Labour Control and the Establishment of Profitable Settler Agriculture in Colonial Kenya, 1920-45

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article contributes to the growing literature on the impact of colonial legacies on long-run development. We focus on Kenya, where it is previously argued that land tenure and taxation policies created an impoverished class of wage workers leading to lower living standards, high inequality, and stunted economic development. We take issue with this interpretation. Using archival sources, we map the rise of profitable settler agriculture. Next, we correlate settler profitability with taxation and the development of African agriculture. Contrary to previous studies, we find that labour came from areas that became increasingly more commercialized. Thus, a decline in African livelihoods was not a necessary pre-condition for the establishment of successful European settler agriculture. Instead a restructuring of the settler agricultural sector coinciding with tightened labour control policies can explain the increased profitability. An increased cultivation of high-value crops raised the value of labour. Reductions of African mobility lowered both the wage and transaction costs of finding and retraining workers enabling the settlers to raise their profit share. Our finding calls for a revision of the colonial legacy of European settler agriculture for long-term economic and social development in Kenya.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEconomic History of Developing Regions
Publication statusPublished - 2019 Apr 10

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Economic History

Free keywords

  • settler agriculture
  • rural development
  • Kenya
  • colonial institutions


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