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Rural-Urban Dynamics in the East African Mountains

Sylvain Racaud
Bob R. Nakileza
François Bart
et al.

Part 5

12. Agribusiness in the construction, deconstruction and reconstruction of a mountain urban centre: the case of Karatina town, Kenya

Patrick Mbataru

Texte intégral

1In agriculturally rich regions, vibrant agriculture promotes the proliferation of the local non-farm economy, which in turn props up demand for farm produce, although this can be undermined by inappropriate macroeconomic policies (Evans 1992).

2In varying degrees, towns reprocess the economic production of their surroundings, in turn transforming their milieus. They are fed by but also feed these milieus. By refining economic production, they sustain a rural-urban system that enables the current and future generations to meet their needs. Urban centres are the best mirrors of the level of social and economic progress and in this way, they are dynamic spatial entities, composed and recomposed over time, each stage reflecting the epochal technological, economic and social refinement. As societal needs change, the raison d’ être of an urban centre evolves or ceases to be. Some towns die in the process (Smith 1979).

3The role of Small and Medium Urban Centres (SMUCs) in rural areas has been increasingly recognised consonant to the renewed interest of social, economic and political changes at national and international levels. Importantly, it is now accepted that small rural towns are closest to rural communities and can therefore act as nodal points for linking the producers to external markets and there is need to refocus policies toward the ‘local scale’ (Fiona and Tylor 1986). In addition, SMUCs do not exist in isolation from other economic systems but are interlinked to them by flows of people and goods, services and information, interactions seen to engender the strategies of survival and accumulation of both the poor and rich (Owuso 2005). They are part of the local and regional urban hierarchy, and are therefore affected by the impact of agricultural policies (Pedersen 1990).

4This study looks at the centrality of agriculture in the mutation of Karatina town in Central Kenya. By profiling the economic composition and re-composition of the town and its open air market, the article brings out the dynamism of this rural town that is built on small scale agribusinesses in meeting the local economic needs. The accent is especially on the role of its retail agri-market after the coffee crisis in the 1990s and its versatility in the face of changing economic conditions in the highlands of central Kenya.

  • 1 Cf figure 3. Mount Kenya at the beginning of the book.

5Karatina is located about 130 km north of Nairobi in the County of Nyeri at 2,000 metres above sea level and lies on the southern leeward slopes of Mount Kenya1. With a residential population of ten thousand inhabitants, the town is the second largest in the county. However, its large market attracts many more traders for its three weekly market days than any other rural town of this size in Kenya and even some larger towns in the region. The uniqueness of Karatina is that on any given day, it attracts about 40,000 “commuters”, four times its population. This characteristic is noticeable especially considering that it is only a divisional headquarter. The presence of six international and major national banks is an indicator of a strong local economy and high money exchange. The town has a large agricultural economy, but the structural adjustment affected credit access by low income households and many of them were excluded from formal commercial banking by the stiff conditions in the financial markets. However, with the concomitant liberalisation of these markets, small income households readily embraced informal financial micro- crediting (Johnson 2004).

6The urban centre town has a long history, stretching into the pre-colonial days. This would mean its development straddles across traditional subsistence production and colonial and contemporary market economies. Its famous open market is reputed to be one of the biggest in East and Central Africa. But the profile of this town reveals not only the economic role of a rural market in supporting the local economic production, but also delineates the transformation and dynamism of this production. Situated in the rich agricultural mountain hinterlands of central Kenya, the town’s economy is based on agriculture and mainly small-scale agro-enterprises. With the breakdown of the coffee economy in the 1990s, the town has also mutated through intense land structure and management changes. Mostly, land use has changed from single-crop farming (coffee) to either fast market agro-products like tomatoes or real estate businesses. The short distance to Nairobi, Nyeri and other towns around Mt Kenya has reinforced the local economy through external demand, ensuring that small-scale farmers are connected to external markets.

7In the coffee boom of the 1970s, many farmers around Karatina used the surplus income to diversify into non-farm economic activities like eateries, butcheries and retail shops. Successful Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in turn spurred bigger business like hotels, hardware shops, transportation and general merchandise shops. As the town thrived, it in turn helped farmers raise agricultural productivity by allowing producers to spread risks by diversifying income generation away from coffee e.g. to horticulture.

The rural town concept

Market place as a space for economic exchange

8At a more abstract level, SMUCs are connected to multi-purpose spaces, interweaving the needs of the locality and those of the external markets. In this way, they act as loci for the dissemination of influence from the capital (Pedersen 1990). Those needs are fulfilled either partially or in full when people meet in the local urban area.

9A market space is specified as people identify in it some particular aspects that attract, like a magnet, the best of their enterprise. As an economic construct, it acts as a bazaar for products from its hinterland. A market place is a processing zone of local economic products, whether in their concrete or abstract dimensions. Over time it becomes a network, acting as a platform for showcasing what the society has collectively or individually produced or transformed into different economic forms.

10Indeed, after independence, rural development policies were pegged on the potentiality of small urban centres to spur up innovations in the countryside (Obudho 1990). It is through these roles that the SMUCs act as spaces of economic diffusion, which make them the links between the capital and the countryside. This is signified by the non-local merchandise on sale at the market. At Karatina for example one notices a medley of ‘foreign merchandise’ from exogenous sources, electronics, machinery and other manufactured goods. But these are only symbols of overt or concrete exchange. There are, hidden from the casual eye, covert commercial exchanges.

Karatina as a gender defined space

11As agricultural market spaces, small rural towns are highly gendered particularly in Africa where traditionally the food value chain is still dominated by women. According to oral sources, men were actually barred from operating at the Karatina market until the 1950s, when the colonial government installed male authority at the market place. The best remembered ‘market regulator’ at the market was called Gaching’a, who worked in the 1950s and whom, according to one source was cursed by women traders for being harsh and insensitive to them and was struck with elephantiasis or suchlike disease that made his legs swollen.

12Being fluid social spaces, small towns and market places are ideal for processing news. Because of their great potential for the dialectics of economics and social interaction, such places are perfect for an exchange of facts about the agricultural value chain (Wambugu 1995). Due to the nature of SMUCs, news are easily diffused and hence the towns act as a great space of diffusing agricultural innovations (Pedersen 1990). Historically across cultures, leaders and hegemonic administrations have found market places to be of practical use in sending out essential information. It was where foreign invaders, whether the bible-carrying missionaries or gun wielding armies would first pitch their tent and flag. It would be easier from here to gather the essential information about the surroundings. According to local stereotypes, women are good at spreading news, and traditionally dominating the market place, they would be the first to get in contact with ‘foreign news’ and visitors. Karatina was at the crossroads of trade paths where it was easy to pick news from across the mountains and beyond; from Meru, Embu and Kamba land and later Nairobi, Mombasa and Tanzania.

13The evidently large presence of women in SMUCs and market places in rural Africa is still an indicator of the significant role that women play in the local economies through agricultural production. With the end of the coffee economy in the region, agricultural trade, especially in grains, has spawned what seems to be a class of women capitalists in central Kenya, big earners trucking loads of grain bags from Uganda and Tanzania, replacing men at the helm of economic production. Three quarters of traders at Karatina are women. 90 % of the products sold there are agricultural products. In Africa, women produce 70 % of all food, much of which is either consumed at home or sold at the market place to supplement the family income (Otieno 2012). As early as the 1920s, women from Othaya, Tetu and Mukurweini in the Nyeri County had a system of migrant labour between Nyeri and Ndia (in Kirinyaga County).

14In the upper areas of Nyeri, population pressure rapidly diminished the net family land sizes. Soil exhaustion and increasing weather changes had greatly handicapped production of staple foods by the end of last century. Labour exports from Tetu in the 1940s actually acted as one of the safety valves in the height of the land crisis in Nyeri, which eventually built up into the Mau Mau conflict in the 1950s. The Lower Mt Kenya region on the Kirinyaga side was potentially rich but production was limited by lack of labour. Up to the end of the 19th century, those areas, especially Mwea, were generally uninhabited. However, being warmer than the uplands, Ndia had just the right climate for food products unavailable in the slopes of the Aberdare, particularly the production of finger millet, sorghum and beans.

15By the 1920s, settlers in places like Kagio had begun to produce surplus grain and cereal but they lacked labour and markets. However with problems of land in the uplands and rapidly exhausted soils, the slopes of Mount Kenya and the Aberdare had become a vast pool of labour by mid-last century. Women would work in the Ndia region for food or cash. These workers would pass through Karatina and trade off what they had earned. Over time, Karatina became established as the stopover market for migrant labourers crisscrossing the northern and eastern parts of Kikuyu land. Frequent droughts and famine all over central Kenya in the 1930s and 1940s attracted more women to Karatina from Mbeere, Embu, Kamba and Meru areas, further solidifying the Karatina market as the regional centre of commerce and diffusion of innovation.

16It should be noted that originally, or specifically up to the 1950s, trade at Karatina was basically through barter. Women would fill new clay pots or sisal baskets, with grains, the measure of which would be the exchange rate for the goods. Other goods exchanged were beauty products like beads, or leather from the Maasai and the Kamba people.

17As the economy transformed with the introduction of the cash economy, women continued to play a key role in trade. Supplying the railway station at Karatina with firewood was more lucrative, and consequently attracted more men. With this income, some men started small retailing businesses. Others supplied milk and eggs to hotels and eating places in the burgeoning urban centre. The offspring of those who established businesses in the town forms the elite class that dominates the commerce and politics of the area and nationally. Over time these early African investors surpassed the obstinate tenacity of the dukawala (shop-keepers), the Gujarati banyan, who settled in the town after the construction of the railway. These hardened men brought in a new commercial spirit, based on money, selling anything from calicos to sufurias (metal cooking pots). Other than Nyeri town, Karatina was and is still the only town in the county that still has business people of Asian origin. But their number has been going down due to the incessant onslaught by the local businessmen as well as the economic decline of the 1990s that greatly affected local purchasing power owing to the down turn in the local coffee economy.

Historical re-composition of Karatina market

The town as a vortex of factors

18The origin and growth of small towns are varied. Some of the factors at play include the presence of needed resources which often juxtapose with physical characteristics to form a nexus upon which the initial cluster forms (Obudho 1990). The cluster recomposes and mutates continuously. The economic function of any urban centre is often reflected by, or influenced by, a mix of such factors as the resources, population, social and economic structures in its immediate hinterland. The function obviously changes in response to micro and macro policies. For example, the implementation of the structural adjustment programs leading to the deregulation of agriculture in the 1990s shifted attention from the capital to SMUCs (Pedersen 1990). Karatina positioned itself as a source of food for export and local needs, although the shift also led to the death of many Small and Medium Enterprises in the town.

19Several intertwined factors have contributed to the composition and re-composition of the Karatina market. The proximity of the town to large wet hinterlands and the ease of communication from hinterlands to towns and the capital city, make this town an important local market. The short distance to Nairobi, Nyeri and other towns around Mt. Kenya has reinforced the local economy, ensured a smooth transition from the coffee to a ‘horticultural’ economy. The town is also situated at the crossroads of traditional trade paths. Standing at the edge of the eastern side of Mt. Kenya, it is connected to the four poles of the central region, some of the most productive and richest parts of the country. In comparison, Nyeri town, the principal town of the county, lays just at the edge of the pre-colonial Maasai territory and even that was separated by a wide swath of dry space, where white settlers established large scale farming. Karatina on the other hand is situated in the middle of a rich hinterland. The bordering counties of Embu, Meru and Kirinyaga are themselves a source of high value horticultural products. The dry parts of Embu and Gachoka, as elaborated above, were traditionally sources of grains, which were traded with sweet potatoes, bananas and maize from the wetlands. This geographical positioning naturally made Karatina a strong modern commercial centre.

20The economy of Karatina, like many other towns in East Africa, is also shaped by the colonial history. The importance of this town as an economic centre was enhanced by the arrival of the railway in 1938. The town was one of a series of provision towns along the Nairobi-Nanyuki railway line. The railway impacted economic influence on the transformation of Karatina and its hinterland in several ways.

21Having climbed the steep gradient from Sagana, 300 m below, the steam engine needed to replenish its fuel and water. The appropriate place was the next plateau after the hills through which the upper Tana River flows. Around this point, railline laying gangs would rest and buy food and water. Importantly, the locals were invited to sell firewood for the steam engine and soon the place became a thriving market place. The Indian dukawalas arrived with the railline and established commercial enterprise at the retail level. In this sense, Karatina fulfilled an important condition, necessary for establishing a small town in a non-metropolitan region, the existence of sufficient economic surplus in the region. With proper national development policies, SMUCs could provide an important economic link between the “local rural and the national global economy” (Pedersen 1990).

22Importantly, it linked Karatina to the global markets by extending it much further to Nairobi and beyond through the export market. The market for local agricultural products was no longer limited by regional perimeters. Although the line was basically meant to serve settler farms around the Mount Kenya region, it eventually opened the area to trade in non-farm goods, helping local producers in spreading the risks inherent in a peasant economy. By the mid 20th century there was a substantial production of wattle bark and wood for the emerging tanning industry and wood for fuelling the steam engines. In the 1940s, local people were selling wattle to the Karatina railway station. We can say that the line marked the divide between the old and new. On a temporal continuum, it symbolised the end of the traditional mode of production, trade and accumulation and heralded their transformation into a cash economy. This transformation arguably formed the beginning of participation of men in a non-farm economy. However, this did not change the equation much as women still dominate the open air market today.

23The railway helped to spawn other economic activities in Karatina. Though little manufacturing was established, the town attracted numerous businesses, especially in retailing of goods. In this sense, Karatina fits the image of the small town as an extension of and serving the needs of a larger city. In the 1970s, small urban centres were seen as points through which the capitalist system siphoned out local resources with little or no return into the locality (Kongsted, Mett and Montend 1974).

24Some of the notable signs of the economic decomposition and re-composition of this town and its hinterlands are closed warehouses belonging to different companies in Nairobi and Thika. These of course were located there because of the railway and the centrality of the town. In the 1960s and 70s, major consumer products manufacturers opened these go-downs here for easier distribution by road to other parts of the region, after transporting the goods by rail from Nairobi or Mombasa. The warehouses represented major firms, local and international, like the East African Industries, the Kenya Breweries, Bamburi and Portland cement. There were others like the Mabati (iron sheet) rolling mills and the sisal bags industries. These stores acted as distribution nodes to wholesalers in the Nyeri, Keruguya, Mwea, Embu, Chuka and Mbeere areas. By the 1970s, Karatina had established a commercial territory.

25While it was not possible to establish how many of these have closed down, many have and the reasons behind the closures can be attributed to the economic trends in the last 30 years. First, the hinterland was greatly affected by the steady decline of the dominant coffee economy in the last decades of the 20th century. Nationally, the production of coffee declined from about 150,000 to about 50,000 tonnes in the period between 1985 and 2000 (Economic Survey 2005). Generally, commodity prices in the international market have plummeted severely toward the end of the 20th century. This affected the local purchasing power and naturally impacted on businesses in the region, which forced many investors out of Karatina town.

26While the coffee economy declined, the local economy also shifted to other forms of production, mainly to horticulture. Commercial small-scale horticultural production was boosted by improved infrastructure especially in Information and Communication Technology and road networks. Up to the seventies, the railway was the main and the most profitable mode of transport for bulk haulage. The decline of rail transport left road transport as the only option for business people in Karatina and its hinterland. Despite the increased cost of road transport, traders still found it much more convenient. Road transport became even more attractive owing to the introduction in the 1980s of high speed and powerful long chassis trucks. With these innovations and improved roads and transport, delays were greatly eliminated. It became possible to ferry goods directly from Mombasa to Karatina within hours, a 700 km distance that would have previously required two to three days by rail.

27The closure of the railway and the consequent switch over to road transport for bulk commodities from and to Karatina is also indicative of the changing kind of goods transported from the region, a consequence of the aforementioned economic transformation in the region. While before 1970s the bulk goods transported were manufactured merchandise from Nairobi and Thika, we can hypothesize that with the economic downturn of the 1980s and 1990s, and the weakening of the local purchasing power, the market for goods like iron sheets, cement and assorted household items substantially shrunk thanks to the decline of the coffee economy. This depression saw a sharp fall in the local living standards from the heights of the 1970s and early 1980s during the so-called coffee boom. However, in the 1980s, facing an economic squeeze, people started diversifying to other farm production. While old farmers tried macadamia nuts and others not requiring intensive labour like dairy, youthful farmers diversified into tomatoes or short duration or high value farming.

28After Thika, Muranga and Nanyuki town, Karatina is the only other rail station that had a rapid transformation after independence. Narumoro and Kiganjo largely remained stunted and functioned only as collection points until the 1980s when the industries collapsed, although some investments like milk processing, maize milling and a matchsticks factory subsisted. Except for the maize mill at Kiganjo, the others have long since closed down. Nanyuki is different: being an end-of-the-line town, it attracted growth that tied all the nodes from the reaches of colonial settlement and with the decline of large scale agriculture, its economy branched off into tourism, and a sub-economy supported by large military installations. The resurgence of large-scale horticultural producers in the region mainly depended on the rapid road transport. Karatina on the other is a barometer of the composition, decomposition and re-composition of the local small-scale economy.

Composition and re-composition of the cash crop economy.

29Karatina is situated just below the ‘brown line’ marking the base altitude limit for tea growing. There is tea production beginning just two kilometres to the east and north of the town. The economy of the town therefore benefited from coffee, tea and dairy farming. This is one of the richest areas in Kenya with a per capita income of 40,000 to 50,000 shillings (economic survey). Coffee and tea production have been the main bases for medium sized investment in Karatina. In the 2004-5 season, the cash crop injected about Ksh 300,000,000 (€ 3,600,000) into the local economy. This should have increased by 2013 because of the steady rise of coffee in the international markets. Local factory level prices raised by 50 % by 2011, with some factories within the Karatina area paying farmers some of the highest prices in the country. However, coffee price fluctuations since the end of the international coffee agreement in 1988 made the cash crop unreliable as a source of income, forcing farmers to diversify into horticulture.

30Earnings from tea continued to be good therefore counteracting the economic problems experienced after the decline of coffee earnings, and buttressing the economy of the town against shocks from the coffee decline. However, it should be emphasized that the land under tea is only a third of the area under cultivation. Only Kirimukuyu and Ragati sub-locations are suitable for tea growing. The other locations are under coffee. Nonetheless, even after the decline of the coffee subsector, the local economy remained buoyant thanks to diversification and continued relatively stable tea revenues.

31The feeder hinterland around Karatina is largely very fertile. This is a key factor in the continued vibrancy of the town. The drastic decline of the coffee industry may have affected the growth of Karatina in the last 20 or so years, but with the economic squeeze, many small-scale farmers abandoned coffee and diversified into horticulture. This change was concomitant with the rapid transformation of the global agrifood systems. The beginning of the 21st century saw increased demand for high-value food products, agricultural chain modernisation, rapid urbanization, rising incomes and market liberalization in developing countries. These opened opportunities for farmers to integrate into high-value markets (Rao and Qaim 2011). In Kenya, changing eating habits among young people, the growing middle class and rapid urbanisation expanded the market for horticulture produces like sukumawiki (kales), tomatoes, carrots and other market garden products that traditionally were not part of the local diet.

32Further, rapid expansion of the supermarket format of retailing food opened new off-farm opportunities (Tschirley et al. 2001). Supermarkets already accounted for 20 % of food retailing in urban Kenya by 2002 (Rao and Qaim 2011). The main product in diversification strategies at a small-scale level has been tomatoes. The testimony of this is its ubiquitous presence in all market places and supermarkets in the rural and urban centres throughout Kenya. According to estimates, the country requires 700,000 metric tons of tomatoes annually (KHDP 2010). Only 500,000 tons are produced. However, there has been a steady rise in production. Naturally, areas like Karatina and around Mt. Kenya benefited a lot from this expansion due to favourable climatic and improved infrastructural conditions. Most of these fledgling farmers had little cash to take their produce to big markets in Nairobi, Nakuru or Mombasa. They sold it mostly to middlemen, who in turn supplied to Karatina for onward distribution to Nairobi or elsewhere.

33Consequently, horticultural farming has become very important in the economy of the area, absorbing some of shock of the coffee prices crush in the 1990s. This importance is highlighted by the emerging trend of food retailing through the accelerating ‘supermarket revolution’ (Neven et al. 2009). Some factors further favoured horticultural production around Karatina. One is the presence of the large retail vegetable market. The proximity of the market to the hinterland absorbs some of the costs of the products. The second factor is the reliable presence of a small-scale irrigation scheme along the Ragati River near Karatina. This river has been extensively used to diversify from coffee and tea. A look at the farms along the river reveals vibrant poly-agricultural exploitation. The produce includes tomatoes, cabbages and kales. Some farmers are experimenting with horticultural products like cucumber and lettuce or even passionfruits. Other farmers have rented land in the Mwea and Kibirigwi areas in the nearby Kirinyaga district, both of which have reliable small-scale irrigation schemes. Rapid urbanization has also contributed to this transformation.

34Other farmers have diversified into dairy farming. The impact of milk production is perhaps demonstrated by the price of tea in hotels in the town. At five shillings in 2013, the price of a cup of tea is comparatively low in the region. This is the same price one pays in eateries in the small villages. In the coffee economy, the dairy played a strong auxiliary economic role and naturally became one of the most important sources of income after the coffee economy. There are about 15 self-help milk groups around Karatina. Half of the milk is sold to established processors like Brokeside and Spin Knit dairies, while the other half is consumed locally, with most of it finding a ready market in Karatina.

35It is important to note that the coffee crisis may have rekindled trade through other old village markets in the region. This could be as a result of intense diversification into grain and cereal trade after the loss of income from coffee. There is evidence of a renewed and increasing wave of trading, tracing the old network of big village ndunyus (markets) in Nyeri, Kirinyaga, Muranga and Embu counties. These are Kiangwaci, Wanguha (Kutus), Mukarara and Kiru (Kiriaini). These are old markets dating back to colonial and pre-colonial times. There is increasing trade in foodstuffs, fruits and general merchandise (Wambugu 1995). It is significant to affirm that these markets have always been synchronized to Karatina, the mother market. Intense spatial-temporal flow of population, goods, and capital and the increasing interaction and interdependency encouraged by technological innovations ensure an efficient flow of goods among the numerous spot markets. Beyond are the Embu/Mbeere markets, like the Ishiara market, a key livestock and grain market place that acts as a food conduit to the arid area to the East of Mt Kenya. For decades, merchants from as far as Uganda, 400 km away, have traded in grain with these markets. These ‘Eastern markets’ are being rediscovered. This is related to a possible special reconfiguration, where Nyeri traders are looking more to the eastern side of Mt. Kenya to source commodities, as was the practice before independence, rather than from Laikipia in the west and north.

36In this social and economic transformation, the decline of the coffee economy has seen the reactivation of the dormant traditional markets like Gakindu, Kabuta and Muthinga. Other small ones have been enlarging, while others have been emerging, especially along newly constructed or improved roads. These are for example Wamagana and Giakanja in Tetu. The economic roles of these markets have been reconfigured to fit in the new logic of existence in Nyeri. This logic is based on horticulture and grain trade, a sector dominated by women.

Land mutation and politics in Karatina

37The profound land change around Karatina town is a microcosmic representation of the historical land mutation and social changes related to real property in central Kenya, since the onset of colonialism and the concomitant change in production and accumulation during the coffee economy.

38In pre-colonial times, the land where Karatina stands today belonged to the Agaciku and the Agathigia clans. As the area attracted more activities, there was pressure for more land from other clans. But the inhabitants have always resisted any attempt to acquire more land from them. During the construction of the railway line in the 1920s, the way-leave was simply confiscated from the clans without any compensation. As elsewhere in the country, the colonial and post-independent governments never bothered to address the land question around Karatina. To be sure, in the 1970s, the Kenyatta government ‘compensated’ the families. Each family was paid 1000 shillings for all land taken by the county council of Nyeri. Today the clans have been reasserting their demands. This was encouraged by the return by the government to the family of colonial chief Mathangani of some of the land taken by the colonial government to build a farmers’ training centre in Nyeri.

39In the golden years of agriculture in the 1970s, farmers used coffee and tea revenue to develop property in Karatina town. In addition, small-scale landholders used title deeds as collateral for bank loans and cooperative societies. Many used the money to buy even more property, strongly designing the town as a farming town. So phenomenal was the growth of the town that by 1980s, there was little county land left for development. To facilitate further expansion, the urban council of Karatina in the early 1980s applied for municipal status. This meant gazetting of more private land around town. This did prevent people buying land around the town and building residential houses to rent out to a ballooning population. The corollary though is that land around this town is the most expensive in Nyeri County. The town has an acute shortage of space to house its increasing habitants.

40In the 1960s and 70s, the government managed to annexe 407 acres of land when Karatina got town and later urban statuses. When in the 1980s the government, prompted by the prevailing politics of the day, allowed Karatina a municipal status, more land was required. However, fearing the introduction of land rates, this was stiffly resisted by the small landholders around the area, coming at a time when people viewed local authorities with great suspicion. Local authorities were largely regarded as corrupt, inept and extortionist. Karatina town remained squeezed in its original 407 acres. Until the enactment of the new constitution that reconfigured the statuses of towns and cities in Kenya, Karatina was one of the smallest municipal councils in Kenya, perhaps only second to Runyenjes municipal council in Eastern province. So sensitive is the subject of municipal land that politicians supporting an extension of the municipal boundary will be quickly voted out. This happened to Ngibuini Kuguru, an influential Nyeri politician in the 1970s. When he attempted to push for an extension, he was quickly voted out of parliament.

41This should be understood in the greater context of volatile regional politics, the epicentre of which is Karatina. Mathira division has always dominated the local politics. Most ‘big political operators’ have tended to be from around Karatina. Ngibuini Kuguru, whose word was law in the Nyeri county during Kenyatta’s and early Moi’s regime, Matu Wamai, a close confidant of Mwai Kibaki and Stanley Mathenge, a powerful administrator during Kenyatta’s regime are three examples. Chris Murungaru, a member of president Kibaki’s ‘Kitchen cabinet’ also comes from the area, as well as a slew of highly placed technocrats and businessmen.

42Karatina got its municipal status in the 1980s when it was politically correct for president Moi’s regime to create local havens of influence. Local demands for municipalities and districts saw many village towns and locations uplifted into districts and municipal councils for ethnic and political considerations to create centres of power and positions for well-connected politicians. This in turn created avenues for squeezing money out of the already empty pockets of coffee peasants to support the new structures. Mostly in the central Kenya region, these administrative structures were hotly contested. Ironically, when the Kibaki government used the same plank to buy political support in 2005 by creating new districts and elevating new villages into municipals, locals readily welcomed them, the only problem being now a contest over boundaries and the location of the headquarters. One group supported Karatina to be the headquarters of the new Nyeri North district, but the opposing side decided on a nondescript former railway closing point called Chaka Reri. Karatina supporters argued that Karatina already has the established structures into which it would be easy to fit in an enlarged provincial administration. Those for Chaka argued that Karatina was severely handicapped by land shortage for expansion, the residents around the town having refused to part with land two decades earlier. Chaka is along the Karatina-Nanyuki road. The land there is part of the former ‘white highlands, ’ subdivided after independence into settlement schemes and sold to the local Kikuyu people. Those opposed to the seating of the headquarters there further argued that a group of powerful people were behind the campaign against Karatina because they owned land at Chaka and were interested in land speculation pegged on the imminent rise in land value should the small market centre be selected as the district centre.

43However, there are deeper issues in this controversy. The exclusivist and dominating character of Karatina politics has made the area and Karatina in particular, to be isolated by other areas in the district. Exclusivist because it was generally held that operating a business for outsiders in Karatina is made very difficult by an informal group of local business people, who generally were hostile to investors from outside Karatina.

  • 2 This is a fund set aside for development with a county.

44Generally, Karatina is a controversial space, signifying the intense conflict revolving around land, economy and politics. Almost everything is contested: the space, physical and social liaisons. The town’s population is contested. Does the town have a population of 40,000 people or 10,000? As prosaic as this question may seem, it caused a substantial controversy in 2000 when the government was to allocate the town the Local Authority Transfer Fund (LATF)2. Apparently, during the 1999 population census, the counting of residents at Karatina was done during the day, and was estimated to be about 30,000. But only a third of these are resident in the town, the other being commuter traders. LATF is calculated according to the actual number of residents.

Varied commercial activities at Karatina market

45The municipal council of Karatina collects Ksh 36,000,000 annually within the municipality. The notable thing is that out of this income, Ksh 20,000,000 are from gate and stall collections at its vet market. Although the economy of Karatina largely relies on the market place, this space remains a ‘clearing and forwarding’ point. It is rather like a large grocery cash market. From the farms, most middlemen sell the products to more middlemen who distribute it to bigger and smaller towns. Consequently, over a long time, the Karatina spot market has established a sourcing, supply and consumer network spanning the whole of East Africa and Ethiopia. The following is a list of common goods sold at the market place, their sources and market. The volume of these goods and the prices depend on the season and can vary from 20 % to 500 % increase depending on availability, which further depends on weather conditions. The main commodity (in volume) is maize, followed by beans. In terms of rapidity of exchange, onions and tomatoes are most traded on goods followed by fruits. These two are regular allseason (volume subject to weather) supplies. The following (table 32) is a loose breakdown of farm commodities that pass through the market.

Table 32. Commercial activities in Karatina

Table 32. Commercial activities in Karatina

46From the field study, it emerged that the most profitable produce to sell at Karatina are onions and tomatoes, followed by maize and beans. The profitability of the first two could indicate the changing economy in the area after the decline of the coffee industry. Maize and beans are actually “transit goods”: they are not sold locally but into food deficit areas of Mbeere and Kamba. Tomatoes and onions are consumed locally in large quantities.


47As a Small and Medium Urban Centre (SMUC), Karatina town provides an essential mirror of the continuously mutating relationship between rural and urban space. This town provides ready opportunities for small-scale farmers to spread the risks by diversifying into nontraditional cash crops. A deeper knowledge of this urban centre can be an essential indicator of the existing trend into which social and economic innovation and agricultural diversification are in the process of unfolding in the wake of the decline of the coffee sector.

48Through this town, one perceives the signs of an emerging economy, mainly based on food produce. This trade is dominated by women and has had an important impact at the family level as women take over roles traditionally assigned to men, further creating family conflicts over family income.

49The town remains a rural agricultural town, continuously responding to the perennially mutating economic needs of its immediate and interlinked environments. Its economic and spatial identity mutates in response to these needs, themselves modulating the rural-urban interaction.



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1 Cf figure 3. Mount Kenya at the beginning of the book.

2 This is a fund set aside for development with a county.

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 32. Commercial activities in Karatina
Fichier image/jpeg, 40k


Dr. and Lecturer, Departement of public Policy and administration, Kenyatta University, Nairobi (Kenya),
Dr. Mbataru is currently working on economic policies in Africa, the changing global ‘geo-economics’, and the middle classes in Africa. He is also a newspaper columnist writing on diverse social economic issues.

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