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Kenya Profile (A Brief History)

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

Kenya, officially the Republic of Kenya, located on the East Africa coastline is Africa’s seventh most populous country with 47 million people and sixth largest economy with a GDP of 109 billion dollars. Kenya’s capital and largest city is Nairobi and its oldest city Mombasa dates to about 900 AD. Kenya’s diverse wildlife and geography draws many North American and European visitors, helping the tourism industry become a key contributor to GDP.

Early history of Kenya

East Africa, including Kenya, is one of the earliest regions where modern humans (Homo sapiens) are believed to have lived. Evidence of modern-day human behavior including long distance trade networks, the use of pigments, and possible making of sharp tools dating back 320,000 years ago have been found in Kenya.

The first inhabitants of modern-day Kenya were hunter-gatherer groups probably of Cushitic descent. Roughly around 500 BC, Nilotic-speaking herders started migrating from Sudan towards Kenya. By the first century the Bantu expansion began and native Bantu speaking migrants began to settle in Kenya.

Bantu Expansion

The Bantu expansion refers to the migrations of the original Bantu speaking group of migrants roughly about 3,500 years ago, from West Africa into Sub-Saharan Africa. In the process the Bantu speaking settlers displaced or absorbed the inhabitants of Central Africa. The primary evidence of expansion lies in the linguistic core of the Bantu languages, which comprises of languages originating from Cameroon and Nigeria, West Africa.

The expansion is believed to have taken place between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago into two main waves, the first proceeding directly east towards East-Africa, and the second and largest went south along the African coast towards Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and as far south as South Africa.

Kingdom of Mapungubwe

By the 11th century large scale powerful Bantu-speaking states began to emerge, one of the first was the Kingdom of Mapungubwe sometime between 1075 – 1220 AD. The kingdom was likely divided into a three-tiered hierarchy with commoners inhabiting low-lying sites, district leaders occupying small hilltops, and the capital at Mapungubwe hill as the supreme authority. Life in Mapungubwe was centered on family and farming.

Kingdom of Zimbabwe

Roughly around the collapse of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe, around 1000 AD, the Kingdom of Zimbabwe grew to a powerful city-state located in modern-day Zimbabwe. The rulers of Zimbabwe brought stonemasonry traditions of the Mapungubwe and constructed elaborate stone buildings and walls. Just like the Mapungubwe they also had a three-tiered class structure. The Kingdom gained wealth by taxing other rulers throughout the region. The Kingdom at its height had over 150 tributaries, becoming much larger than their predecessors. The Kingdom was the dominant ivory and mined minerals like gold, copper, and iron.

Mutapa Empire

Established roughly around 1400 AD, the Kingdom overtook the Kingdom of Zimbabwe and became a vast empire that covered territories from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, through South Africa. The empire had a well-trained army but grew rapidly by inviting other states to join the empire and offered membership to its Great Council of the Empire if they did not resist. The empire had an agricultural economy at its core with mining operations that fueled trade and the empires wealth. By 1450 the empire divided into smaller Kingdoms.

Mthethwa Empire

The Mthethwa Empire was a South Africa state that arose in the 18th century, their ancestral origins dates back 700 years to the Nguni tribes of the Great Lakes in Central Africa. The kingdom consisted of 30 Nguni Chiefdoms, lineages, and clans. The Nguni tribes formed a confederacy of tribes including the Zulu clan with the Mthethwa clan dominating.

Swahili Trade Period

The Kenyan coast by the 1st century turned into and economic hub and many of the city-states such of Mombasa, Malindi, and Zanzibar began to establish trading relations with Arabs. This led to the creation of Swahili, a Bantu language with Arabic, Persian, and other Middle Eastern and South Asian loanwords became language of trade among the different people.

As trade increased this led to economic growth of the Swahili states, the introduction of Islam, Arabic influences on the Swahili Bantu language, cultural diffusion, as well as the Swahili city-states becoming members of larger trade networks.

Kilwa Sultante

Sometime in the 10th century the entire Swahili coast was controlled by the Kilwa Sultanate, a powerful kingdom from modern-day Tanzania. The rulers would go on to build elaborate coral mosques and introduce copper coinage.

Some historians would wrongly assume these city-states were of Arab development, but archeological evidence suggests otherwise that these city-states were of indigenous development, though influenced by foreign trade, retained its Bantu cultural core.

Omani Kingdom

By the 17th century the Omani Kingdom conquered the Swahili coast and began developing plantations across the kingdom with one of the largest being in Zanzibar. The Omani’s began a lucrative slave trade with the Portuguese in response to the interruption of the transatlantic slave trade by the British Empire.

Colonialization of Kenya

In 1890 the majority of Kenya became a colony of the British Empire and the Imperial British East Africa Company began to cultivate the lands of Kenya. Although parts of the Kenya were controlled by the German East Africa company a truce had been formed between the British and Germans, eventually after World War I, Kenya became a colony of the British Empire, giving it the name Kenya after its highest mountain. During the early part of the 20th century, the interior highlands were settled by British and European farmers who go on to become extremely wealthy farming coffee and tea. Throughout World War II, Kenya was an important source of manpower and agriculture for the United Kingdom, also hosting battles between Mussolini’s fascist army, British soldiers, and native soldiers.

Independence of Kenya

In 1952 the Mau Mau rebellion began and for the next seven years Kenya would be under a state of emergency, with Great Britain having to raise an army to fight off the insurgency. In order to appease natives the British colonial administration would form the Swynnerton Plan of 1954, a colonial agricultural policy that would expand native Kenyan’s cash crop production through improved markets and infrastructure, the distribution of appropriate inputs, and the gradual consolidation and enclosure of land holdings.

The Swynnerton Plan was a modest attempt at buying political favor for the colonial administration but proved to be unappealing to the masses. Further actions taken by the colonial administration would lead to the removal of all racial and political barriers, inhibiting the free movement of land, labor, and capital. The Swynnerton Plan began the path to independence for native Kenyans.

Elections for native Kenyans were held in 1957 to the Legislative Council, and the Kenya African National Union of Jomo Kenyatta formed a government. The Colony of Kenya and the Protectorate of Kenya each came to an end December 12, 1963. A year later on December 12, 1964 the Kenya officially became the Republic of Kenya.

Economy of Kenya

With a GDP of 109 billion dollars, Kenya is Africa’s sixth largest economy, with recent oil and gas reserves being discovered, Kenya’s economy will enjoy strong growth in the years to come.


The services industry in Kenya is one of the most advanced and modern in all of Africa, it accounts for 43% of GDP and employs 35% of the workforce. Tourism a key contributor to the services economy has been affected by terrorist attacks but will rebound and become thriving again.


The agricultural industry contributes 35% to GDP and employs 57% of the workforce. Kenya is third largest producer of tea and second largest exporter in the world and is also top 20 in the world for coffee exports. Kenya also produces wheat, sugarcane, fruit and vegetables, dairy products, beef, fish, pork, poultry, and eggs.


Industrial production accounts for 16% of GDP and employs 8% of the workforce. The country is not currently rich in minerals but with discoveries of titanium, oil, and gas it will become a large portion of GDP in the future.

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