Yatta Furrow: Where A Colonial Legacy Now Feeds Villages


A woman fetches water from Yatta furrow. It supplies the local community with water for domestic use as well as agriculture. PHOTO | PHOEBE OKALL | NMG



  • Yatta Furrow in Thika sustains more than 70,000 smallholder farmers.
  • The project was however threatened by drought when the canal dried up in 2009 due to environmental degradation upstream of Thika River.

The concept of an irrigation canal in the Yatta area from the Thika River was mooted in 1936 when it became clear that the setting aside of large tracts of land for European settlement in Machakos had resulted in severe environmental degradation in the native reserves.

However, the proposal failed to materialise due to high costs which were rejected by the government and a revolt led by Muindi Mbingu protesting an enforced destocking programme which was highly prejudicial to the Akamba peoples in 1938. The beginning of World War II in 1939 caused the project to be further delayed.

The declaration of a State of Emergency in 1952 led to a major upheaval for the Kikuyu squatter and his European employer.

The majority of Kikuyu working in white settled areas were willing or unwilling adherents of Mau Mau in 1952 and 1953. Frequently the farm headman emerged as a Mau Mau leader, and Mau Mau recruiters and oath administrators toured the Rift Valley, Thika and Nyeri areas persuading squatters either to actively participate or, at the very least, to supply food and clothing.

In response, the colonial government resorted to detentions without trial and removal of Kikuyu squatters back to their original homes in a desperate attempt to stamp out the rebellion. Owing to these detentions and removals, the problem of suitable work for the Kikuyu became one of the major difficulties of the period.

In the case of the detainees, it became clear when the government interned large numbers of Kikuyu that it could not keep them restricted indefinitely neither did they think it wise to keep them perpetually idle. The early camps had work projects associated with them; at Manyani and Lodwar, for instance, the detainees built the local airfields.

But gradually, it was decided that the prerequisite to release would be a period spent in a specific work camp where the emphasis was on hard work that would, with liberal use of force, hopefully lead to a full confession. It was also agreed that there would be a gradation or pipeline of camps that would lead the detainee back for eventual release to his own location.

In the early stages some of the detainees refused to work, arguing that they were prisoners of war and therefore were exempted from such labour under the Geneva Convention.

However, because of torture and beatings most of the detainees accepted the work arrangements, and the government avoided problems under the Geneva Convention by paying its detainee workers a small salary and depositing it into a Post Office account which the detainees had no access to.

I wonder what happened to the money in these accounts after the emergency bearing in mind that there were more than 100,000 persons detained between 1952 and 1960. It is not surprising that dormant accounts at the Kenya Post Office Savings Bank were quite an attractive proposition 40 years later.!

Within the reserves, it was necessary to start public works projects with paid gangs to absorb the destitute and landless from the Rift Valley. These gangs were put to work on road building, terracing and betterment schemes.

One of the public projects on which the detainees worked was the Yatta furrow, an irrigation project in Ukambani which involved digging a furrow 10 feet wide, 16-18 feet deep and 40miles (60 kilometres) long. Its short-term objective was to provide penal employment to Mau Mau detainees. The long-term objective was to supply water to Yatta grazing lands and thus permit rotational grazing and irrigation development. With cheap detainee labour available in plenty, the project was now viable.

In 1955, the African Land Development Board (ALDEV) whose mandate was to initiate development in native lands, was instructed to commence canal construction at Yatta using detainee labour. Work was however interrupted in 1958 when emergency restrictions were eased as detainees were repatriated to their areas of origin. For this reason, the remaining works amounting to about 20 percent were completed by hired labour and machines.

The project was inaugurated in 1959 under ALDEV but was soon thereafter handed over to the Masaku County Council. Over the subsequent decade government-directed settlement schemes were initiated in the area. Individual plots of between 0.4 to 1.2 hectares (1 to 3 acres) were demarcated, and settlers gained access to irrigation water from Yatta furrow. The availability of water enabled Yatta farmers to produce tomatoes, cabbages and chilies at times of the year when supplies of rain-fed areas upstream in Central Province were very limited. At these times Nairobi-based traders would travel over unpaved roads to reach the scheme, but for the remainder of the year the Yatta farmers were virtually cut off from major local markets because of poor transport links.

However, by the late 1970s a few fresh produce exporters had become aware that high quality vegetables could be obtained from the Yatta area. These exporters hired local farmers to act as their agents, buying produce from other farmers and then meeting the exporters’ collection trucks in Thika.

The market arrangements that emerged proved to be unsatisfactory as quantity and quality requirements varied from day to day while prices fluctuated widely reflecting the fact that exporters relied primarily on other sources and used the Yatta farmers as a residual source.

In the light of these problems, the Yatta farmers formed an informal cooperative called the Matuu Farmers Self-Help Group which entered into a long-term marketing agreement with Kenya Horticultural Exporters (KHE) an Asian-owned company exporting vegetables mostly to the UK.

Unfortunately, over time it emerged that KHE were paying farmers way below spot market prices and a price war developed when other buyers offered better prices.

The project was also threatened by drought when the canal dried up in 2009 due to environmental degradation upstream of Thika River.

Today, with assistance from the Global Resilience Partnership which has been providing climate risk linked financing since 2017, the Yatta furrow sustains more than 70,000 smallholder farmers.