In 1971 one of us observed soybean plants growing along the hedges in the rice paddies of the Mwea Irrigation Scheme in Kirinyaga District of Kenya. Again, in 1984 we observed soybeans in a farm close to the irrigation scheme but not in the scheme itself. Soybeans are not very popular among the Kikuyu and so, we sought to explain the presence of this nutritious but neglected crop.
The Mwea Irrigation Scheme, where we sighted soybeans first, was created by the British colonial government in 1954 in order to partly solve the land scarcity problem which had caused the disgruntled Kikuyu to rise in revolt in the war for land and freedom, of 1952-1960.
The British government, under the Swynnerton plan wanted to create a rural bourgeoisie among the Kikuyu by allowing a selected few, who were loyal to the colonial government and who were used to crush the revolt, to grow cash crops-tea and coffee.
In colonial Kenya Africans were not allowed to grow cash crops. These were the exclusive reserve of the European settler farmers. Soybeans had been experimentally tried as a cash crop by Europeans but were abandoned because they did not have the high commercial value that coffee, tea, wheat and even maize, could fetch. And since the colonial government in Kenya gave priority to European interests versus African interests, soybeans did not generate interest, even among Africans. Kikuyu nascent bourgeoisie wanted to grow those crops that Europeans grew. In Uganda, on the other hand, soybeans could be promoted as a food crop among Africans because there were no Europeans whose interests could compete with those of the Africans. Uganda Africans were even encouraged to grow cotton and coffee as cash crops.
When Kenya became independent, the African bourgeoisie who wielded power pursued the same agricultural development policies, favouring cash crops and neglecting food crops. In Kirinyaga District whose northern part has better rains because of proximity to Mt. Kenya, everbody went for the lucrative cash crops, coffee and tea. There was little interest in food crops. In the drier south, where Mwea is located those people outside the cash crop rice area took up soybeans more readily, because they were not as strictly controlled as the rice growers, and they could try new crops that were nutritionally beneficial to them because their lives and land was not dominated by cash crops.