As the largest economy in the EAC and COMESA in terms of GDP, Kenya has positioned itself as a major economic power in the region and across sub-Saharan Africa. Traditionally a largely agrarian economy, Kenya has quickly entrenched its position as a manufacturing, logistical and technology hub in the region. As a market-based economy with a supportive domestic policy environment, Kenya has been dubbed the commercial “gateway” to East Africa. With Mombasa acting as a trade platform with one of the busiest ports in the region, and the capital Nairobi the country’s political and financial centre, Kenya has quickly recovered in the aftermath of the 2007 financial crisis and has been able to sustain strong annual growth levels of over 5%.
While Kenya is no stranger to political strides experienced across the region, the country has managed to avoid long periods of crisis – whether political, economic or social – and has usually been able to overcome its challenges in relatively short periods of time. A new constitution which came into effect in 2010 was seen as a pivotal moment in Kenya’s sociopolitical history. It provided a higher degree of independence to counties through the devolution of powers, introduced a tenured judiciary and a bicameral parliament, among other measures. Nevertheless, the application of the constitution has exposed areas that may need realigning, such as those concerning lack of good governance in certain counties. Elections in August 2017 saw President Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta, reinstated for a second term after winning 54% of the votes against Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition party. After the Supreme Court nullified the election, claiming irregularities, a second round was held in October 2017, which Kenyatta won.
The first settlements of present-day Kenya began with the arrival of Southern Cushitic-speaking populations in about 2000 BCE, who later spread into Central Kenya and the area that is now Tanzania. The Bantu expansion, which took place around 1000 BCE, led to the establishment of the first settlements on the Kenyan coast. During the first century CE, coastal city states began trading with Arabs who introduced Islam, and progressively influenced their language, giving birth to the Swahili language which is now spoken from Somalia to Mozambique. The progressive arrival of merchants from India, Persia and Indonesia also had an impact on the Swahili culture to some degree.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach Kenya’s shores in 1498 in an effort to establish naval bases capable of giving them an edge over trading competitors in the Indian Ocean. Decades of conflict against other European rivals, but predominantly Omani Arabs, resulted in the expulsion of the Portuguese from Kenya in 1698. After their exit from the country, the Omanis imposed their rule on the country until the 1880s before the arrival of the Germans and the British. Kenya first became a German colony in 1885 and was later taken over by the British in 1888, becoming an official protectorate of the latter in 1895.
In the aftermath of the First World War the British declared Kenya a crown colony, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s progressively eroded the rights of African populations by buying up large tracts of land to be farmed by white settlers.
Following the Second World War, nationalist movements began to take hold, leading to the establishment of the Kenya African Union in 1946. Efforts to improve the socioeconomic position of Kenyans fell short of expectations, resulting in the Mau Mau uprising between 1952 and 1956, which was violently suppressed and its leader Jomo Kenyatta imprisoned. In the years that ensued the independence movement gained strength, culminating in the creation of the Kenya African Union, an African nationalist organisation led by Kenyatta that demanded more equitable land ownership regulations. On December 12, 1963, thanks to the union’s efforts the country achieved independence from the commonwealth. The following year Kenya became a republic, with Jomo Kenyatta becoming the first president of the East African country.
Kenya has a total area of approximately 582,000 sq km, of which 11,227 sq km is water, and borders South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia to the north, Uganda to the west, and Tanzania to the south. Its topographical diversity is notable, with 536 km of coastline on the Indian Ocean, backed by gradually rising coastal plains. The East African Rift bisects the country from north to south, bordering Lake Victoria and forming a number of distinct ecological zones.
The majority of the country’s economic activities take place in the highland zone, which is characterised by rich soils, a chain of lakes and active and non-active volcanoes. The high plateau also includes the second highest peak in Africa, Mount Kenya, at 5199 metres above sea level. Kenya’s main rivers include the Tana and the Athi, which both flow into the Indian Ocean.
Given the country’s topographical diversity, weather patterns vary across the different zones. By and large, the coastal region records high temperatures of 31-32 °C and lows of 28 °C meaning that the coast, which includes the cities of Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu, is relatively hot all year around. Unlike the rest of the country, temperatures in Nairobi are moderate and fluctuate from 21-22°C in January to 10-11°C in June, with intermittent rain periods. In terms of rainfall, the country’s “long rains” period is characterised by strong downpours and heavy rainfall between the months of March and May, while the “short rains” season takes place from November to December.
Kenya has a wealth of natural resources, and their extraction will be central to supporting the growth of the economy in the future. Minerals found under its soils include lizenithne, gypsum, soda ash, diatomite, gemstones, fluorspar and zinc, although mining exports only amounted to approximately 1% of the country’s GDP in mid-2016, according to international media reports. Oil was first discovered in Kenya in 2012 by the UK’s Tullow Oil in the Lokichar Basin. In June 2018 Kenya became only the second country in East Africa to export oil under the government’s Early Oil Pilot Scheme, with the target of producing 2000 barrels of oil equivalent per day at the Lokichar site, according to local media reports.
Kenya’s population was 49.7m inhabitants in 2017 with an annual growth rate of 2.5%, according to the World Bank. Its population is also young, with 40.4% under the age of 15, 18.8% between the ages of 15 and 24, and 32.4% between 25 and 54 years. As a result, Kenya’s dependency ratio is considerably high at 75.9%, although it is expected to drop as younger generations enter working age. Life expectancy, meanwhile, stands at just 67 years, exacerbated by infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis and malaria. The country’s urban population accounted for 26.7% of the total in 2017 with an average annual growth rate of 4.2%, while the two largest cities of Nairobi and Mombasa have over 4.2m and 1.2m residents, respectively. Meanwhile, in 2016 the adult literacy rate stood at 79%, substantially higher than the sub-Saharan Africa average of 65%.
Languages & Religion
Kenya is home to over 70 different ethnic groups of varying size, with the five largest – Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba and Kalenjin – accounting for 70% of the population, with diverse languages and belief systems among them. The country’s two official languages are English and Swahili, while its ethnic groups can be divided into three broad linguistic groups: Bantu, Nilotic and Cushite. Nevertheless, English is the language predominantly used in the fields of business, politics and education.
Some 78% of Kenyans are Christians – 45% Protestants, 33% Catholics – 10% Muslim, followers of indigenous religions make up 10%, with the rest from various other religions such as Hindus who mostly originate from India. The Muslim population is made up of both Sunni and Shi’ite followers and can be found in Mombasa and other coastal regions, as well as in the north.
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