Kenya: The Demographics of a Country in Turmoil

(January 2008) Opposition to Kenya’s recent election resulted in days of deadly riots. Kenya’s demographic trends provide some background to the current situation, revealing both advances and continuing challenges.

The fallout came after a contentious presidential election between two candidates from different ethnic groups. Victory was declared for the sitting president, Mwai Kibaki, with 51 percent of the vote to 49 percent for Raila Odinga in the tightest presidential race in Kenyan history. But many question the legitimacy of the election.

Much of the recent unrest erupted around the two leading contenders: Kiibaki, who is Kikuyu, and Odinga, who is Luo. Kenya is home to some 36 million people from more than 40 different ethnic groups. According to recent estimates, the largest three groups (see Table 1) Kikuyu (22 percent), Luhya (14 percent), and Luo (13 percent), account for just under one-half of the population. 

Table 1
Top Five Ethnic Groups in Kenya, Most Recent Estimate

Percent of Population
Kikuyu 22
Luhya 14
Luo 13
Kalenjin 12
Kamba 11

Source: Library of Congress, Country Profile: Kenya (2007).

Since Kenya’s independence in 1963, the major ethnic groups have vied for land and political power. Population growth contributed to the pressure on land and resources in Kenya, where even today, four-fifths of the population lives in rural areas. High fertility, combined with declining mortality, gave Kenya one of the world’s fastest population growth rates in the 1970s and 1980s. The total population rose from about 10 million at independence to 15 million by 1978. This rapid growth, combined with an economic slowdown, prompted the government to promote family planning to lower fertility rates. Kenya was one of the first countries to adopt a policy to slow population growth.1

The idea of limiting births was slow to catch on in a society that valued large families, but Kenya’s total fertility rate (TFR), or average number of births per woman, declined from an estimated 8.1 children per woman in the late 1960s to 5.4 in the early 1990s, according to UN estimates. Kenya’s remarkable success in lowering its fertility rate was linked to a growing acceptance of family planning. The percentage of women of childbearing age who use a family planning method rose from single digits in the 1970s to about 33 percent in 1993. However, Kenya’s fertility decline has slowed considerably since then, with the 2007 TFR estimated at 4.9 children per woman–below the 5.5 children per woman average for sub-Saharan Africa, but above the average for all less developed countries (3.3). The percentage of women using a contraceptive was 39 percent in 2007 (see Table 2), above the average for sub-Saharan Africa, but below the average in other world regions.

Kenya has also had to grapple with the AIDS epidemic, which eroded hard-won progress in health and mortality, and led to an estimated decline in the average life expectancy from 59 years in the 1980s to 53 years in the 2007. Despite the fertility decline and AIDS mortality, however, Kenya’s population has continued to grow at a rapid clip: about 2.6 percent annually in the early 2000s. The total population has more than doubled since 1978, and is projected to reach 65 million by 2050.

Part of this growth is tied to Kenya’s relatively young population. Slightly more than four in 10 Kenyans are under age 15. Despite some progress, the population remains poor and largely rural. A large majority of urban dwellers (71 percent) live in slums. About six in 10 Kenyans say that within the last year they have been unable to afford health care, clothing, or food. With 6.1 percent of its population (ages 15 to 49) living with HIV/AIDS, its HIV rate is high by world standards, although lower than that of other countries in the region such as Botswana (24.1 percent) and South Africa (18.8 percent).2

Table 2
Selected Demographic Data for Kenya

Population, mid-2007 37 million
Projected population, 2050 65 million
Projected population increase,
Infant mortality rate* 77
Total fertility rate** 4.9
Percent of population < age 15 42
Percent of population age 65+ 2
Life expectancy (years) 53
Percent of population ages 15-49 with HIV/AIDS, 2005/2006 6.1
Percent of married women ages 15-49 using contraception 39
GNI PPP per capita (US$)*** 1,300
Percent urban 19

*Infant mortality rate is the number of deaths of infants younger than 1 per 1,000 live births.
**Total fertility rate is the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime.
***GNI PPP per capita (US$) is gross national income in purchasing power parity divided by midyear population.
Source: C. Haub, 2007 World Population Data Sheet.

Kenya faces many challenges. Rapid population growth plus declining economic performance has translated into less income per person. More than half (55 percent) of people live below Kenya’s poverty line, up from 48 percent in 1990. In 2006, 58 percent lived on less than $2 a day.3

One potential bright spot may come from a “youth bulge” produced by Kenya’s recent demographic trends and projected fertility declines.4 The ratio of working-age adults to children is projected to increase from 1.3 to 1.8 between 2006 and 2030, which could spur economic growth that could improve the circumstances of all Kenyans. Experience in Asia, for example, has demonstrated that such demographic trends will produce economic growth only when a country has a stable, effective government and economic environment, among other factors.

Sandra Yin is editor at the Population Reference Bureau (PRB). Mary Kent is senior demographic editor at PRB.


  1. Ayorinde Ajayi and John Kekovole, “Kenya’s Population Policy: From Apathy to Effectiveness,” in Do Population Policies Matter?, ed. Anrudh Jain (New York: Population Council, 1998): 113-25.
  2. Carl Haub, 2007 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 2007); UN-HABITAT, “Slum Estimates Data – Table 1: Population of Slum Areas at Mid-Year, by Region and Country 2001,” accessed online at, on Jan. 7, 2008; and The Kaiser Family Foundation and Pew Global Attitudes Project, A Global Look At Public Perceptions of Health Problems, Priorities, And Donors: The Kaiser/Pew Global Health Survey, accessed online at, on Jan. 8, 2008.
  3. Library of Congress-Federal Research Division, Country Profile: Kenya (2007), accessed online at, on Jan. 8, 2007; and Carl Haub, 2006 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 2006).
  4. Lori S. Ashford, Africa’s Youthful Population: Risk or Opportunity? (2007), accessed online at, on Jan. 9, 2008.