Cultivating Their Own in Kenya: A Social History of Maragoli Farmers and Development, 1955-1978

Date of Award

Winter 12-15-2014

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This dissertation demonstrates the different ways in which practitioners, policy-makers, and locals, especially peasant farmers from the Maragoli region, interpreted and complicated "development" in late-colonial and early-independent Kenya. This social historical "bottom-up" analysis stands in contrast to recent development literature that prioritizes the histories of donor institutions and problematizes current debates amongst social scientists and practitioners about the utility of development and aid in the global South. In 1955, the British late-colonial regime implemented the Swynnerton Plan to kick-start an agrarian revolution in Kenya. Seeking to create as well as raise the social-economic standing of rural "progressive" African farmers, this plan encouraged select Kenyan cultivators to practice small-scale commercial agriculture on privately owned consolidated and planned farming units. An ambitious state-sponsored initiative, the Swynnerton Plan was a dramatic break from earlier colonial policies that treated all African land as the collective property of the "tribe" and that limited cash crop cultivation to European settlers and a few rich local farmers. Continued after colonial independence in 1963, the plan's objective was to grow Kenya's agricultural-based economy while addressing rural Kenyans' grievances over the lack of land and employment opportunities. However, by 1978, the planners of the agrarian revolution largely considered it to be a "failure."

Many scholars and practitioners of African development generally consider the ineffectiveness of agricultural development to be the product of shortsighted policy-makers who believed in a self-evident benefit or who imposed an unwanted modernity. Drawing on a wide range of materials--state and missionary archives as well as oral interviews with Kenyan farmers, former government officials, and retired missionaries--I show, instead, that "development" in rural Kenya did not "fail" so much as it was complicated by ordinary people making their own decisions about what was best for them as they experienced the euphoric climate of decolonization and independence. Peasant farmers in Maragoli participated in development projects when they were of practical benefit to the household economy, often in contrast to the expectations of their neighbors as well as outside experts and nationalists in Nairobi. Absent alignment of their local interests with or within the agendas of nation builders and foreign developers, developing agriculture "on the ground" never got off the ground.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Timothy H Parsons

Committee Members

Jean Allman, Margaret Garb, Tabea Linhard, Nancy Reynolds


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K7GF0RNP

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