Observations on a successive history of Marakwet plant foods

Martin Jones 

Re-posted from http://www.farminginafrica.wordpress.com

In December 2013 I was fortunate to be able to make some preliminary observations on the range of plant foods used in the Tot region of Marakwet, Kenya. I was guided in my observations by Ms Helena Chepto from the Marakwet research station.

A wide range of plant foods is on sale at Koloa market. Sacks of maize and Phaseolus beans  have been bought wholesale to resell, the beans sometimes as a five variety mixture.  There are a number of varieties of potatoes, sweet potatoes, chives, two types of onion, bananas and sugar cane.  One thing these listed crops have in common is that none traces its origin to the African continent.  The chives and onions were domesticated in Europe or Asia, bananas and sugar-cane in south east Asia, and the remainder (the majority) are New World domesticates.  A number of African domesticates can be found, but it takes a bit of asking around.  Koloa market captures a history of successive displacement of prior agricultural practices, and incorporation of non-African elements.  Many of those using the market remember several decades of that transformation, and retain a very detailed account of their grandparents’ time.  The following account draws on a variety of conversations, both at the Koloa market and elsewhere, always involving Helena and myself, and often a number of others from the fieldtrip group. In our various brief and often impromptu interviews, we quickly became aware of the greater depth of subsistence agricultural knowledge arising from conversations with women.  A link between cash crops and men as posited by recent writers such as Caretta and  Börjeson (2014) was not as immediately evident, as the market and other places contained many entrepreneurial women.


Caretta and  Börjeson detail a series of crop varietal names which overlap with, but do not entirely match the longer list compiled by Helena.  This is unsurprising as all parties are recalling varietal names, sometimes from their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.  Further enquiries would clarify these, and indeed some terms may have multiple usages. Ongoing work by the Marakwet research team will clarify this situation and the partial history outlined below.


Recent and distant memories – my personal collated notes from the field trip

Post-conflict initiatives 2001-present

The most recent phases of agricultural development in Marakwet illustrated a prominent contemporary approach to addressing food security. In this approach, a cross-national group of planners initiate an essentially ahistorical practice aimed at optimising classical economic productivity.  For example, the Red Cross-sponsored Tot-Kolowa irrigation project, aims to benefit 150,000 plus people in Pokot and Marakwet, and illustrates a prominent contemporary approach to addressing food security. The Tot-Kolowa irrigation project proposes the following  rotation:

  1. Maize (compulsory)
  2. Cash crop (beans/ tomato/ watermelon/ cowpea)
  3. by agreement

Other crops in use include potatoes, sunflower, carrots, mangoes, oranges.  Of these crops, watermelon and cowpea are African domesticates, but from other regions of Africa. New maize varieties, eg. DH04, S13 are developed by the Kenya Seed Company.  Pesticides, fertilisers and tools were supplied, together with three years’ training from the Red Cross.


Independence and the Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA). C. 1964 to 2000

Independence and the demise of British influence were followed by the Green Revolution and the emergence of the World Bank as a significant force in its implementation (cf President McNamara’s call for support for the smallholder, Nairobi 1973).  Marakwet informants remember the Kenyan government parastatal the Kerio Valley Development Agency (KVDA) as prominenet during this period. The prescriptive strategies of the local officer attached to the KDVA seem in some but not all ways to have mirrored the earlier British Colonial strategy.

In our conversations people recount that the officer advocated dividing fields into three plots – for groundnuts, cassava, and sweet potato, growing pigeonpeas along the edge of each field.  This description resonates with an earlier British prescription from 1914 (see below)

An interesting aspect of the period of the KVDA (created 1979), not figuring in the preceding Colonial period was the introduction of a range of new, fast maturing varieties of the indigenous East African cereal, finger millet.  A range of such varieties cut the original 5-6 month growth cycle by a half.  It would be interesting to know more about this period of crop-breeding interest in this local resource.  While it provides the likely context, the KVDA only got its license to produce seed in 2013.  Katumani, which is remembered as a key short season millet from this period, was developed at the Katumani research station of KARI (Kenya Agricultural Research Institute) established in 1979. Another short season millet named America was introduced in the 1980s.  The contribution to crop development of a priest, who arrived from Zwaziland shortly before the KVDA and stayed 30 years, would be useful to establish.  Crop improvement was among this Father Benedict’s diverse interests.

Katumani is currently produced by the Kenya Seed Company (established 1956). Up until diversification in the late 70’s, this company focused on the non-African crops sunflower, maize, and wheat. It now offers a range of indigenous African crops: finger millet, sorghum, cowpeas, and a number of indigenous vegetables.  This reflects a trend through Africa, of movement from the Colonial strategy of replacing ‘inefficient’ indigenous agriculture with ‘efficient’ exogenous systems, to a gradual interest, both in diversity, and indigenous resources, at a time when those resources have become much depleted.

The British Colonial Period

Joseph Thompson’s 1883 expedition through Kenya marks the start of a sustained European fascination in the region’s indigenous fauna and flora.  However, it is difficult to find evidence of that fascination extending to the species that comprised indigenous agriculture.  The East African Herbarium (now part of the Museum Service) was established in Nairobi in 1902.  Although it now has an ‘Indigenous Food Plants Programme’, its accessions include only one specimen of finger millet, and that is an Indian variety. The year before the Herbarium opened, the East African Railway route to Kampala (passing not far from the Kerio Valley) opened, forming the axis of a quite different agricultural sector, aiming to raise exogenous commodity crops for international markets.  This progress intensified after the Protectorate in 1920 became a British Colony. In many commentaries, ‘traditional agricultural methods’ are acknowledged, but clearly regarded as part of the problem rather than part of the solution (Pereira 1997; Silk 1985).

The British instead adopted a kind of latitudinal strategy across the empire.  They drew on their own knowledge of what had worked well (in extractive terms) in India or the West Indies, and tried it out in the central latitudes of Africa.  In 1914, a law was brought to the Kerio Valley to establish terrace agriculture (kirakaena). A wide range of crops was introduced: Peas, cassava, sweet potato, groundnut; pawpaw.  Subsequently cowpeas and bananas. At some stage, onions and mangoes. Highland and lowland maizes were introduced (Chebalos and Kisim respectively).  In the 1940s/1950s, a certain Mr Spencer introduced new varieties of crop to the region.

‘Grandfather’s time’

Some informants spoke in general terms about ‘before the British’.  Kiplasoi (age 90) spoke about ‘the time of his grandfather’, which presumable alludes to the later 19th century.  Another informant of similar age to Kiplasoi was adamant that the British didn’t teach them how to farm – they already knew!

A three part cycle of sorghum-millet-long fallow is often mentioned.  Stems were cut, but roots left in place, both in the case of cereals and the interspersed Acacia trees.  The latter rootstocks, and more particularly their rhizobial populations, may have been critical to maintaining soil nitrogen, as the only other nitrogen enrichment alluded to was the folding of animals in the fallow period.

At least some of the millets of this time are referred to as ‘wild millets’.  However ‘wild’ they actually were, they did have the ability to arise spontaneously and grow without much assistance, and apparently can be seen growing as ruderals today in particularly moist spots.  It didn’t require irrigation if situated in the appropriate rain catchment (eg foothill edge). They don’t need much cultivation, and their ground can be cultivated with a digging stick. They had a long growing season, sown in March and harvested August/ September and merge into the following named varieties: Montrich; witwit; chuko; chepkorit; kiptukeris; kimino; kitau; kipkorombu; kimokono.  The sorghum variety we believe was Kipkanin.

In addition to these crops, a number of famine foods are utilised, including

Hills and valley: makany; tilam; orool

Hills: tingas; muchuk; ilil

Loom; kujat; kon; tuijun;

Before record or testimony

There is no reason to suppose that agrarian practice was any more static prior to historic record than it has been since.  I would avoid projections of a timeless agrarian mode into this evidence void. Indeed, Initial observations by Charly French from the field trip (see his earlier post) would suggest some fluctuation in environmental engagement over the Holocene, with at last four contrasting episodes of engagement with the soil.  Some observations can be made about the deeper history of the crops (and livestock) themselves.

Finger millet is the quintessential East African cereal crop.  Archaeobotany has not been widely practiced but records back to the 1st half of the 1st millennium AD range from Ona Nagast (Ethiopia); in the north to Kibuye (Rwanda) in the south (Giblin and Fuller 2011).  Its origin and spread are poorly understood, and would lend themselves well to an archaeogenetic study.  Sorghum is better understood, with growing evidence of origins in Sahelian East Africa.  The best African evidence is currently from Sudan.  Both these Eastern crops are recorded in India from the 1st millennium BC, indicating at least as early an origin and spread somewhere in East Africa. There is currently much archaeological evidence of African crops in prehistoric India, less research to cover those same crops in prehistoric Africa, and that would certainly clarify the picture.

We can only conjecture the extent to which ocean exchange affected agrarian resources in the region.  By the 1st millennium AD deep ocean exchange was putting South East Asian, South Asia and East Africa in contact, with considerable associated evidence of crop movement.  Shallow ocean coast-hugging has a much greater history (Boivin et al. 2013).

Even though the evidence is slim, one thing that can be observed about the earliest crop and livestock resources we know about in the region, they resonate with connections across the Indian Ocean/ Red Sea.  What we do not see at this stage, is evidence of an ancient contribution from West Africa.  A number of grains and legumes originated in West Africa, including such major crops as pearl millet and cowpeas, but their appearance in the region seems quite recent.  This absence of a West African element is of interest in the context of narratives about Bantu migration.

Further work

Flotation and archaeobotany will form the backbone of a more comprehensive understanding of agrarian history in the region, ideally contextualised within the kind of geo-archaeological sequence that Charly French is envisaging.

Alongside that activity, I am conscious of the considerable potential for archaeogenetic study of selected crops, particularly sorghum and finger millet.  The components of this are: genetic studies of extant ‘land-races’, and targeted, selective genetic study of historic and archaeological specimens.  This requires major grant funding, but the material lends itself to a very competitive application.  However, the key groundwork is the collection of the land-races themselves.

The distinction between ‘cultivars’ and ‘land-races’ can be simply expressed thus; cultivar seedcorn is acquired at the market, land-race seedcorn is acquired either from the family, or from local community groupingsIt is a pragmatic distinction, with fuzzy boundaries, the key utility being land-races often preserve a remarkable amount of historical and geographical information in their genetic makeup (which in cultivars is blurred by extensive market exchange).  There are several gene banks around the world archiving land-races as a breeding and food security resource.  Sorghum is a major world crop, and land-races collection is well developed.  As with many ‘minor crops’ land races of finger millet are poorly collected and archived, a reflection of the historic emphasis on global cash crops.  As outlined above, that emphasis has progressively shifting, and is shifting, towards a greater value being attached to the historic diversity of human food resources.  For example, the millets are typically lower yielding than the large-grained cereals, but also typically have significant ecological and grain quality advantages over those crops.  The potential to build genetic information from poorly studied crops is also rapidly increasing.

In this changing context, finger millet is likely at some stage to receive genetic attention, and it is useful to bear two things in mind: commercial investors will understandably aim to maximise and protect their intellectual property (IP) arising from research; extant landrace diversity in indigenous crops is a resource of significant value, both in relation to food futures, and understanding food histories.

For this reason, I think it would be timely, especially when the folk/ family memories of crop varieties are still reasonably fresh, to record and sample land-races (particularly of finger millet, but also sorghum and other crops), to arrange for their archiving, and to give some attention to IP, such that discussions/ negotiations with potential research funders is on an even footing.  When funding is underway, it is likely that foundations, state research bodies and the private sector would all be involved, and research into food futures and food histories intimately intertwined.  The agricultural heritage of crops such as finger millet has an important contribution to play in that.


Boivin, N.,  A.Crowther,  R.Helm,  D.Q. Fuller (2013) East Africa and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean world. Journal of World Prehistory DOI 10.1007/s10963-013-9067-4

Caretta and Börjeson (2014) Local gender contract and adaptive capacity in smallholder irrigation farming: a case study from the Kenyan drylands. Gender, Place & Culture DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2014.885888

Giblin J.D. and D.Q.Fuller (2011) First and second millennium A.D. agriculture in Rwanda:

archaeobotanical finds and radiocarbon dates from seven sites. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20:253–265

Hanotte O, Bradley DG, Ochieng JW, Verjee Y, Hill EW, Rege JE. (2002) African pastoralism: genetic imprints of origins and migrations. Science. 2002  296(5566):336-9.

Moore, Henrietta L. 1995. Space, Text, and Gender: An Anthropological Study of the Marakwet of Kenya. New York: Guilford Press.

Pereira H.C. (1997) The role of agricultural research in the development of Kenya before independence. Centre For Arid Zone Studies, University College of North Wales

Silk B. 1985. Post War Food and Cash Crop Production in Former Colonial Territories. Oxford Development Records Project, Report No. 8. Oxford: Rhodes House Library. (University of Bath, Catalogue Unit for Archives of Contemporary Scientists).


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