“In 50 years not more than 3,000 people have been baptized in Kikuyu. Though adjoining the Kikuyu reserve, its influence was nil. Among a people whose daily cry is for more land, the biggest hindrance to the spread of the Gospel was that we were coffee-growers.”  -Father Peadar Kelly, writing about St. Austin’s mission church in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1953.

The border city of Moyale, split between Ethiopia and Kenya, is 500 miles from Nairobi and yet, coffee seeds had to travel four times that distance to arrive in Kenya from Reunion Island for commercial planting. By the time coffee was successfully cultivated in Kenya, it had been used as a crop in neighboring Ethiopia for more than 1,000 years. From Ethiopia, coffee had spread over the globe for hundreds of years, carried by people, pack animals, wagons, and ships. But when coffee that would flourish arrived in Kenya, just 500 miles south of the birthplace of coffee, it arrived on the most modern of transportation, a train.

Train leaving the Nairobi Station 1900 | Nigel Pavitt

It seems likely that coffee grew wild within the region that would become Kenya, buried deep inside impenetrable forests, or perhaps hiding in plain site; but it wasn’t until 1895 that missionaries both protestant and catholic attempted to grow coffee for commercial purposes, with seeds from other places and with limited success. The 100 seeds from Reunion Island that would serve as progenitors to the Kenyan coffee industry arrived on a train,  carried by priests belonging to an order known as “Holy Ghost Fathers.” On August 12th, 1899, they arrived at the spot that would quickly become the country’s capital city. They arrived at 6:30 pm, to be exact.

When the first passenger locomotive of Uganda Railway, which would soon stretch from the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria, arrived just three months before the priests, it didn’t arrive at Nairobi, it simply arrived at “Mile 325,” where the British had built a railway supply camp in 1896 and then a depot, not far from a river named Nairobi.

When The Holy Ghost Fathers arrived with a French Bishop on August 12th, the only thing waiting for them was a place to set up their tents. The next day was a Sunday and mass was held inside the train depot, as it would be many times. Four days after arriving, the priests had purchased a small plot of land and Brother Blanchard Dillenseger had planted the 100 coffee seeds. On August 19th, one of the priests reported in his diary that the seeds had begun to germinate. By November 1900, the plants were said to be thriving and 300 new seeds arrived on the train, then 5,000 in 1904.

The tent city that greeted the Holy Ghost Fathers in 1899 would become Nairobi | Nigel Pavitt

After arriving in 1899, the Bishop had his heart set on establishing a mission among the Kikuyu people. He set about obtaining support from the railroad to build a house, for starters. Lumber was donated to the effort by an engineer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Patterson, legendary killer the previous year of the man-eating lions of Tsavo, who surely had empathy for an attempt to build anything on the site and wrote about the immense amount of work required in building a railway center at Nairobi “three hundred and twenty seven miles from the nearest place where a nail could be purchased.”

The church itself was eventually finished in 1913 and by the time it was completed it was surrounded by coffee trees. This is the church Karen Blixen describes in her book Out of Africa:

“The Fathers had planned and built their Church themselves with the assistance of their African congregation, and they were with reason very proud of it. There was here a fine grey Church with a bell-tower on it; it was laid out on a broad courtyard, above terraces and stairs, in the midst of their coffee-plantation, which was the oldest in the Colony and very skillfully run.”

The mission, named St. Austin, and the Holy Ghost Father’s, had become successful coffee planters. As early as 1906 they were not only growing, harvesting, and milling coffee, but roasting, grinding, and packaging coffee too. They sold their roasted coffee in tins under the brand, “French Mission Coffee,” and eventually their coffee was sold in France. Such was their reputation that former president, Theodore Roosevelt, interrupted a year-long hunting expedition to observe coffee production at St. Austin’s in 1909.

The same year the church was finished, a new coffee mill for the church’s coffee plantation was built and contained the most modern “water driven mechanical systems.” In 1915, a new nursery was constructed. In 1917, the Holy Ghost Fathers planted 10,000 coffee trees. The fathers of St. Austin’s had become so successful as coffee farmers, the protestant British colonists around Nairobi, struggling to establish their own coffee plantations, sometimes referred to them as “settlers in disguise.”  When it came to the acquisition of land for coffee growing, the local Kikuyu people had their own saying:  “Gutiri muthungu na mubia,” meaning, “Planter and priest are the same.”

The Uganda Railway had been very expensive to build and was not turning a profit on operating costs, let alone chipping away at massive debt (In 2017 dollars, it cost 1.3 million to build one mile of rail and the railway was 660 miles long). The British government decided the best way for the railway to make a profit would be to transport more crops, so they made it as easy as possible for colonists to start farming. But the primary challenge for British settlers trying to establish coffee plantations was labor. In 1907, officials declared that people native to the region, Kenyans, could not be compelled to pick coffee or any crop. This made the settlers very unhappy, so the government increased taxes on Kenyans while providing a variety of subsidies for Europeans growers. Local people went to work on plantations to earn money to pay taxes, because they were restricted from growing cash crops.

Pre-shipment coffee grading and sorting at port in Mombasa circa 1920 | Nigel Pavitt

 “It stands to reason that the more prosperous and contented is the population of a reserve, the less the need or inclination of the young men of the tribe to go out into the field. From the European farmers’ point of view, the ideal reserve is a recruiting-ground for labor, a place from which the able bodied go out to work, returning occasionally to rest and beget the next generation of laborer’s.”.  M. Aline Buxton, British Settler in Kenya, 1927

Despite the inhuman last sentence above, the injustice was plain to everyone who was not a European farmer (and even some who were … Mrs. Buxton’s husband, Clarence Buxton, would go on to help lead the effort to allow Kenyans to plant coffee). The British business community saw value in expanding the volume of crops by allowing Kenyans to not only farm more cash crops, but receive government assistance.

“There seems little doubt that the Department of Agriculture has in past devoted most of its attention to the improved cultivation in European areas, and that until the last three years, very little indeed was done to encourage native production. There is a feeling among the natives that the resources of the country, which are supported out of the general taxation to which the natives contribute so largely, have been used too exclusively for the development of European areas. Stimulated by the growing wealth of the natives in the adjacent territory of Uganda, the natives have been loud in their demands for services in return for the taxes which they pay. They are backed in some of their demands by the Convention of Associations, the local administrative officers, missionaries, and, to a large extent, the commercial community.” -HMG Report of the East Africa Commission, London 1925

In 1933 the British government began to experiment with allowing Kenyans to farm coffee and organize cooperatives.  It took some time for Kenyans to take advantage of the opportunity because they believed if they started a successful cash crop farm, Europeans would simply take it away. In 1943, the Kisii Coffee Growers Co-operative Society was established in southwestern Kenya, a region designated for Kenyan coffee farming. That organization was a forerunner to The Gusii Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, which is still in operation today with 75,000 farmers. In 1949, all restrictions on coffee farming by Kenyans were removed.

In 1953, as quoted in the beginning of this article, Father Peadar Kelly lamented the small number of conversions to Christianity among the Kikuyu people around Nairobi and echoed the Kikuyu proverb, “Planter and priest are the same.” And no doubt, there was truth in the observation in 1953 and 1913 when the church of St. Austin was completed in the middle of a coffee plantation.