“If (there was) any attempt to remove him (the Indian) today the whole thing would collapse like a puff ball because there is nothing else in it. He fills there (in Kenya) the middle sphere between the native and the white organiser, the coordinating factor.” – Ewart Scott Grogan, a politician and property developer in the colonial Kenya government, talking about the roles of the Indians in the success of the Colony.

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PART ONE: The First Buildings, The Imperialist and Jews of Nairobi

PART TWO: How the Indians came to build Kenya

PART THREE: History of Cement Industry in Kenya

PART FOUR: Historical Development of Construction Contracting in Kenya

PART FIVE: The Rise of the National Construction Corporation in Kenya

PART SIX: The Fall of the National Construction Corporation

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In our educational curriculum, we first encounter the Asians during the construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway line. The project was run by the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEACO) that was meant to access the most productive and resourceful parts of the colony. Colin Leys writes that the railway “was built with loan funds, provided by the British Treasury, to provide strategic access to the head-waters of the Nile.” The construction of the railway began in the port of Mombasa in 1896 and reached the shores of Lake Victoria in 1901 in what was then known as British East Africa. It is believed that in the period spanning 1895 and 1908, there were between 30,000 and 40,000 Indians working on the railway project. The labourers were mainly Sikhs drawn by the British from the Punjab region in India. In terms of skills, they were classified as either professionals or indentured/apprentice.

Why did the British choose the Indians over the locals or any other people? Well, according to the British, the Indians were the most suitable people for the construction of the railway line due to their proven reliability. Some sources indicate that the Indians were “endowed with a mysterious aptitude for mechanics.” The Indian labour was cheap because, Sana Aiyar informs us, “wages were set before labour was recruited and employers were protected from any rise in the wage market thus keeping their costs low.”

The Historic Role of A.M. Jeevanjee

Alibhai-Mulla-Jeevanjee

A.M. Jeevanjee (Source: Team Courage)

Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee is an Asian who benefitted heavily from the railway business over its construction period. At the peak of the railway construction, about 1900, his wealth was estimated to be about £4 million. Unlike the labourers, AM Jeevanjee was a Parsi from Pakistan. He recruited the railway labourers for the British. In 1890, for example, he was contracted by the British to supply labour to the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEACO). IBEACO was the company charged with running the British colonial affairs of the Kenya Colony.

Later on, AM Jeevanjee was contracted as a supplier for the railway project. His supplies business was so successful that it made him so much wealth. This paved way for his active involvement in “the construction of government offices, railway stations and post offices from Mombasa to Kisumu.”

AM Jeevanjee is credited for putting up buildings such as Jeevanjee Market, the Indian Bazaar on Biashara Street and the Commissioner’s House. Jeevanjee Market was bought by the Nairobi town administration in 1932. It stood where the current City Market stands. According to Sana Aiyar in Indians in Kenya, Jeevanjee built the Jeevanjee Market in 1904 after he bought the Indian bazaar in Nairobi. In 1910, during the outbreak of the plague in Nairobi, the Europeans a European-only market, claiming that “Jeevanjee Market was unsanitary and used contaminated water.” The Commissioner’s House was built for John Ainsworth, the first commissioner of Ukambani Province. The building stood at what is today the National Museum’s Lecture Hall. It is also believed that AM Jeevanjee owned a town hall that existed where Imenti House stands today. Windsor House, along University Way occupies a space where Nairobi’s first museum was built by AM Jeevanjee.

A little detour. Let’s talk about the Indian Bazaar. There were bouts of plague in Nairobi in the years 1901, 1902, 1904 and the period between 1911 and 1913. They all were believed to have “began in the Indian Bazaar or residential and commercial area.” Even though the Asians were “nearly as well educated and informed as Europeans, as well as being more numerous and collectively wealthier,” Falola goes on to show us that they were segregated on the basis of “sanitation and hygiene.”

Back to Jeevanjee. It is also documented and widely believed that Jeevanjee was behind many buildings located along the railway line in various towns across Kenya. In Nairobi, however, Jeevanjee was given the land between University Way and Biashara Street “in appreciation of his services.”

The Indian Bazaar

The Indian Bazaar (Source: Thee Agora)

How did Jeevanjee make money from his buildings? According to Zarina Patel in her book, Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, he made money from a model that can be equated to today’s Public-Private-Partnership (PPP). He built houses for the colonial government on condition that the land “would be leased to him for 10 years and an agreed rent would be paid to him during that period.” At the end of the ten-year period, the government would either “buy the building from him or relinquish the land to him.”

The Indian Coolies

During and after the construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway, some of the labourers went back to India. According to Prakash Chand, records showed that between the years 1896 and 1903, approximately 31,983 Indian coolies were imported into Kenya by the British through recruiters like AM Jeevanjee. A coolie was a word used to refer to “a locally sourced unskilled labourer hired by a company” from India. Today, the term “coolie” is regarded as a racial slur.

Indian-Coolie-With Son

Indian coolie with son (source: Thee Agora)

The coolie trade was rampant in the 19th and 20th century. Coolies were viewed as substitutes for slave labour, especially for the British. Some were subjected to deplorable living and working conditions: inadequate food, long working hours and insufficient medical care. Coolies were considered to be “the poorest class the Indian sub-continent could offer, illiterate, and uncouth in the mass.” They were imported after the June 1895 authorization of Lord Salisbury.

Out of the 31,983 Indians, Prakash notes, 16,312 went back to India. During the construction, “6,454 were injured and 2,493 had died.” The Indian labour along the railway line, according to Government and Labour in Kenya 1895-1963, was divided into “permanent works, plate laying, surfacing, mountain survey, advance survey and the preparation of the base.” Few Africans who were drawn from coastal Kenya and runaway slaves were used as auxiliaries.

In Through Open Doors: A View of Asian Cultures, Cynthia Salvadori indicates that among the Indians who remained there were skilled artisans – “carpenters, masons and blacksmiths”. Those who were blacksmiths “turned to motor mechanics”, the carpenters became “timber merchants and started furniture factories” and the masons “built up construction companies.” Some of the Asian contractors “pioneered in the in the quarrying operations in Nairobi near Quarry Road and Eastleigh.” Through these, the influence of the Asians on Kenya’s construction, and architecture, in particular, became entrenched in buildings and construction in Kenya.

After World War II, the population of Sikhs in Kenya grew significantly. More came in from India to take part in the boom that followed the World War. For example, according to Salvadori, the Sikhs who were in construction made money from the growing demand for temples. It is no wonder, there are many Asians who joined the fields of architecture and engineering!

Indian High School, later Asian High School and now Jamhuri High School (Source: Nostalgic Nairobi/Sikh Heritage)

Indian High School, later Asian High School and now Jamhuri High School (Source: Nostalgic Nairobi/Sikh Heritage)

The Labour Movement

During the colonial period, the Asians worked as artisans in British-owned contracting companies. For example, a British contractor, W.H Lewis and Son, was the main contractor for the Nairobi Municipal Market. In 1931, the Asian artisans and employees staged a strike. The British contractor decided to “import Africans, Arabs and Coast Indians” to replace the striking Asians. This was during the time when Makhan Singh, an Asian labour unionist, had just come back from India. He was the head of a union of Indian workers that was fighting to have working hours reduced and wages increased. In one of his maiden moves, Makhan Singh, “sent out leaflets to 47 firms (Asian contractors) and a form which the owner was to sign as an indication of the eight-hour day.” In the face of this ‘revolution’, a British contractor was quoted in Kenya Weekly News saying that he was considering “using more and more African artisans…if the Indians started to play up in a few years’ time, he would not be employing any Indians.”

Under Makhan Singh, Sana Aiyar notes, the labour union specifically demanded for “a minimum wage of 200 shillings a month, an eight-hour workday, the abolition of overtime, hourly and daily wages, weekly payment, labour cards that included information on the wages promised, accident insurance, fully paid regular and sick leave, and a minimum age of employment to be set at fifteen years.”

makhan singh

Makhan Singh

Later in 1937, as Sana Aiyar documents in Indians in Kenya, the Indian Contractors and Builders Association was formed by the Indian employers and contractors. The workers union, representing the workers, was still clamouring for an increase in wages and reduction of shorter working hours – just like in 1931. Contrary to the expectations of the workers, the association further reduced the wages and hiked the working hours!

The role of the Indian workers at the time was so significant that “95% of construction work was in Indian hands… [And] 1000 Indian artisans worked as bricklayers” in Nairobi.

The Kenyanization Policy

It is interesting to note that, even during the Kenyanization or Africanization phase of our history, the Indian contractors had proven to be more competent than the indigenous Kenyan contractors. The construction firms that were owned by the Asians were the best due to a number of reasons. First, they paid attention to detail in managing their business as a whole. Secondly, they operated under tight budgets with extremely low overheads with high degrees of flexibility, for example, getting involved in the distribution of building materials – importation, wholesale and retail networks. This made them be considered to be the backbone of the construction industry in Kenya.

However, the Kenyanization policy also had other negative effects on the Asian communities in Kenya. The policy was said to have derived motivation from a political angle than it did from an economics perspective. The policy, unfortunately, led to an acute shortage of contracting firms in Kenya. This also resulted into the lack of healthy competition between the existing contracting firms in Kenya.

The height of Kenyanization was the year 1968. Prior to this, it must be understood, most Asians had preferred British to Kenyan citizenship. Many Asians were caught in between Kenya – a country that was undergoing nationalisation – and Britain, whose government was restricting the entry of bearers of British passports from entering the UK. In the UK, this campaign was led by Enoch Powell who referred to the issuing of British citizenship to the Asians as “an unforeseen loophole in the law.” The British Home Secretary, James Callaghan, in February of 1968, Camilla Schofield writes, in Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain “announced that the government would no longer respect the Kenyan Asians’ passports.” After the legislation came into full effect, “fully booked planes carrying Asian emigres were turned away.”

Pakistan and India also barred the Asians from Kenya, technically British Kenyans, from entering their countries. Some of them were taken up by Canada and the US. This probably explains why, in some Asian-owned contracting companies, some directors indicate both British and Kenyan citizenships.

Grant Cornwell and Eve Stoddard note that the Kenyanization policy failed to benefit the Africans. For instance, “many of the first generation of African businessmen to set up operations in former Asian premises soon went bankrupt” because of “their own inexperience and poor business judgment.”

Some of the Asian businessmen, including building contractors, had to form “strategic partnerships with powerful African politicians.” There was also collusion “with government officials to evade immigration and labour regulations”, which led to the growth of the Asian population in Kenya over the years.

Into the 1970s, most Asian businesses, especially those in transport and trading, were edged out due to the Kenyanization policy legislation. These operations were almost exclusively left to African-owned firms. This, in the long run, pushed the Asians into the building and construction sector where they thrived due to their impeccable business acumen and their access to private capital.

There has been a remarkably sharp increase in the number of Asian-owned building and construction firms in Kenya. They have survived the changing social, political and economic environment due to their top-notch efficiency, ready access to materials, private capital and the additional supply of labour for their projects. These have given them competitive advantage ever since.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to observe and study how the third and fourth generations of the Indian railway builders will adapt into the current and evolving building and construction market that is getting swarmed with Chinese and growing number of African contractors in Kenya today.


You can check out more stories and galleries about Nairobi and the construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway on Thee Agora. You can also read more about A.M Jeevanjee on Owaahh’s blog. The Sikhs have also a great compilation of photos on Nostalgic East Africa.