For most travellers, Limuru, located in Kiambu County, about 48 KM North-West of Nairobi, is synonymous with large tea plantations producing some of the finest tea in the world. This relationship may soon change as land under this green gold shifts to luxury real estate.
This endangered heritage in Limuru is over a century old. It was first introduced here by GWL Caine in 1903 when the earliest seedlings from India were planted for ornamental purposes. Caine had not seen the commercial potential of tea! Limuru then was a favourite of the British because of its proximity to Nairobi, its ‘amazing’ climate and the railway line.
The town became known as the ‘White Highlands’ where the British owned large plantations of coffee and tea as well as cereal farms and ranches.
Most of the tea produced in Kenya is black but there are other varieties such as green, yellow, and white tea that are produced on order by major producers. It would actually be 17 years later since the Caine brothers brought the first seedlings from India that tea began to be produced commercially in the 1920s.
In Limuru, two brothers from the Turnstall family of the UK planted the first tea between 1925 and 1930 in what is now known as the Karirana Estates. The estates were originally used for rearing cattle or growing wattle and geraniums. Large-scale tea growing at Karirana did not actually take off until the mid-1950s and the late 1960s.
Before 1986 Karirana was owned by Mackenzie Dalgelty who appointed George Williamson as the managing agent. After 1986, ownership of the estates was transferred to First Chartered Securities Limited, a Kenyan investment holding company which acquired Mackenzie Kenya Ltd.
Meanwhile, in Kiambethu, which means traditional dancing grounds in Kikuyu, a different tea-growing culture was developing as early as 1910 courtesy of the McDonnells. They were combining tea growing with traditional dancing on the farm. This quickly grew to be a major tourist attraction.
This concept is still alive in Kiambethu even today. At Kiambethu, you not only get to see the tea-growing heritage of early settlers in Kenya, but you also get a taste of what it felt like living in Kenya as a settler family.
It would be decades later when Arnold Butler McDonell, popularly known as AB McDonnell, came to Limuru, that the crop would begin to be produced commercially in 1918 with the first harvest sold in 1926. Because of this, AB McDonnell entered the books of history as the first commercial tea producer in Africa.
As I left the well-manicured tea canopies of Limuru, I could not help but marvel at the rich history of this old heritage that was now on the brink of extinction as land owners continually find alternative uses for their land – one of them being the burgeoning real estate market.
It seems Limuru has not survived the gated community craze that has gripped most of Kenya. As I drove through Tigoni, Riara Ridge and Rironi, I caught glimpses of decaying tea trees uprooted to pave way for new upmarket residences.
I remember getting this eerie feeling that the photo I took may be the last evidence of a once vibrant tradition in this area. It was a deeply sad moment.