Mwea: Tale of the country’s independence and birth of nation’s staple

Wednesday, October 20th, 2021 00:00 |
A man tends to her rice crop. Photo/PD/LEWIS NJOKA

Before maize became the most favourite food on many African dinner tables, rice was grown in abundance in many parts of the continent.

Rice is indigenous to Africa and Asia even though it has maintained its place as  the number one staple food in the Asian world unlike on the African continent.

In Kenya, the history of rice cultivation in the pre-colonial era is not well documented but the cereal crop is an important part of the Kenyan diet. 

Close to 70 per cent of the rice produced in Kenya comes from the Mwea Irrigation Scheme which holds the record of being Kenya’s most successful irrigation project.

Many Kenyans are familiar with the popular aromatic Mwea Pishori but few are familiar with the history behind the country’s booming irrigation project. 

Except for mentions in school classrooms, majority of the younger generation of Kenyans do not know that the Mwea Tebere Irrigation Scheme, as it was originally known, was established using the labor of the men who fought for the country’s freedom from colonial rule. 

The hosting of this year’s Mashujaa Day celebration at Wang’uru Stadium which is right in the middle in the middle of the Mwea rice fields brings into focus the connection between the origins of the scheme and Kenya’s independence struggle. 

In the 1940s and 1950s, when many Kenyans took up arms to fight against the British colonial rule, those who were unfortunate to be captured were sent to detention camps where they were tortured and forced to work. 

In Mwea area, there were six detention camps holding thousands of Mau Mau fighters.

The detainees were forced to level land in Tebere, the original section of the Mwea Irrigation Scheme. 

They were forced to dig canals to divert water from the River Nyamindi and River Thiba to irrigate the rice fields. 

The work on the first pilot project of the scheme was started in 1947. Work on the project continued into the early 1950s when many Kenyans joined the independence struggle.

To suppress the increasing demand for independence, the British launched operations to kill or capture those who opposed their power in Kenya. 

Those who were captured alive were sent to the detention centres and many of them ended up in Mwea. 

In 1963, Mwea Irrigation Scheme was taken over by the Government of Kenya and it has been treated as a flagship project by each successive Administration.

The National Irrigation Authority, previously called the National Irrigation Board, wholly managed the scheme until the 1990s when it handed some roles to the farmers.

During the colonial period there was no rice mill and the harvests were processed manually.

In 1973, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta opened a rice mill to enhance efficiency and production. He also oversaw the construction of the Mwea Irrigation Road to improve accessibility and movement within the project. The scheme continued to thrive and the acreage under rice cultivation expanded and by the time President Daniel arap Moi took over office in 1978, the scheme’s water supply was overstretched.

President Moi oversaw the overhaul of the water system infrastructure including the construction of new waterworks and canals.

He also initiated the plan to construct a dam on Thiba Dam but the project could not be implemented following disputes between the rice farmers and the government. President Moi’s Administration also overhauled the rice mill.

Under the Administration of President Uhuru Kenyatta, Mwea Irrigation Scheme has been at the forefront of the Government’s food security agenda. In 2014, the rice mill that was installed in 1996 was replaced with a modern and efficient model.

The construction of Thiba Dam which will be completed by the end of the year is expected to transform scheme. - Story by the Presidential Library and Museum-Kenya)

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