A land of diversity with a long history and growing economy

Kenya, in many ways, is a country so diverse and multifaceted that it is difficult to sum up in a single sentence. It is among other things: one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations; an economic heavyweight with diplomatic clout; a storied trading post along the Indian Ocean; a country of incredible natural beauty and wealth; and a nation of rich ethnic and linguistic diversity.

It has been through its fair share of ups and downs, including outbreaks of violent unrest and high levels of poverty and unemployment, but in recent years it has enjoyed a spell of encouraging developments, including the discovery of new reserves of oil and water, and the passage of a new constitution.

Geography & Climate

Straddling the Equator, Kenya’s 586,600 sq km are bordered by Ethiopia and South Sudan to the north, Somalia to the east, Tanzania to the south and Uganda to the west. Bisected by the Great Rift Valley on an approximate north-south axis, this separates the Lake Victoria basin in the west from hills in the east, which descend into the dry grassy lowlands and 480 km of coastline along the Indian Ocean. Areas are significantly higher inland, more than 1500 metres above sea level on either side of the rift valley, and Kenya has one of the region’s most active volcanic formations that also serves as a source of geothermal power generation. The 5199-metre Mount Kenya is the second-highest mountain on the African continent and is the nation’s Anglicised namesake, called Kere Nyaga in the Kikuyu language.

Kenya is typified by rolling uplands characterised by cool weather, abundant rainfall and rich volcanic soils. More than 80% of the country is classified as arid and semi-arid lands. Kenya’s savannah bush land is famous for its game-viewing opportunities that are protected in 65 national parks and reserves. Little remains of Kenya’s once great forests and just 2% of the country is covered by indigenous woodland.

People & Culture

Kenya has a population of approximately 44m with a growth rate of 2.11% in 2014. In line with emerging economies worldwide, the population demographic has a wide base and the median age is just 19 years.

More than one-third of the populace – 42.9% – is classified as under 14 years of age. The majority, 50.2%, are of working age, between 15 and 54. Testament to the nation’s socio-economic progress, life expectancy is currently 61 years of age, up from a recent low of 53 in 2001, according to the World Bank.

Kenya is host to more than 42 distinct ethnic groups, and an incredibly varied distribution. No ethnic group constitutes a majority, but the five largest – Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba and Kalenjin – account for 70% of the population, of which the Kikuyu are the largest with 20%. As with many countries along the Indian Ocean, ethnic Arab and Asian communities are well established, with roots in many cases stretching back centuries. The population leans heavily Christian, in part a legacy of its past as a British colony. Christianity accounts for 82.5% of the population, led by Protestantism at 47.4%. Islam and indigenous beliefs account for approximately 11% each.

While English and Kiswahili are Kenya’s official languages, its ethnic groups can be divided into three broad linguistic groups, Bantu, Nilotic and Cushite.

Economy & Resources

Kenya has a liberalised economy with a GDP of $55.2bn, which grew at 5.7% in 2013. While services are the largest GDP contributor, accounting for over 50% of economic activity, the country also has an extremely developed agricultural sector. Arable land and rainfall are more limited comparable to surrounding nations, but cash crops such as tea, coffee and flowers have helped ensure a steady stream of export revenues, and the sector, which is equal to around a quarter of GDP, remains the country’s largest employer.

Kenya, one of the continent’s drier countries, has also benefitted from the discovery of a massive new aquifer in the northern Turkana region, which could supply water demand for more than 70 years.

Under the Vision 2030 economic development blueprint, which was rolled out in 2007, the government is targeting the development of value-added activities, channelling investment into, among others, a variety of manufacturing segments and information and communications technology services. As host to East Africa’s principal Indian Ocean port and gateway to international markets, Kenya continues to leverage significant trade benefits with surrounding nations. The country has a dynamic and vibrant private sector, which is a key engine of growth.

In recent years, the country has discovered sizeable oil and gas reserves in onshore and offshore plays. While the size of Kenya’s reserves is still being assessed, production is expected to begin in the next two years.

A Centre Of Trade

Kenya’s territories were originally colonised by Cushitic-speaking northern Africa tribes in the second millennia BCE that gave way to an expansion of the Bantu people from Central and West Africa, peaking in the first millennium BCE, and Bantu ethnic groups remain the largest proportion of the country’s population.

The region has a long history as a regional trading post, with ties to Arab, European and Asian markets stretching back millennia. In the first century AD Arab traders traversing the East African coastline began seeking precious minerals, ivory and slaves. Persian, Indian, Indonesian and Chinese explorers and merchants followed over the next five centuries.

Arab influence later also brought Islam, which by the eight century had become a dominant religion in many of Kenya’s city-states. This globalised mixing of cultures and traditions in Kenya eventually precipitated the evolution of Swahili, a blend of Arabic and Bantu languages. Swahili remains to this day East Africa’s commercial lingua franca.

Europeans began exploring East Africa in the 15th century. Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was the first in modern-day Kenya, and his arrival marked the beginning of centuries of struggles between the Dutch, British, Portuguese and Ottoman empires which all sought to protect important trade routes throughout the Indian Ocean.

The 18th century, which saw Portugal’s initial influence starting to wane as the Ottomans consolidated their links to the region, prompted an intensification of Arab-driven trade along the coastal regions for the following hundred years, in part due to increased slave trade. The lease of a 16-km stretch of coastal land from Mombasa’s Seyyid Said in 1887 by the imperial British East Africa Company heralded the advent of formal British influence – something that has left a substantial imprint on modern Kenya.

Colonial Rule

The 1885 Berlin Conference that assigned African territories to European powers was a crude and unilateral merger of disparate tribal groups across the continent, the legacies of which continue to influence Africa’s contemporary identity. It was also the origin of Kenya’s colonial history as British East Africa (BEA). While Nairobi was a pre-existing supply depot for the Uganda Railway by 1899, timber and agricultural conglomerates pushed to expand the settlement there further, leading to Nairobi’s recognition as capital of the BEA Protectorate in 1905. Industrial expansion, export of raw materials and British settler immigration resulted in BEA’s official 1920 designation as the Crown Colony of Kenya. The intervening period of colonial expansion and construction also saw a mass influx of Indian immigrants, forming the basis of a community that remains a visible and influential segment of the Kenyan population.

The designation of the BEA as a colony provided a modicum of autonomy to the territory and also relieved the British parliament of substantial cost after the First World War, during which the protectorate had endured an effective German-led guerrilla campaign.

Independence

A crash in commodity prices in the 1930s left the colony in a bad state in the lead up to the Second World War, and the impact of the war on British finances limited the empire’s ability to project power. The war also saw a dramatic uptick in a push for independence by Kenya’s various ethnic groups. Kenya’s colonial designation advocated African partnership in government, although no native representation was provided until 1944. White settlement was generally limited to the fertile highlands, but few rights were granted to non-whites, for example. The tension this caused boiled over with the advent of Kenya’s pro-independence Mau Mau rebellion in 1952.

Fought between regular British armed forces against the African Kikuyu, Embu, Meru and Kamba groups, the Mau Mau rebellion was a bitter and bloody chapter in Kenya’s history. The British military and civilian response saw the threat quashed by 1957 and equal political representation of Africans, Asians and Whites was permitted in the Kenya Legislative Council.

By 1963 a black majority government was elected for the first time with former imprisoned Mau Mau leader Jomo Kenyatta as prime minister. Kenya declared independence on December 12, 1963, and the country joined the British Commonwealth the same year.

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Cover of The Report: Kenya 2014

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Kenya 2014. Explore other chapters from this report.