The Role of Intergenerational Land Transfers and Education in Fertility Transition in Rural Kenya

The original version of this article appeared in Population and Environment 30, no. 3 (2009): 75-92.

(July 2010) Little is known about the role of land inheritance in the link between land availability and fertility. The recent transition from high to lower levels of fertility in some African countries presents an opportunity to clarify the underlying causes of this decline, since the individuals involved in the transitions are still alive. Using data from focus group discussions with people whose childbearing occurred before and during the rapid and unexpected fertility decline in Nyeri District in rural Kenya, we examined the impact of diminishing land availability, farm size, and inheritance patterns on fertility decisionmaking and behavior. The results shed new light on the role of education, long considered the key determinant of fertility transition. Our research suggests that rather than inheritance being an external factor affecting fertility behavior, parents in Nyeri District chose to educate their children after realizing they would not be able to bequeath a sufficient amount of land. Our work provides evidence of the importance of considering the influence of environmental factors on demographic processes, particularly in regions of resource dependence.

Land and Fertility in Rural Kenya

Ninety percent of rural Kenyans derive their livelihood directly from the land.1 Rapid population growth due to high fertility rates in the past and declining mortality has resulted in land scarcity in many areas due in part to the traditional land tenure system in which parents divide their land equally among their sons.2 Over 90 percent of Kenya’s population resides on 18 percent of the country’s land area suitable for agriculture, and the amount of arable land per person has fallen in Kenya over the last half century. In Central Province (where Nyeri District is located), the per capita availability of land capable of producing crops declined from 0.58 hectares in 1969 to 0.19 in 1993, a loss of 67 percent.3

At the same time, Kenya was among the first sub-Saharan African countries to experience fertility decline, which occurred much earlier than expected by demographic experts.4 Central Province (and Nyeri District in particular) was a leader in the Kenyan transition. In 1978, Central Province had a total fertility rate (TFR) of 8.4 lifetime births per woman; by 1998, the TFR had declined 66 percent to 3.7.5

Field Study Findings

In June 1999, the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) conducted a field study in the Nyeri District, interviewing 76 participants in nine focus groups who were asked to talk about the most important changes in their lives between the time they started having children and the time they finished. They were also asked to list reasons for limiting fertility.

Several topics were mentioned as primary reasons for people to limit their family sizes, including the increasing cost of goods and education, but land was clearly the primary theme in the discussions. Indeed, participants in all focus group discussions alluded to how land availability and the size of landholdings affect their economic circumstances, food cost and availability, and desired family sizes.

Property Inheritance, Landholdings, and Fertility

The interviews showed that inheritance obligations had significant implications on fertility. Both men and women, especially younger, recently married respondents, reported making a decision on the number of children to have by assessing the size of the land either in the matrimonial home or the share that belonged to the husbands. The majority of participants—both men and women, and those who did and did not choose to limit their childbearing—mentioned that increasing land scarcity in the region is a primary factor in declining family sizes. A female in her mid-40s who limited her fertility said: “If you see that the land is small, and if you had planned to get five children for example, you have to reduce this number. This is because, if out of these five there are three boys and there is nothing you are giving them, probably just a fraction of an acre, automatically you know that you will only get a certain number of children.”

In addition to the declining amount of land available, farm sizes have been shrinking due to the subdivision of land. Indeed, participants cited the subdivision of land parcels among family members as a major factor influencing reproductive decisionmaking. In areas where the same land parcel had been handed down from one generation to another, the portion allocated to children (and their families) declined over the years. Limiting fertility is associated with the desire to pass on viable plot sizes. For example, a male respondent who did not limit his fertility explained: “When I started getting children, the farms were big, but after the subdivision…then the farm will be very small. So, when you are getting children, you have to consider that. I planted about 200 to 400 (coffee) plants. If I have five sons, and I subdivide this among them, they will get very few plants. So, nowadays, it is difficult to raise many children.”

Education as Response to Land Scarcity, Not a Cause of Fertility Decline

The results of the focus group discussions suggest that land may be the factor behind the relationship between higher levels of education and lower fertility. Participants reported that a quality education has become a substitute for land inheritance, and is often the only inheritance that parents can offer. For example, a man who limited the number of his children said: “Like us, when it comes to inheritance, there is no property. It is not like in the past when men had many cattle, land and they could say that they will give this and that to so and so. But today there is nothing that we can inherit and there is nothing that our children can inherit from us, since there is no property and life is expensive. So now you just educate the child and hope for the best and the child also just tries to survive and hope for the best for the fathers since there is no property now.”

Although our qualitative data cannot provide a conclusive finding for the relationships between land availability, farm size, education, and fertility, the data can provide an insight into the concerns men and women in Kenya and other agriculturally dependent settings have when thinking about their desired family size.

Decisions to limit family size are often based on the availability of resources. The participants repeatedly mentioned the importance of bequeathing these resources to their children. In the face of scarce resources, family size is likely to decrease. Further exploration into the importance of land availability as a causal factor in different contexts of inheritance practices is needed. Our research highlights the importance of inheritance customs, land availability, and productivity within reproductive decisionmaking—suggesting that environmental scarcity may motivate fertility declines. Further, we reveal education as a mediator within the association between land and fertility, with parents choosing educational investment as an alternative to traditional resource inheritance when faced with land scarcity. Such findings have important implications for understanding fertility patterns and improving predictions of future demand for schooling, as well as fertility levels in regions where resources are scarce and land inheritance is the norm.

Karina Shreffler is assistant professor in family science at Oklahoma State University, Tulsa. F. Nii-Amoo Dodoo is professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University.


  1. Kenya Land Alliance, Land Use in Kenya: The Case for a National Land Use Policy (Nakuru: Kenya Land Alliance, 2001).
  2. J.O. Oucho, “Demographic Implications of Population Distribution, Density and Movement Within Kenya’s Arable Lands,” in Issues in Resource Management and Development in Kenya, ed. R. A. Obudho and J. B. Ojwang (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers Ltd., 2000); and M. Ovuka, “Land Use Changes in Central Kenya From the 1950s: A Possibility to Generalize?” GeoJournal 51 (2000): 203-09.
  3. African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), Fertility Decline in Kenya: Levels, Trends, and Differentials (Nairobi: APHRC, 1998).
  4. M. Garenne and V. Joseph, “The Timing of the Fertility Transition in Sub-Saharan Africa,” World Development 30, no. 10 (2002): 1835-43.
  5. APHRC, Fertility Decline in Kenya.