The death of Kenneth Matiba has robbed Kenya – not only a politician but also a man who dedicated his life to farming.
Actually, before he joined politics, Mr Matiba had cut his teeth into farming.
In 1962, with his wife Edith, the two had started to look for a farm in the outskirts of Nairobi, where they could settle. The purchase of this farm is also another story.
It was immediately after independence and most of the settlers were selling their land. On that day, Mr Matiba and the late John Michuki had spent the whole day looking for properties in Gigiri, Karen and Ridgeways.
Matiba decided to purchase a farm owned by former Embu District Commissioner Ivor Gillespie. Mr Matiba could have bought the farm for less but him and Mr Michuki were bidding against themselves unknowingly.
What happened was that when word went round that Mr Gillespie was selling the land, Matiba went with his wife to see it and they offered Sh65,000. Michuki also heard about the sale and offered Sh70,000 without knowing Matiba had offered. By the time they met and talked about a new property each was buying, they realized they were talking of the same property when they went to see it. Mr Michuki allowed Matiba to buy it.
The property had a three-bedroomed house built in 1952 and since Matiba had taken a loan to buy it, it had to be productive. He thought that tea would take five years to mature and he dismissed it as not practiocal. As the land was being cleared of the big wattle trees he decided to planr potatoes.
“We thought we could produce seed potatoes and sell them at a good price,” said Matiba. But all these were hit by wilt. He tried irrigation but it failed and had to pay the loan and workers from his salary.
“The farming I undertook at Limuru was something like a hobby,” he says in his book, Aiming High.
Matiba then tried a pig project and was at one time one of the largest African pig producers in the country. He was specializing in the production of porkers. The pig project collapsed after one of his workers named Nahashon started overfeeding the animals and they all became too fat and they could not fetch good prices.
“In the end, the pig project had to close down. By then I was losing money. Luckily, it was not too difficult to sell the pigs…at give-away prices. I discovered that many entrepreneurs felt embarrassed and uneasy about a failing business.” Matiba would later say.
From Pigs to vegetables, Matiba moved to vegetables. In his Limuru farm, Matiba’s wife, Edith, had been experimenting with capsicums and courgettes. It was this business that led them to the export business. The Matibas then learnt there was market for French beans and he investigated how the fruit, vegetable and flower business worked. He visited the world’s largest flower market in Holland and flower and vegetable dealers in London in 1967. He became a direct exporter and at one point he was the largest producer of beans.
His only disappointment then was with the East African Airways which was going through serious problems and at times his cargo would be left behind. This forced him to rethink the vegetable business which was not making money.
The cargo problems persisted to an extent that Matiba decided to start a air freight airline. He even registered a company known as African International Airways and he invited John Michuki and Charles Njonjo into the venture. It was during the days of East African Community and all the three countries operated a single airline. Matiba and his group managed to get an aircraft, a Britannia, and it was flown to Nairobi for inspection. It was to cost them 65,000 pounds. But the matter was leaked to a Tanzanian paper which claimed that the Kenya government had overthrown East African Airways and wanted to register a new airline. The group decided not to go ahead with the project because it was complicating relations within the East African Community.
Matiba was encouraged to go into flower farming by his two friends across the valley in Limuru who were exporting them to Europe. He had to convince the Agriculture Finance Corporation to give him loan to start the project. The flower production was a big success and his only problem was freight space. He invested a lot of money in irrigation systems. His only problem was rats in the flower beds and snails. In 1975, Kenya Breweries, where Matiba was chairman, decided to send a sample consignment to Britain but it was delayed. So, Matiba decided to give it away to friends. One of them would later thank him by telling him how he used the beer, because he couldn’t drink, to catch snails – especially Guinness. From then on, Matiba got an idea on how to catch the snails.
It was this business that thrived and Matiba became one of the main flower farmer in Kenya.
Matiba also took the lead in 1970s when he helped form Wangu Investments Company Limited.
The initial aim was to buy shares in various public companies which they could then sell and buy land. It was in 1977 that Matiba learnt that a Timau farmer Robert Wilson was selling his 12,350 acre piece of land. But because many cooperative groups bought land and ran it down, Wilson was not willing to sell to a group. The farm was good. It had 22,600 head of sheep, 2500 beef animals, 700 pigs. The selling price was a staggering Sh34.4 million. When Matiba said he did not have that kind of money, Wilson told him that he hoped that he would not organize a cooperative to buy it and where shareholders subdivided the land among themselves. Matiba assured Wilson that it would be a public company and that the farm would be run as it was.
Wangu is still surviving to date and still thrives and it Matiba will be remembered for it.