graham Boswell of the Theta Group of Companies.

In a strange twist of fate, 13 years later, in 1976, Boswell was having trouble with his militant African neighbour who insisted he could not share the common access road with a white man.

Boswell approached his friend Njiiri Karago and offered to sell the farm to him. Unfortunately, Njiiri Karago said he did not have the money, but Boswell told him to take possession of the farm anyway and repay him from the crop proceeds.

It will be recalled that 1976 was during the “coffee boom” when prices were at an all-time high. Njiiri Karago was able to pay the entire purchase price from proceeds of that season’s harvest.

Njiiri Karago and my father remained life-long friends as did Graham Boswell and although they are all gone now, they taught us the meaning and value of true friendship and trust. How to sacrifice your own desires for the sake of a friend and to stand in their place no matter the cost.

In today’s world, true friendship and trust are as rare as hen’s teeth. We are so narcissistic, driven by greed, amassing wealth by any means, and we are the law unto ourselves. You cannot trust a friend anymore and in fact, a friend is more likely to betray your trust than anybody else. The old saying “with friends like this, who needs enemies?” is very appropriate now.

Call me a dreamer but, I believe it is still possible to go back to those old values because it is the right thing to do. It is written in our heart of hearts.

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