Kitur Sang stands on the side of the road in Chepulu village, Kericho county, Kenya, and faces east. He looks beyond the tiny tea-growing hamlets to sprawling estates which extend for miles to the southwestern edge of the Mau Forest in Bomet county.
With nostalgia, the 99-year-old recalls his teenage years when he grazed cattle, sheep and goats, hunted antelopes and harvested honey inside the forest, which is now thousands of hectares of tea plantations.
But it’s not all fond memories; Sang’s childhood was dominated by violent evictions at the hands of British settlers who were establishing tea estates aided by the colonial government.
A century of unresolved human rights abuses, generations of landlessness and a lack of job opportunities in the area has produced a web of challenges for local people. The fight for justice – from both the British state and the tea companies who profited from their land – has been long.
Now, a planned visit from King Charles and Queen Camilla, from 31 October to 3 November, has provoked speculation – will the King finally assent to their calls for compensation and an apology?
A statement posted on the Royal website stated that the visit would ‘acknowledge the more painful aspects of the UK and Kenya’s shared history’, and that the King will ‘take time during the visit to deepen his understanding of the wrongs suffered in this period by the people of Kenya’.
But not everyone is optimistic that there will be meaningful engagement with affected communities.
The long fight for justice
Before he was born Sang’s family lived in Kaptuigeny village, in what is today Chemasingi Tea Estate, owned by the Kenya arm of British company, James Finlay (which is in the process of sell-off in Kenya). It was previously owned by another UK brand, the Unilever-owned Brooke Bond.
Sang’s family were evicted from Kaptuigeny and forced to squat, with others, on the outskirts of Kapset Tea Estate. Then, when Sang was a small child, the family decided to move back to their village as the community fought for their land through the courts and by openly defying the British settlers’ continued expansion and establishment of tea estates.
In 2014, the Borowo and Kipsigis Clans Self Help Group was formed and ramped up the campaign for the return of their land and for compensation for human rights abuses. The group has 30,000 members who are descendants of the people evicted from land currently held by the multinational tea companies.
One of the group’s members is Joel Rono who, as a young boy, lived in Cheptebes, which is currently held by James Finlay. Rono, 84, said that the settlers would burn and demolish homes. ‘They beat up my father, shot at our goats and we had to take remaining cattle away for safety,’ he says.
The settlers would later sell them some of the land in nearby Chepchabas. Rono says that his family paid for seven acres (2.8 hectares) but only ever received two acres and nothing more.
Dickson Bigen has a similar story. He now lives in Kenegut, Ainamoi, in the west of Kerichot but he was born in the village of Tabain, on the present day Chemugundany Tea Estate. ‘During evictions, they would send their employees to get you out and they brought their bulldozers to demolish our houses, even with our property and food inside,’ he says.
In 2021, the UN demanded that the British government settle the matter with the victims of land grabs for tea plantations. Due to the British government’s lack of response, another group filed a case against it at the European Court of Human Rights. The case is yet to be heard.
According to the Tea Board of Kenya, the country produces over 450 million kilos of tea every year, of which 91 per cent is exported and 9 per cent is consumed locally. Out of the 2.2 billion kilos of unprocessed green tea produced nationally in 2022, Kericho county was the biggest producer with 432 million kilos.
There are 42 tea estates, sitting on 650,000 hectares of land, in Kericho and Bomet counties. The current owners of these tea estates include James Finlay (Kenya) Limited, George Williamson, Sotik Tea and Sotik Highlands. While some of these companies have since been sold to companies of different heritages, the original owners were British.
A win at the National Land Commission
James Finlay (Kenya) Limited incorporated as The African Highlands Produce Company Limited in 1925 first acquired land in the Kericho in 1925. The company continued to increase land holdings for the cultivation and processing of tea in the area throughout the 20th century. It established factories in Kitumbe, Chemagundany, Changana and Kymulot. Brooke Bond, a British company also moved to Kericho in 1927 by establishing a tea factory in Kerenga and buying Bureti and Jamji Tea Estates in 1946. In 2004 its name changed to Unilever and has since sold its tea business to Ekaterra.
In 2017, Kenya’s National Land Commission (NLC) conducted an investigation into the claims of the evicted communities. It recommended that a survey of the land held by the multinational tea companies be conducted and that the companies provide public utilities for the communities in Kericho and Bomet counties. Also that the companies’ 999-year leases on the land be converted to 99-year ones instead.
Tea companies fight back
James Finlay and other companies have come together to organize under the Kenya Tea Growers Association in order to fight against the demands for land compensation. They went to court to protest the NLC’s recommendations, claiming that they had been excluded from the process, and in April, the recommendations were quashed by the Environmental Lands Court.
In August, the Kenyan Senate’s committee on legal affairs, justice and human rights called on the NLC to reopen its investigation into the historical land injustices against the Kipsigis, hear all the parties, including the large-scale tea producers, and report to the Senate.
Meanwhile, the Kipsigis community has been pursuing the matter with the British government through the British Embassy in Kenya. Now, following news of the King and Queen’s visit, Rono said that their coordinator was in Nairobi to further their quest to submit the community’s claims to the King.
The royals will meet with President William Ruto and other members of government, United Nations representatives, select CEOs, and religious and youth leaders, among others.
Some in the Kipsigis community are hopeful that their plight will also be addressed amid the excitement of the visit. As Benard Rono, the secretary if Borowo and Kipsigis Clans Self Help Group explains: ‘We are claiming all these farms which they have utilized as tea plantations for all these years. Our elders were chased away and condemned to a life of poverty and as a result many didn’t get the opportunity to get an education. We now ask for our rights.’
This project was funded by the European Journalism Centre through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.