‘Rape, beatings and death’ at Kakuzi, the Kenyan farm that helps feed the UK’s avocado habit

Court papers allege guards at a British estate in Kenya that supplies Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Lidl have committed human rights abuses.

The British owners of an avocado farm in Kenya that supplies supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Lidl — and until recently Marks & Spencer — are being sued over a string of alleged human rights abuses.

Guards working for Kakuzi, a farming estate the size of Manchester, are accused of extreme violence against the local community in 79 claims.

The allegations, dating from 2009 to January this year, include battering a 28-year-old man to death for allegedly stealing avocados, the rapes of 10 women, and attacks on villagers walking on paths through Kakuzi land. Former employees of Kakuzi are among the claimants.

The case has stirred uncomfortable echoes of colonial-era exploitation and raised difficult questions for British supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Marks & Spencer, who have all been supplied with avocados from Kakuzi. Among the barristers instructed in the case is Amal Clooney, the London-based human rights specialist.

The lawsuit is directed at the farm’s British parent company, Camellia, whose headquarters are at Linton Park, a grade I listed former stately home in Kent. Camellia has farming interests in several other Commonwealth countries, including India, Bangladesh and Malawi.

Speaking from near Kakuzi on Friday, the 45-year-old mother of the 28-year-old man who died claimed that the estate’s security guards beat her son after accusing him of stealing avocados on his way home across the property.

Kakuzi guards told police the man had sustained his injuries falling from a tree. Although avocado trees can grow to more than 30ft, the fruit hangs much lower and can often be picked without climbing.

The victim died of his injuries in a Nairobi hospital and his mother, whose identity is protected by the lawsuit, was unable to see him before he died. “He was killed on allegations of stealing avocado fruit. You cannot compare avocado with human life,” she said. An avocado costs 75p by the time it reaches Tesco.

“It changed my life completely. My son used to help me a lot because I don’t have a husband — we separated.”

Kakuzi representatives said the “very unfortunate incident” was reported to police, who continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death. They said they forwarded a request to the director of public prosecutions to hold an inquest and that a civil case had been settled, apparently with the man’s father. The mother has rejected any settlement.

For villagers living on or around the estate it is impossible to avoid using Kakuzi land. The farm has been rapidly expanding its avocado planting to meet soaring demand and employs around 470 security guards working in shifts. Its land is also used to farm macadamia nuts, blueberries, timber and livestock.

Villagers say they live in fear of Kakuzi guards, hiding if they see them coming. The guards are armed with “rungus”, long wooden clubs that were a traditional Masai weapon and remain legal in Kenya. Some also have panga knives.

“These guards are very hostile to us,” said a 44-year-old man who claimed to have been beaten badly in 2018. “They treat us as suspects. Any time they get you walking through Kakuzi you’re always suspected to be a thief.”

Kakuzi responded that its crops need to be protected from theft, given the vast scale of the farming operation, its proximity to Nairobi and the fact that a hectare of avocados is worth more than £27,000.

Yet the court papers suggest the guards’ behaviour has gone far beyond theft protection. A 61-year-old woman from Gateya village near the farm said she was collecting firewood in one of Kakuzi’s forests in July 2016 when she was accosted by two security guards.

She said on Friday: “One started asking for money from me [a sum of around 36p]. I told him I did not have it. He said, ‘If you don’t have it, that’s OK but now you have to do anything I tell you.’ I told him that I will not do anything.”

She claims she was then assaulted. “He forced me to the ground. Immediately he was on top of me and then he ripped off my pants. I was not able to move, I was not able to do anything, so he raped me. When he was done the other one came on top of me and he also finished what he wanted to do.”

She said she was so ashamed that she did not tell her daughters and endured months of pelvic pain. When she sought medical advice the following year she was told she was HIV positive.

“Just seeing these guards, my heart starts beating fast and I’m so scared,” the woman said. “Just the sight of their uniform horrifies me.”

Camellia, which employs about 78,000 people worldwide, made a profit last year of £15m after tax on a turnover of £291.5m. The firm has argued that Kakuzi, which is listed on the Nairobi and London stock exchanges, is run by its own board on behalf of its largely Kenyan shareholders, although both companies share some executives.

The parent company said in a statement: “Camellia bought a 50.7% stake in the 1990s but doesn’t have operational or managerial control of Kakuzi, nor does it control the board.”

The lawsuit, brought by the UK law firm Leigh Day, argues that the Camellia group was negligent because it managed Kakuzi closely and executives worked for both companies and would have been aware of incidents of human rights abuses.

Daniel Leader, the barrister leading the case, said: “Instead of providing remedy to these victims, the corporate response to date shows that the company has little understanding of how to respond appropriately to serious human rights issues.”

Camellia PLC said: “Camellia understand that, as anyone would expect, Kakuzi is investigating these very serious allegations which have been raised on a no-win no-fee basis by UK law firm Leigh Day. This is so that if there has been any wrongdoing, those responsible can be held to account, and, if appropriate, so that its safeguarding processes can be improved. Kakuzi also has in place a fully funded alternative dispute resolution process so that anyone who feels they have been mistreated can get independent legal advice and support, paid for by Kakuzi, with anonymity provided.”

Leigh Day dismissed this, saying: “Camellia proposed ADR only if the legal claims in the UK were withdrawn and if the Claimants were forced to use Kenyan lawyers paid for by the Kakuzi, instead of their chosen lawyers. Unsurprisingly, the victims have rejected this proposal.”

Wilson Odiyo, Kakuzi’s assistant general manager for corporate affairs, responded in a statement last week: “We take any accusations of criminality extremely seriously. When things go wrong — as they will in a company that employs over 3,000 people where the land is criss-crossed by public roads and paths — Kakuzi does what you would expect a reasonable employer to do. We investigate the cause, make amends where we can, work with the authorities to ensure justice for those affected and learn for the future.”

In July 2018 a visiting UN team reported hearing “credible accounts” of abuse and urged Kakuzi “to supplement police investigations of alleged wrongdoing with its own credible investigations and to strengthen its training and oversight mechanisms for security guards”. Yet the attacks did not stop and the lawsuit details further allegations this year.

Camellia’s Kenyan farm traces its roots back to the colonial era. A pair of English adventurers arrived in Kenya in 1906 in the hope of “obtaining sport and reducing an adverse bank balance”. Lord Cranworth and his friend Donald Seth-Smith acquired 10,117 hectares of land in Makuyu, halfway between Nairobi and Mt Kenya.

More than a century later, legal battles over land ownership are still being fought between the Kakuzi company — owners of the original Makuyu estate — and villagers who say they were displaced to make way for farmland.

The post-colonial lawsuits and allegations of violence are threatening to turn into an embarrassment for British companies under pressure to monitor their supply chains for human rights abuses.

Mary Kambo, a programme manager at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, which has been documenting abuses at the farm, said: “The UK retailers who continue to source from Kakuzi are flouting principles of responsible business conduct that require sourcing companies to ensure that their supply chains are devoid of human rights violations.

“These retailers — which include Lidl, Tesco and Sainsbury’s — are aware of the reports by victims of Kakuzi abuse because the Kenya Human Rights Commission filed a formal complaint with the Ethical Trading Initiative severally in 2019.”

The three British supermarkets all said last week that they were investigating the claims of abuse. Marks & Spencer said it no longer received avocados from Kakuzi but declined to comment on how recently it had stopped selling them. It was named in Kakuzi’s accounts as being a client as recently as June. Waitrose said it stopped selling Kakuzi produce in 2017.

Supermarket responses

Sainsbury’s said: “We continue to work closely with other UK retailers and the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) to urgently investigate and address these reports.

Tesco said: “Any form of human rights abuse in our supply chain is unacceptable. We have been working closely with the ETI to investigate this issue.”

Lidl said: “Given the systemic nature of the allegations, a working party was established with multiple stakeholders, including several other retailers and suppliers, to undertake a full independent investigation from which an action plan was agreed, and its implementation is being monitored by the ETI.”

The parent company of the Kenyan farm involved said: “Camellia understands that, as anyone would expect, Kakuzi is investigating these very serious allegations.”

This article was published by The Times.

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