Introduction to Geography of Kenya

Kenya, or Republic of Kenya, a country in East Africa. Until 1963 it was a British dependency, called Kenya Colony and Protectorate. Kenya lies on the Equator along the Indian Ocean and is bordered by Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

Facts in brief about Kenya
Capital: Nairobi.
Languages: Official-English; National-Swahili (or Kiswahili).
Official name: Jamhuri ya Kenya (Republic of Kenya).
Area: 224,081 mi2. (580,367 km2). Greatest distances—north-south, 640 mi. (1,030 km); east-west, 560 mi. (901 km). Coastline—284 mi. (457 km).
Elevation: Highest—Mount Kenya, 17,058 ft. (5,199 m) above sea level. Lowest—sea level along the coast.
Population: Current estimate—37,190,000; density, 166 persons per mi2 (64 per km2); distribution, 64 percent rural, 36 percent urban. 1999 census—28,686,607.
Chief products: Agriculture—bananas, beef, cassava, coffee, corn, pineapples, pyrethrum, sisal, sugar cane, tea, wheat. Manufacturing—cement, chemicals, light machinery, textiles, processed foods, petroleum products.
Flag and coat of arms: Kenya's flag and coat of arms were adopted in 1963. The flag has three horizontal stripes, black, red, and green (top to bottom). The black stripe represents the Kenyan people, the red stripe their struggle for independence, and the green strip agriculture. A shield and spears in the center of the flag stand for defense of freedom. The coat of arms has two lions holding spears and the Swahili word for pulling together.
Money: Basic unit—Kenyan shilling. One hundred cents equal one shilling.

Physical Geography

KenyaKenya is a country on the east coast of Africa.

A narrow, low-lying plain borders Kenya's 280-mile (450-km) coast. Offshore there are coral reefs and several small islands. The rest of the eastern part of the country and almost all of the north---some three-fifths of the total area---consists of semiarid low plateaus, plains, and hills. Much of this region is sparsely populated and has a desolate appearance.

An elevated plateau and mountain region in the southwest, called the Kenya Highlands, is the heart of the nation, containing the bulk of Kenya's population and farmland. Much of the land lies 5,000 to 10,000 feet (1,500 to 3,000 m) above sea level and is dotted by extinct volcanoes. Among them are 17,058-foot (5,199-m) Mount Kenya, the highest mountain in Kenya, and Mount Elgon, which rises to a height of 14,178 feet (4,321 m) on the Uganda border. In the Aberdare Range north of Nairobi, Kenya's capital, peaks crest at more than 13,000 feet (4,000 m).

One arm of Africa's Great Rift Valley cuts through western Kenya. In many localities, especially in the highlands, it forms a steepsided trench 30 to 40 miles (48 to 64 km) wide and 2,000 to 3,000 feet (600 to 900 m) deep.


Most lakes, including Kenya's largest body of water, Lake Turkana, occur in the Great Rift Valley, where there is no outward drainage. A small section of Lake Victoria juts into the southwest. The adjoining shore is one of the most tropically humid parts of the country. Tips of Lake Stefanie, in the north, and Lake Natron, in the south, belong to Kenya.

Principal rivers are the Tana and the Galana-Athi, which flow from the highlands to the Indian Ocean. Smaller rivers include the Nzoia and Mara, both of which empty into Lake Victoria. Elsewhere, especially in the north and east, streams are intermittent, flowing only occasionally or during part of the year.


Although Kenya lies on the Equator, its climate varies considerably in temperature and precipitation. To a large extent, temperatures are governed by elevation. Mombasa, a port city on the Indian Ocean, has temperatures near 80° F. (27° C.) throughout the year. Nairobi, in contrast, some 5,500 feet (1,700 m) above sea level in the highlands, has average temperatures of 60° to 65° F. (16° to 18° C.) and has much greater temperature variations from night to day.

Rain is abundant along the coast; normally about 35 to 50 inches (890 to 1,270 mm) fall each year, depending on location. Similar amounts fall throughout the highlands, though several of the higher areas and the shore of Lake Victoria receive considerably more. Northern Kenya and the interior areas of the east are quite dry. Parts of the north receive less than 10 inches (250 mm) a year, and desertlike conditions occur.

Vegetation and Wild Animals

Kenya is primarily a grassland, consisting of savannas and steppes. The savannas are generally tall-grass areas with small, thorny trees growing singly or in patches. The steppes, which receive less rain, usually lack trees and often have only a scant covering of grass. Forests are found mainly in scattered localities along the coast and in the loftier, more humid parts of the highlands. Few of the forests form dense growths.

Kenya is richly endowed with animal life. Big game, including elephants, rhinoceroses, lions, giraffes, zebras, and wildebeests, are among the more notable animals. There is also an abundance of small mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and insects. Because of human encroachments, many of the animals are decreasing in number. To protect them, Kenya's government maintains numerous parks and game conservation areas. Amboseli and Tsavo national parks hold some of the largest concentrations of big game in East Africa.

The Economy

Kenya's economy has improved steadily since the country gained independence in 1963. In many respects Kenya is the most prosperous country in East Africa. The nation has well-established manufacturing industries and services. By most Western standards, however, Kenya is still a relatively poor country. It is heavily dependent on farming and lacks the money, mineral resources, skilled workers, and professional persons required to build a modern society rapidly. Also, Kenya's rapid population growth has made sustained growth of the nation's economy difficult. Both manufacturing and service industries are important in the country. The economy functions as a free enterprise system but the government places several restrictions on the businesses.


About a third of the people derive their livelihood from farming and herding, which have long been mainstays of the economy. The chief farming areas are in the highlands, around Lake Victoria, and along the coast. Because of scant rainfall, most of the country can be used for little but grazing.

Until the early 20th century most of the land suitable for crops was in large estates owned by Europeans. Since then, much of this land has been transferred to Africans and there are numerous cooperative farms and many small, privately owned plots. Some of the estates, however, have been kept intact. The small farms cover from about 2 ½ acres (1 hectares) to 50 acres (20 hectares) while the large estates range from 100 acres (40 hectares) to more than 5000 acres ( 2000 hectares). Many of the farmers live at the subsistence level and use traditional methods of crop cultivation. The use of modern tools has been on a rise since the mid 20th century.

The main food crops are corn, cassava, and sweet potatoes. Coffee and tea are the chief commercial crops and agricultural exports. Other cash crops include cashews, cotton, pineapples, sugar cane, pyrethrum, and sisal. The chief subsistence crops are corn, bananas, beans, cassava, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and wheat. These subsistence crops as well as beef and milk are sold on a limited basis. Cattle are the most numerous farm animals; next are goats and sheep. Camels are herded in the drier parts of the country.


Manufacturing was established shortly after World War II to process agricultural products for export. The industry has since expanded, and numerous small-scale plants now make food products, beverages, tobacco, wood and paper products, textiles, clothing, shoes, and other consumer goods. Kenya also produces machinery, trucks and automobiles, chemicals, and petroleum products. Most of the manufactured goods are for local use, but some are marketed elsewhere in East Africa. Nairobi and, to a lesser extent, Mombasa are the chief manufacturing centers. Except for petroleum refining in Mombasa and the making of cement, Kenya has few heavy industries.


Kenya's abundant wildlife is a major tourist attraction, earning large amounts of foreign exchange. More than 500,000 tourists visit Kenya annually. Safaris, most of which originate in Nairobi, are conducted for sightseers and photographers. The industry provides over $200 million annually to the economy. Around 40,000 Kenyans are employed by the tourism industry.

Mining takes place on a limited scale as there are very few valuable minerals in Kenya. Minerals like soda, fluorite, salt, and gemstones are mined.

The chief exports of the country include coffee, tea, and petroleum products. Cement, flowers, meat, pineapples, and sisal are also exported. Kenya imports industrial machinery, iron and steel, and petroleum. Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States are its chief trading partners.


Railways are the chief means of transport in Kenya. The railway system consists primarily of a main line from Mombasa, through Nairobi, into Uganda. Few of Kenya's roads are paved. Less than 1 per cent of the Kenyans own a vehicle. Buses and crowded taxis called matatus are commonly used by people. Mombasa is the chief port of East Africa, serving all of Kenya and some foreign areas. Kisumu handles freight and passenger service on Lake Victoria. The center of domestic and international air service is the modern airport at Nairobi.

Radio and television programs in Swahili and English are broadcasted by The Voice of Kenya. On an average there is a radio for every 12 people and 1 television set for every 105 people. Two English dailies and one Swahili daily are published in Kenya.

The People

Virtually all of the people are Africans, members of more than 70 different ethnic groups, predominantly Bantu. The Bantu people live mainly in the coastal region and the southwestern uplands. The Kikuyus, a Bantu people, are the largest group in the country and a dominant force in Kenya's political and social life. Principal non-Bantu peoples include the Luo and the Turkana in the west, and the Somalis in the east. Among the smaller groups are the Masai, a pastoral people who use the blood and milk of their cattle as a main food.

The non-African population, which is less than 1 per cent, consists mainly of Britons, Arabs, and Asians (Indians and Pakistanis). Many of the British hold government positions or have managerial jobs in the manufacturing, banking, and communications industries. The Asians own a large percentage of the small businesses. The number of Africans involved in commerce and government has been slowly increasing.

Language and Religion

The official and most widely used language is Swahili (Kiswahili), the commercial tongue of all East Africa. Other widely spoken tongues are English, Kikuyu, and Luo. Most of the people are Christians, about 30 per cent of them Roman Catholics. About 20 per cent are animists, and about 6 per cent are Muslims.


Primary education begins as early as age five and lasts eight years. Secondary school lasts five years. The leading institution of higher learning is the University of Nairobi (founded in 1956). About 70 per cent of the people are literate.


Under the constitution of 1963, Kenya is a republic. Executive power is held by an elected president, who serves a five-year term. The presidential candidate must win the elections for a seat in the National Assembly as well as for the office of the President. He appoints his vice president and a 20 member cabinet. Each Cabinet minister heads an executive department. The Cabinet members are selected from the members of the Assembly itself. The legislature is the single-house National Assembly, with 210 elected members and 12 members appointed by the president. Members serve five-year terms.

There are seven provinces and the district of Nairobi in Kenya. The provinces are further divided into districts and sub districts. Each province is headed by a commissioner while the sub districts are headed by local chiefs. They fall under the direct authority of the City commissioner who heads the Nairobi district. Councils look after administration in rural counties, cities, and towns.

The Kenya African National Union (KANU) is the largest political party in Kenya. After other political parties became legalized in 1991 many other parties have become dominant. Besides KANU, other political parties include the Democratic Party (DP) and three factions of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD-Asili, FORD-Kenya, and FORD-People).

The judicial system is based on English law. The Kenya Court of Appeal is the highest judicial body followed by the High Court which hears appeals from lower courts. The Court of Appeal hears appeals from the High Court. Resident magistrate courts and district magistrate courts are the lower courts. There are special courts to hear matters involving Islamic law.