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Last Published: 8/9/2019
Market Overview

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Kenya has a market-based economy and is generally considered the economic, commercial, financial and logistics hub of East Africa. With the strongest industrial base in East Africa, Kenya has been successful in attracting U.S. exporters and investors. More U.S. companies are investing in Kenya and setting up local and regional operations to take advantage of Kenya’s strategic location, diversified economy, entrepreneurial workforce, comprehensive air routes, and status as a regional financial center.
An additional attraction for U.S. companies is the strength of Kenya's human resources. According to UN data, Kenya’s population stood at 47.2 million people in 2016. Its urban areas, particularly Nairobi, are noted for their large number of well-educated English-speaking and multi-lingual professionals, and for their strong entrepreneurial tradition. Kenya is also a very “young” country with almost 79% of the population under the age of 35.

At the same time, businesses operating in Kenya face a number of challenges associated with corruption, unemployment, land titles, security, and poverty. The country’s per capita GDP was $1,608 in 2017, but unemployment and poverty remain high with an estimated 40% of the population living below the poverty line.
Sustained and significant economic growth is essential if Kenya is to address its development challenges. According to the World Bank, Kenya’s economy grew by 4.9% in 2017 anchored primarily on investment in public infrastructure, strong remittance inflows, low oil prices and a recovery in the tourism sector.  2017 growth  was lower due to a drought that led to crop failure, higher energy prices and food insecurity, as well as to a slowdown in investments ahead of the August elections. These elections were the second under a new constitution adopted in 2010. One of the most notable changes brought about by the new constitution was a broad devolution of responsibilities from the national government to local governments in 47 counties.

Following the 2017 election, President Uhuru Kenyatta recently outlined his agenda for his second and final term in office that will help shape his legacy.  The four-pillar agenda, dubbed the “Big Four”, will focus on food security, affordable housing, universal healthcare and manufacturing.  These four areas will also form the focus of his administration in dispensing their duties and will present opportunities for trade and investments for both local and international firms.

The World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business Index’ shows Kenya moved up again in the 2018 report to position 61 globally. This jump in ranking came following similar improvements in 2016 and 2017. The government has initiated a broad range of business reforms including the areas of starting a business, obtaining access to electricity, registering property, protecting minority investors and streamlining insolvency rules.  Kenya is also experiencing a strong flow of FDI, with the majority of foreign investment going into renewable energy projects.

Agriculture remains the backbone of Kenya’s economy and central to Kenya’s development strategy. It accounts for more than 35% of GDP and is the largest employer with more than 70% of Kenyans earning at least part of their income in the sector.

Although Kenya is the most industrially developed country in East Africa, manufacturing accounts for only 8.4% of GDP. Key exports such as tea, coffee and floriculture require little or no processing. Although Kenya’s mineral resources are limited, the country has a potentially important source of high-value mineral commodities such as titanium and gold. The construction and real estate sector is one of the fastest growing sectors in Kenya, growing at 7.4% in 2017. The growth is generally attributed to government investment in public infrastructure development projects as well as the real estate sector (road, rail, energy, port and airport modernization).

The technology sector is also one of the fastest growing business sectors in Kenya, and internet access rates are some of the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. The rise of 4G and 4G LTE services and the growth in smartphone usage is influencing growth in e-commerce and other e-based services and innovation.

The tourism sector in Kenya is one of the most diverse in East Africa with increased investments in conference, eco and leisure tourism. Tourist arrivals increased 8.1% in 2017, with Americans ranked number one in tourist arrivals for the second year, and sector earnings grew by 20.3% to approximately $1 billion. This increase, coupled with investments in new hotel space and Kenya Airways’ continued dominance in the region, could see tourism continue to grow.

Nairobi is the transportation hub of Eastern and Central Africa and the largest city between Cairo and Johannesburg. The Port of Mombasa is the most important deep-water port in the region, supplying the shipping needs of more than a dozen countries.

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