Profile of a Nation

General Information about Kenya

Spatial location of Kenya on the world map
Spatial Location of Kenya on the World Map

Overview of the Geography, People & Economy

Kenya is spatially situated at the Horn of Africa, in the far eastern end of Africa, flanked by Tanzania in the south, by Uganda in the west, by Sudan and Ethiopia in the north and by Somalia in the east. It fronts two major world water bodies, Indian Ocean to the south east and Lake Victoria to the west with a total surface area of about 582,646 km2 of which 11,230 km2 is water. Other notable water bodies include Lake Turkana, north of the Rift Valley, and a number of notable smaller lakes along the Rift Valley. The country is dissected into two sectors by the Great Rift Valley from north to south, and by the Equator into two equal parts of north and south. Kenya’s diversity is comprised of 44 major tribes and residents from all corners of the world.  The economy is principally agrarian. Kenya’s climate ranges from balmy tropical at the coast to temperate and arid in the interior, based on altitude. Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest, is the highest point, at 5,199 m. Kenya’s total population (as at 2018) is estimated at almost 52 million, the bulk of whom live in three areas of Kenya: nearby Lake Victoria in the west and south-west, in Central Kenya, and in an area of fairly dense population along the Coast Region of Kenya, specially between Malindi and Tanzania border. In the hinterland, population density is higher where the ground lies more than 3,000 feet above sea level, and the climate is equable and pleasant enough, particularly in the highlands that form the central province of Kenya and North Rift. These areas take on about 20% of her total land surface area, where much of the population thrives in the tightly packed constellation of small counties in Central Kenya, Western Kenya and the Coast Region of Kenya.

About 80% of Kenya’s terrestrial land is listed as arid to semi-arid, where life is essentially a continual search of water and the little vegetation to be found here: The rainfall here ranging from 150 to 750 mm annually. That is to also say, the rainfall here is erratic and poorly distributed, spatially and temporally, making agricultural production in the ASALs a cosmic challenge. The temperatures are always high across the ASAL, incessantly above 30 Celcius, which consequently affects moisture availability and dampers agricultural production potential.  So that, the high potential areas covering 20% of the country carry about 75–80% of the national population.  This has caused extensive pressure on land use for agriculture. It is upon this premise that Kenya must be understood and one that has inspired Kenya’s designation as the “land of variety.”  To better understand Kenya, one may look at it this way: It straddles the equator, the land rising from the coast to altitudes of 10,000 feet or more before dropping down into Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana. In between these variations of altitudes are seminal rolling farmlands, rolling expanses of plantation and natural forests, dry bush, scrublands, deserts and palm fringed tracts of amazing beaches.  The Northern Region of Kenya, the big 80%, previously a marginalized region, now provides some of the great driving experiences in Kenya, and not least along the 504 km A1 Isiolo-Marsabit-Moyale highway linking Kenya to Ethiopia.  A lovely smooth road takes trippers across unfamiliar horizons, great scenery, and new cultures. 

Coastal Strip along Diani or the South Coast of Kenya.  Photo Courtesy
Coastal Strip along Diani at the South Coast of Kenya. Photo Courtesy

Boundaries: Districts, Counties and Facts

The original 40 boundaries of Kenya, marking districts and provinces, were first defined in the 1963 Independence Constitution and they were largely based on ethnic boundaries, affirmed by political positions taken at the Lancaster House Conferences. Leading up to the British Rule of East Africa, the people of Kenya had lived more or less homogeneously; each tribe living in one general location. The pastoralists communities, like the Maasai, who traversed expansive areas, interacted hospitably with other communities. Occasionally, small wars would break out among the communities – especially between the puissant pastoralist communities – but peace generally prevailed. During the British Era, the Royal Boundaries Commission believed that it was prudent to keep rival tribes within their own administrative and political boundaries for the object of peace. And thus the defunct 40 Districts [under 9 Provinces] were drawn and created. In 1968, Central Nyanza and South Nyanza districts, within Nyanza Province, were replaced by Homa Bay, Kisumu and Siaya Districts – that brought the number of districts to 41.  Between 1969 to 1989, six districts were created. In Eastern province, Makueni District split from Machakos and Tharaka Nithi District split from Meru. In Nyanza Province, Migori District hived-off from Homa Bay while Nyamira District split from Kisii. In Rift Valley Province, Bomet District split from Kericho, and in Western Province Vihiga District split from Kakamega. Some territory was transferred from Turkana District, in Rift Valley Province, to create West Pokot District – bringing the number to the districts to 47. In 2010, the 47 Districts were replaced by the 47 Counties of Kenya in accordance to the August 05, referendum adopted by 67% of Kenyans, in time promulgated on August 27, 2010. Rather interestingly, almost all the Counties of Kenya are named after their capital town which also serve as administrative headquarters.

Map of the Counties of Kenya

Kenya’s Coastal Region

Kenya’s national boundary of 3500 kilometers includes 536 kilometers of coral-fringed coastline, with the country offering four marine parks and five marine reserves. The coastal assets include: 830 km2 of lush coastal forests, floodplain wetlands; 51 km2 of mangrove forest ecosystems, abundant in Lamu; 12 species of seagrass; and 50 km2 of coral reef protected under two marine parks and two national marine reserves. Mombasa City, a place and situation that is unique to Eastern Africa, is the largest coastal town and the main hub. Its situation at the coastal terminus of the railway from Uganda and as the primary port of East Africa has provided it momentum to grow exponentially. Hitherto, Mombasa City, situated at a point along where the coastal reef is broken, and where the ships reach safely, was utilized by Arabs who were first to use the island for urban settlement and they constructed the first harbour. So that by the time the Portuguese explorers reached Mombasa in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, Mombasa was defensible and thriving as a trading outpost. The 536 kilometers coastline divides conveniently into six area. These are: South Coast, Mombasa Island, North Coast, Kilifi, Watamu/Malindi and Lamu. Judging by the rate of hotels and resorts in all these areas, the Coast Region of Kenya is now the most liked touring destination in Kenya. This was not always so, probably because communication, water and other infrastructure came first to the North Coast. They are now available to the six areas – efficient, diverse and widespread as one could hope. Today, Diani (in South Coast) is Kenya’s finest beach and has been voted as Africa’s best beach destination for six years consecutively. It has a wide range of accommodation varying from middle-market beach resorts to the last word in sophistication and comfort in private beach cottages. Away from the ocean, there is plenty to interest the traveller to the Coast Region of Kenya.

Kenya’s Protected Reserves

Protected areas are comprised of National Parks, Reserves and Sanctuaries, administered by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), as well as gazetted Forest Reserves, which are managed by the Kenya Forest Service (KFS). The KWS-administered areas are protected for wildlife conservation and comprise eight percent of the country. Gazetted Forest Reserves comprise another two percent of the country. Eighty-eight percent of these forests are natural, while the rest are plantations. Despite this allotment of protected land, about 70 percent of the nation’s biodiversity resources are to be found outside protected areas and remain vulnerable to degradation. Of a more recent development is the creation of more than a hundred privately-run wildlife conservancies which look-out for wildlife outside National Parks and Reserves as well integrate nifty community responses to the conservation matrix. That in mind, it’s no secret that Kenya is among the first-rate safari destinations and it certainly has enormous touring resources. There are no less than 50 Reserves / Parks that cover approximately 11% of her land surface area. Kenya is avowedly a grand arena to experience the wilder places in whichever direction you take. The sharp contrast in Kenya’s ecological gamut is perhaps responsible for the variety in Kenya’s spectacular parks. A National Park is an area set aside for conservation in perpetuity and which farming, livestock keeping and human residence are barred. Specifically, although 35 percent of Kenya’s wildlife is found in nationally protected areas (Kenya Wildlife Services’s jurisdiction covers only 4.9 percent of the total land mass in Kenya), 40 percent of the wildlife is found in privately protected areas.

Kenya’s Faunal Diversity

For conservation, the country has set aside some 47,674 square kilometers in 29 National parks, 27 Game Reserves, 4 Wildlife Sanctuaries, and 100+ Wildlife Conservancies. Kenya is one of the world’s best destinations for bird watchers, and it has the famous annual wildebeest migration. The area is endowed with tremendous biodiversity. The country has approximately 25,000 species of animals; including 1,133 birds, 315 mammals, 191 reptiles, 180 freshwater fish, 692 marine and brackish fish, and 88 amphibians, as well as 7,000 species of vascular plants and more than 2,000 fungi and bacteria. 1,100 species of the vascular plants, 14 mammalian species, and eight bird species are endemic to the country. 103 bird species, 51 mammals, 8 amphibian and reptile species, and 26 fish species are endangered or threatened. Kenya is home to the big-five.

Hirola or Hunter's Hartebeest in Northern Kenya.  Photo Courtesy
Hirola or Hunter’s Hartebeest in Northern Kenya. Photo Courtesy

Kenya’s Floral Diversity

Low plains form Kenya’s north and extend southeast to the coast. In the center, south and southwest of the country the plains rise into fertile highlands. The Great Rift Valley, which travels north to south, bisects the western half of the country. The major ecosystem of the highlands is montane forest, while the arid and semi-arid lowlands are comprised extensively of woodland, brushlands, savannah and grassland, mainly of the thick thorn-bush type with little grass, wide-spaced valleys and scanty inselbergs. Large tree, like Acacia, are mainly found only along its drainage ways. What is inexhaustible, on an unprecedented scale, is scattered shrub and grasslands spreading out in unbroken patches of tens of kilometres at a time, and which supports a sizeable amount of wildlife. Closer to the coast, there are discontinuous but significant patches of dryland forests. The coast is divided between sandy areas and mangrove forests, while offshore Kenya has abundant seagrass beds and a coral reef system. Kenya’s freshwater resources are divided between lakes, notably Lake Victoria and Lake Turkana, and several rivers. Tea is one of the most important exports of East Africa and it is particularly important in Kenya. Although there are a few areas within Kenya where tea is a major crop, for example, Nyeri, Nandi and Kiambu Counties, over half the land growing tea in Kenya is cultivated in Kericho. Tea, forests and coffee never wander too far from one another, and these three are almost always spotted hand in hand. Of the area of 582,646 km2 which Kenya covers, 2008 km2 are covered by natural and exotic plantation forests; so the forest cover is 3.4% of the total land surface and 15% of the high potential land. Out of this, 1700 km2 represent indigenous forests, 122 km2 exotic plantation forests, 124 km2 privately owned forests, and close to 613 km2 mangrove forest.

Kenya’s Mineral Resources

The potential mineral wealth of Kenya is still not fully known. Early in the 20th Century, official geologists were appointed for limited periods and, in addition, temporary Colonial Office appointments were made for specific investigations, as in 1914-15 for the examination of a portion of the Northern Frontier District. “At first for many years staff was limited, but more progress was made between 1940 and 1943 with the aid of a grant from the Colonial Development Fund. At the beginning of 1946, the Geological Survey became a branch of the combined Lands, Mines and Surveys Department, and three years later of the resuscitated Mines and Geological Department. A big grant was obtained from the Colonial Development and Welfare Vote in 1948 to provide for a considerable expansion of its stalled activities. Difficulties of recruiting proved to be considerable, and it was not until the 1950’s that the full complement of geologists was attained. At the end of 1952 the staff of geologists numbered 16, but on an unbalanced basis. The chief economic minerals of Kenya going by the 1968 Geological Survey of Kenya were, and still are, soda, salt, gold, fluorspar, raw materials for cement manufacture, limestone and carbon dioxide; but numerous other products are envisaged. Geologists believe Kenya has lots of ores and industrial materials which have been established to be in substantial quantities. These minerals include soda ash, fluorspar, titanium, niobium and rare earth elements, gold, coal, iron ore, limestone, manganese, diatomite, gemstone, gypsum and carbon.

Cultural Diversity in Kenya

Kenya has a interesting mix of cultural history. It has significant archeological assets and colorful tribal cultures fascinating to researchers and tourists alike—and patently promoted in the tourism marketplace. Archaeological excavations around Lake Turkana in the 1970s unearthed a skull thought to be around two million years old and it is among the earliest human beings ever discovered—indeed a unique patrimony for mankind and for tourism. Kenya has a mosaic of 44 ethnic groups, each with its own culture and language, existing side by side, as the result of waves of in-migration (going back 4000 years) of Turkanas from Ethiopia; Kikuyu, Akamba, and Meru from West Africa; and the Maasai, Luo and the Samburu from southern Sudan. By the eighth century, Arabic, Indian, Persian, and even Chinese traders reached the Kenyan coast. They helped set up a string of coastal cities (for example, Mombasa and Lamu) and eventually the part-African, part-Arabic civilization infamous as the Swahili. Kenya was invaded first by the Portuguese, who were ousted after 200 years of struggle with the Swahili, and finally by the British who left at Independence in 1963. Kenya’s cultural diversity forms an essential core of Kenya‘s tourism. Its rich heritage provides a foundation for tourism resource beyond nature and wildlife.

Discover more about the Profile of Kenya

Brief Overview of Tourism in Kenya

Kenya offers mountains and deserts, rainforest, rolling grassland, colorful tribal cultures, beaches and coral reefs, islands, the Great Rift Valley and, of course, outstanding wildlife displays. Safaris have been at the core of Kenya’s tourism for decades. Kenya’s national parks are models for the world and abundant with wildlife; lions, elephants, leopards, rhinoceros, hippopotamuses, and buffaloes. Kenya is home to more than 359 different species of animals and 500 species of birds. For conservation, Kenya has set aside some 47,674 km2 in 29 National Parks, 27 Reserves, 4 Sanctuaries, and 100+ Wildlife Conservancies. It entices adventure tourists with trekking in Mount Kenya, ballooning in the Mara and scuba diving in the Indian Ocean. Other sports enthusiasts, content with less adventure, are drawn to Kenya’s golf offerings. And that just the tip of it. There are more than 1,500 places of interest in Kenya with unrepeatable stories and experiences – from insightful cultural sites, to modern heritage and historical sites with extraordinary histories. There is a reason they call it ‘Magical Kenya’.

Kenya in Pictures

Kenya in Pictures - TurnUp Kenya