Kenya is one of the heavyweights of East Africa. Despite recent terrorist attacks and ongoing security problems, it is recording strong economic growth and maintaining its leading position in the region. Natural resource finds and a young population give further cause for optimism, if the right policies are put in place.


Kenya has a rich and distinguished history. Habitation in the area now known as Kenya began in the Lower Paleolithic age, around 3.3m years ago. The territory was populated by the Bantu expansion from West Africa in the first centuries CE. With numerous population influxes from the north and west, including the Cushitic speakers of North Africa around 2000 BCE, the country has a deep and varied linguistic and ethnic history.

In more modern times, trade brought Arabs, Asians and Europeans to Kenyan shores, including Greek merchants from Egypt in the first to fifth centuries CE, Persians, southern Indians and Indonesians from 500 CE, and the Portuguese from the end of the 15th century. Mombasa and the surrounding area became a centre for East African trade and a de facto city state.

In the 19th century, Omani expansion and Victorian missionary activity would change the dynamics of the territory. At the end of the century, the British took over the interior of the country and set up the East Africa Protectorate. With the exception of the coast, this became a crown colony in 1920. The political movement towards independence began in 1944 with the formation of the Kenyan African Union (KAU). In 1953 the Mau Mau rebellion, an armed campaign aimed at pushing white settlers from the country, was launched. This led to a state of emergency that was not lifted until 1960. The country finally gained independence in 1963, with Jomo Kenyatta, a member of the KAU, becoming the country’s first president.


Bordering South Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia to the north, Uganda to the west and Tanzania to the south, Kenya is the economic and political powerhouse of East Africa. The country has a varied landscape, ranging from the white sand beaches abutting more than 500 km of Indian Ocean coastline to the mountainous, and partially volcanic, Central Highlands. The country is home to the second-highest mountain on the continent, Mount Kenya, which stands resplendent at 5199 metres above sea level. The country has a fertile plateau in the west, but the main topographical feature is the Great Rift Valley, which slices through the Central Highlands. This famous swathe of land was created by the interaction of three tectonic plates, the Arabian, Nubian and Somali. Given this high tectonic activity, it is unsurprising that the valley is hemmed by a number of active and dormant volcanoes. It is also home to eight major lakes, including Lake Turkana, which is around 250 km long. In total, Kenya accounts for almost 10% of the lakes found in Africa.


Kenya’s main urban centre is the capital, Nairobi. As of July 2015, the city had a population of 3.9m. The country’s second city is the coastal centre of Mombasa, which has just over 1m residents. As this suggests, the country does not have any of the mass urban conurbations that are fuelling the growth of many developing countries. Kenya remains overwhelmingly rural. The urban population made up just over one-quarter of the total population as of July 2015. While the cities and urban areas have been growing at a rate of 4.34% over the last five years, rural communities will remain the dominant settlement pattern for some time to come.

Much of the population is still dependent on a rural lifestyle. Almost 50% of land remains in use for agriculture, and 37.4% of land is permanent pasture for livestock. However, agricultural output remains largely in the hands of smallholders, with 90% of food produced by this informal sector in 2012. As such, the sector still has significant potential for greater productivity.

In 2012 only 1.7% of arable land was under irrigation, but a further 300,000 ha could potentially be irrigated, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (see Agriculture chapter).


The local climate does not always help the country’s food production and can lead to wider socio-economic and humanitarian problems. Many areas of Kenya are susceptible to drought and also floods during the rainy season. The climate is tropical on the coast and arid in the interior. By the Indian Ocean, moderate heat, humidity and rainfall are the norm.

Inland temperatures can soar, but altitude moderates any undue heat. In the capital, Nairobi, which lies at an elevation of 1798 metres, temperatures range from 9.4°C to 26.7°C.

Natural Resources 

The discovery of oil in Turkana County by Tullow Oil in 2012 adds to Kenya’s abundant natural resource base. The Anza and South Lokichar basins are creating a buzz in the energy world. At present, Kenya estimates crude oil reserves of 1bn barrels, while operators Tullow Oil and Africa Oil of Canada are scheduled to begin production in 2020. The government is currently planning an oil pipeline that will facilitate crude exports from 2022 onwards (see Energy chapter).

Oil is not the only recent discovery to buoy the country. In 2013 two new aquifers were discovered in the arid Turkana region of northern Kenya. It is an area that has been hit by devastating droughts, but now 250bn cu metres of water – albeit some of which has proven to be rather brackish – have been found below the parched earth. The country has been suffering from water scarcity and delivery and sanitation problems. UNESCO estimates that 17m Kenyans do not have access to safe water. Given that Kenyans consume approximately 3bn cu metres of water each year, the finds could meet the country’s water needs for the next 70 years, according to the government.


Kenya is the seventh-largest country on the African continent, with a population estimated at 45.9m in July 2015. Although the population is not expanding as quickly as some of its regional peers, it is growing steadily. The population growth rate stood at 1.93% in mid-2015, making it the 54th-fastest-growing country in the world. With a high birth rate of 26.4 births per 1000 of population, it is also an extremely young country. Indeed, more than 50% of the population is under the age of 25. This places a heavy burden on the country as Kenya currently has a dependency ratio above 80%. However, as this youth cohort transitions to adulthood, things could begin to change and the fiscal picture could improve. The volume of dependents will shrink and the number of workers will increase.

As long as the country can create employment opportunities, this should ease the burden on the welfare state, push up tax revenues and lead to strong economic growth. With the demographics so heavily skewed towards youth, the problems associated with an ageing population, such as the economic drain of end of life care and pensions, are a long way off. Only 2.85% of the population is currently over the age of 65.

Although health outcomes are likely to improve in the coming years, and life expectancy (which stands at 63.77 years) will grow, it will be some time before Kenya has to deal with the political and economic challenges of old age that currently blight much of Western Europe.

Language & Religion

The country is home to a wide mix of ethnicities, languages and belief systems. There are, however, two official languages, English and Kiswahili. The former is predominant in matters of state and governance. English is also the primary language in the education system and main form of communication among the business community. Outside the main urban areas and the formal sector, a whole host of indigenous languages proliferate. As many as 60 tribal languages can be heard, although not necessarily seen in writing, throughout the country.

Christianity is the predominant religion in the country, accounting for 82.5% of the population, according to the 2009 census. Protestants make up nearly half of Kenya’s total population, with Catholics comprising a further 23.3%.

The other major religious group is Muslims, who make up a further 11.1% of the population. Traditionalist beliefs still retain a small constituency, comprising around 1.6% of Kenyans, while there is also a small Hindu community as well as a contingent of those who do not identify with any religion.