Del Monte: Turning Kenya Into A Pineapple Republic?

Via Jacobin, commentary on Del Monte’s activities in Kenya:

In Kenya’s lush Thika region, just north of Nairobi, stealing pineapples is a de facto capital crime. At least nine men have allegedly been killed by security guards employed by Del Monte, the world’s largest producer of pineapples.
This series of killings first broke international news in June 2023, when The Guardian exposed a litany of deaths and violent assaults by the private security apparatus Del Monte employs to safeguard its crop from thieves. The corporation’s security guards stand accused by locals of killing nine men aged twenty-two to fifty-two since 2013 — “as well as five rapes, plus allegations of serious injuries, including head wounds, broken bones and cuts from blades requiring stitches.”
The killings in question were brutal, with most victims dying of blunt force trauma inflicted by cudgels, rocks, and fists. Attempts to dispose of bodies killed on Del Monte property were equally crude. The body of Stephen Thuo Nyoike, killed at twenty-two, was found strangled with wire by a public road. Saidi Ngotho Ndungu was found floating in a dam, while the corpses of four men were recovered from a river on Christmas Day.
That a major corporation’s private security is implicated in the extrajudicial killings of nearly a dozen men accused of stealing fruit is appalling enough. Compound that with the savage nature of the killings — many so protracted that witnesses heard victims pleading for their lives — and the callous disposal of bodies on roadsides and dams. Little wonder, then, that condemnation of Del Monte’s lethal assaults has been swift and widespread. Following the Guardian’s reports, major UK supermarkets Tesco and Waitrose quickly removed Del Monte’s Kenyan pineapples from their shelves.
But Del Monte’s crimes are not limited to the transgressions of a few violent security guards. Its exploitation of Kenya’s land, labor, and law is systematic and severe, involving collusion at multiple levels of the Kenyan state, from local police to members of parliament.
This is life and death in the Pineapple Republic. 
“No Visible Injuries”
How do you murder nine men for stealing fruit and get away with it? Del Monte’s alleged victims were mostly poor, jobless young men, and thus easily dismissed as gang members and thieves.
The testimony of victims’ families, however, gestures to a broader system of cover-ups and collusion between Del Monte and Kenyan law enforcement. In Murang’a and Kiambu Counties, across whose borders sprawls the huge Thika plantation, Del Monte is seemingly above the law. Even where its guards are directly charged with murder, as in the 2019 killing of Bernard Murigi, five years can pass with no sign of a trial.
More frequently, deaths are dismissed as accidents despite evidence to the contrary. On at least two occasions, Del Monte has paid for the forensic examinations of its own alleged victims, employing a pathologist willing to conclude that battered corpses were devoid of visible injuries. Witnesses reported Saidi Ndungu begging for his life as Del Monte guards beat him with clubs — but his death certificate “gave drowning as the cause.” When four bodies were found in a river on Christmas Day 2023, Del Monte insisted that these erstwhile thieves had simply drowned during a botched raid. Witnesses reported guards beating trespassers with metal rods, dumping bodies in the river, and hurling rocks at those swimming away.
Elsewhere, police have seemingly colluded with Del Monte to falsify witness testimony and destroy evidence. In January, following the river incident, Del Monte allegedly lured potential witnesses to its property with the promise of cash and jobs, where police officers attempted to pressure them to sign affidavits dismissing December’s deaths as accidental drownings. Police apathy toward victims is similarly ubiquitous. “They don’t like following up on justice,” said a man crippled by Del Monte guards.
“They only give you [a form to fill out] and that’s all.”
Security guards that kill with impunity, police officers on the take, and forensic pathologists willing to falsify medical evidence — while grotesque, it’s little more than the base of the edifice of exploitation that Del Monte has erected in Kenya. Understanding Del Monte’s privileged status requires understanding the economics of exporting tropical fruit at scale.
“Critical Economic Driver”
Del Monte brought the pineapple industry to Kenya in 1965, but Western corporations grabbing land in the Global South to grow cash crops for export is a very old phenomenon indeed.
This model is the mainspring of Del Monte’s abusive practices — just as it motivated the atrocities that United Fruit inflicted on Central America in the heyday of the so-called Banana Republic. Tropical fruit production is a multibillion-dollar industry not because margins are particularly high but because corporations like Del Monte can avail themselves of huge tracts of land and cheap labor in peripheral countries eager for exports of any kind. Cheap land, cheap labor, and cheap politicians are the necessary conditions for Del Monte’s global empire.
Yet agrocorporations that produce cash crops for export hardly provide the state with a sure route to economic prosperity. While Del Monte directly employs some seven thousand Kenyans, it relegates them mostly to manual, low-paid labor. And where land in Kenya’s semitropical southwest is at a premium, Del Monte does not even cultivate half the land on its huge estates.
Even with relatively low profit margins, exploitation of African land and labor is still big business. Del Monte is the largest private sector employer in Kenya, with annual revenue expenditure exceeding $100 million. More important for a country in the grip of dollar-denominated debt, Del Monte generates some $62 million in foreign exchange. All this is enough to earn Del Monte the fawning protection of the Kenyan state, with the corporation “considered a critical economic driver both in Murang’a County and nationally.”Since 2021, the Kenyan government has pledged Del Monte support in the form of tax rebates, nebulous “policy incentives,” and free land surveys. In return, Del Monte promised to keep paying taxes and, in the government’s words, to “roll out more transformational Corporate Social Responsibilities [sic] programmes.” Thus, even as Kenya’s citizens weather a cost-of-living crisis under punishing tax hikes, with the majority of the country gripped by food crisis, Del Monte grows exotic fruit for foreign markets. These major multinationals enjoy lower tax burdens with the promise of fulfilling social responsibilities abdicated by the state itself.
“No More Land Left To Be Hawked”
Tax rebates and cushy policies are useful, but nothing illustrates Del Monte’s leverage over the Kenyan state with starker clarity than the corporation’s control of land. Indeed, nobody — not even the Kenyan government — knows exactly how much land Del Monte owns in the country.
Del Monte says that it possesses 22,500 acres; the government puts its holdings at 32,240. The Parliamentary Committee on Land says that Del Monte has a lease for just 20,000 acres. And in any case, Del Monte only uses around 14,000 acres for growing and processing pineapples. The rest it simply hoards, content to let thousands of Kenya’s most fertile acres lie fallow while its north is beleaguered by hunger.
Needless to say, a multinational’s ownership of more than 20,000 acres of productive farmland has not gone unchallenged. By 2020, with Del Monte’s lease of thousands of acres of fertile Thika land set to expire, local residents and federal politicians alike were clamoring for land to be released in the public interest.
Locals’ memory of the evictions that preceded the creation of the plantation remains strong. A protest group of Kandara residents has been fighting a protracted legal battle to force Del Monte to release some 7,500 acres under the claim that it “is ancestral land that the processor ‘forcibly’ occupies.” The National Land Commission bolstered these demands in 2020, ordering Del Monte to divest a small parcel of land to local municipalities “for purposes of resettlement and public utilities.” In 2021 Parliament reaffirmed that Del Monte’s lease should not be renewed until the acres in question were allocated to local residents.
Two years later, residents still hadn’t seen an inch of that land. And, in an act of sheer farce, Del Monte’s lease had somehow been renewed. Faced with this flagrant dismissal of the court’s decision, for many Kenyans the only sound explanation is direct collusion between Del Monte and local politicians.
Amid legal spats over what little land it has divested, Del Monte has been quietly shedding property to shell companies and wealthy allies rather than see it expropriated to local residents. At times the corporation deals in territory it cannot even legally own: a lawsuit brought by Kandara residents holds that, since 2010, Del Monte has been transferring public land to holding companies to subdivide and sell. Nearby, a prominent Kiambu County family was the beneficiary of a whopping three thousand Del Monte acres — which it “immediately leased it back to the processor.”
The sheer uncertainty surrounding Del Monte’s backdoor land deals has been a boon for fraudsters. Scammers claiming to be selling parcels of company land pocketed some $164,000 before the fraud made national news. One Murang’a official castigated those foolish enough to fall for the scam, urging “people to realize that there is no more land left to be hawked anywhere in this country.”
Except, apparently, if you’re rich.
“Maybe Slaves”
Next to land, cheap labor is the most valuable resource that Del Monte strips from Kenya. Tropical fruit corporations have always relied on maintaining large labor forces in perpetual precarity. With the demand for labor fluctuating widely between harvest season and the rest of the year, fruit processors like Del Monte have every incentive to maintain their workers on flexible contracts with little guarantees of steady work.
Thus, in October 2023, in an apparent bid to “cut operational costs,” Del Monte Kenya informed its casual workers to expect just thirteen days of employment per month. Yet even this figure seems grossly inflated. According to workers’ spokesman Stephen Makau, the actual number of days most laborers were working each month was just three.
“We are suffering and we are going through hell,” Makau stated. “Our pay slips are reflecting zero shillings as net pay. We cannot save and we can no longer be described as workers . . . maybe slaves.”
Del Monte’s employees have not passively accepted their exploitation. Indeed, strikes and resistance to labor violations stretch back nearly four decades. A 2002 report by Kenya’s Human Rights Commission detailed a litany of abuses and dangerous conditions sustained since the 1980s. Workers burned by sulfuric acid, dismissed for union activity, and dead of malaria after company clinics refused treatment — these comprise just a few of the cases.
In the face of appalling exploitation, Del Monte’s employees nonetheless continue to engage in strikes and collective bargaining, with Murang’a workers demanding that the corporation implement a monthly minimum of eighteen working days and use its fallow land to grow crops like maize and cassava. For plantation laborers, even subsistence must be fought for — here against a company that insisted a 2021 strike of six thousand employees was outright illegal.
Against these demands stands not just Del Monte but an array of state institutions desperate to prevent any disruption to the corporation’s bottom line. The Central Organization of Trade Unions freely admits that Del Monte is simply too big to fail. As one board member makes clear, “in an economy that desperately needs employment opportunities, tax and foreign exchange, we got no choice but [to] support Del Monte as a national asset and an important link to our friendly ally that is America.”
Thus, for the leadership of Kenya’s agricultural workers’ union, the priority is not ensuring fair labor practices but warning the government that “the country stands to lose heavily should Del Monte go under.” A telling admission that the business model in question depends on maintaining workers in conditions not far removed from slavery.
“Brutalizing Our People”
A mounting set of civil lawsuits, government investigations, and retail boycotts bodes ill for Del Monte Kenya. Yet the company has more or less refused to claim any responsibility for the nine deaths and scores of violent assaults laid at its door, with corporate spokespersons cheerily reminding the public of Del Monte’s “longstanding commitment to human rights.”
Indeed, Del Monte has not only rejected its alleged mistreatment of Kenyans but Kenya’s right to hold it legally accountable in any way whatsoever. Facing a civil lawsuit from human rights groups, Fresh Del Monte — the parent company of its eponymous Kenyan subsidiary — argued that, since it was domiciled in the Cayman Islands, no Kenyan court had jurisdiction to try it. The civil suit’s lawyers were unimpressed. “It is very irresponsible for Del Monte to tell us they are based in the Cayman Islands and they cannot be sued,” states Mwangi Macharia, “but they can grow pineapples in Africa.”
This deflection of responsibility aligns perfectly with the broader relationship between Del Monte and its host country. For the former, Kenya is simply another locale to build the same export-oriented commercial farming machine that it operates in Costa Rica and the Philippines. Its pineapple production may involve African land and labor, but Del Monte is resolute that it is not beholden whatsoever to African people.
In a striking echo of former banana republics, Del Monte has carved out a space of impunity in southwest Kenya. Across its huge estates, Del Monte swallows land and labor whole in its quest for export profits, defending its tropical bounty — as far as the locals are concerned — with the threat of summary execution. This regime demands the connivance of Kenya’s local and state authorities to shield Del Monte from popular backlash and legal scrutiny — the better to earn crucial foreign exchange and protect Kenya’s standing with US corporations. Relatives of the men allegedly killed for a sack of fruit worth $10 have little illusion of the hierarchy of value in Del Monte country. “They don’t value life,” said the father of Stephen Nyoike. “What they value most is pineapples.”
There can be little doubt that Del Monte’s operations, despite their obvious economic impact, have imposed a terrible cost on Kenya. “It’s important for the world to know,” states Macharia, “that this American company is brutalizing our people, killing our people, raping our women and destroying the environment.” No fruit is sweet enough to overpower that bitter taste.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 18th, 2024 at 9:58 am and is filed under Uncategorized.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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Seeds Of A Revolution is committed to defining the disruptive geopolitics of the global Farms Race.  Due to the convergence of a growing world population, increased water scarcity, and a decrease in arable land & nutrient-rich soil, a spike of international investment interest in agricultural is inevitable and apt to bring a heretofore domestic industry into a truly global realm.  Whether this transition involves global land leases or acquisitions, the fundamental need for food & the protectionist feelings this need can give rise to is highly likely to cause such transactions to move quickly into the geopolitical realm.  It is this disruptive change, and the potential for a global farms race, that Seeds Of A Revolution tracks, analyzes, and forecasts.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has long held a keen interest in natural resource policy and the geopolitical implications of anticipated stresses in the areas of freshwater scarcity, biodiversity reserves & parks, and farm land.  Monty has lived, worked, and traveled in more than forty countries spanning Africa, China, western Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Southeast & Central Asia, and his personal interests comprise economic development, policy, investment, technology, natural resources, and the environment, with a particular focus on globalization’s impact upon these subject areas.  Monty writes about freshwater scarcity issues at and frontier investment markets at