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.