“The farming I undertook at Limuru was something like a hobby,” says Kenneth Matiba, one of Kenya’s father of multi-party politics.
It is a side of Mr Matiba that people do not know and which is easily forgotten when weighed with the role he played during the clamour for multi-party politics.
Initially, Matiba had tried a pig project in Limuru and was at one time one of the largest African pig producers in the country. Matiba was specializing in the production of porkers. But this 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.
After the failure of the pigs project, Matiba turned to a project that was being done by his wife, Edith. At that time, 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. There were few Africans into this business and soon Matiba became a direct exporter and at one point he was the largest producer of beans.
I discovered that many entrepreneurs felt embarrassed and uneasy about a failing business.” Matiba would later say.
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’s was encouraged to enter into flower farming by his two friends across the valley in Limuru who were exporting them to Europe.
With no money, and as a newcomer to flower farming, 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 too. His only problem was the rats in the flower beds and snails. In 1975, Kenya Breweries, where Matiba was chairman, decided to send a sample consignment of their products 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. The flower business thrived and Matiba became a pioneer African farmer.