As you can see from this population pyramid from the CIA Factbook, each cohort of five years increases rapidly until the 10-14 year old age group. The 5-9 age group is very similar to the 10-14 age group and now the 0-4 age group is considerably smaller. This implies that the birth rate in Kenya is declining significantly.

It is not clear how many people live in Kenya. The United Nations Population Division indicates that in 2018 there were 51,392,565 Kenyans. On the other hand the CIA Factbook reports 48,397,527 Kenyans. This is a difference of 2,995,038 people or almost 6%. The UN Population Division states that the 2018 fertility rate is 3.65 children per woman of child bearing age versus the CIA Factbook’s 2.81 children per woman. This is a difference of 0.84 children per woman. What is going on? (Note: You can read an article What goes up: are predictions of a population crisis wrong? from the Guardian, Jan 27, 2019 indicating that the UN Population Division is over-estimating the world’s population growth.)

I was in Kenya in 1970 when the fertility rate in Kenya peaked at over 8 children per woman, then considered the highest in the world. This was obvious. Women sixteen years and up to forty plus were mostly pregnant and/or had a baby on their back. Kids were everywhere. In those days, I knew one of the two women who worked at the only family planning office in all of Machakos District which then had a population of about a million people. She told me that her office was overwhelmed. Kenyans did then become concerned about this high birth rate and dropped it to around 4.9 children per woman of child bearing age. Gladys’ five sisters had a total of 23 children for an average of 4.6 children each. Therefore they were about average for the country during their child bearing years.

Except for the arid and semi-arid parts of Kenya, western Kenya where I live is supposed to have the highest fertility rate in Kenya. As I look at those 23 nieces and nephews, I see a dramatic decline. One nephew’s wife has four children, but he told me that they wanted only three, but the last pregnancy resulted in twin daughters. His sister who is in her mid-thirties has no children. Another nephew has four children, but with two wives so each has had only two. Nowhere do I see younger women with many, many children, two years apart, as I did in the late 1960s.

Population experts indicate that this falling birth rate is due to urbanization. As I covered in a previous report, Urbanization in Kenya: History does not Repeat Itself, in Kenya people do not just move to the cities and stay there, but often move back and forth from the countryside and the city, mostly retiring to their country home. This lowing birth rate is occurring here in the rural areas also. Education of women is supposed to also lower the birth rate. This year Kenya has implemented a new policy that all elementary school graduates should enter secondary school. Some Kenyans are becoming concerned because the female students are beginning to do better in the examinations than the male students. I suspect that cell phones, which most young people have, that give youth entrance into the outside world, is perhaps one of the more effective means of lowering the birth rate.

The last census was in 2009 when the official count was 38.6 million Kenyans. But there was a major discrepancy. In eight districts in the northern arid/semi-arid sections of Kenya, the census enumerators who are naturally from that area did not individually count the people in each family, but asked the elders how many people there were. This led to an impossible increase in the population from the previous 1999 census. Moreover this is an area where young people were likely to leave to look for employment in Nairobi and other more prosperous areas of Kenya. As a result the government adjusted down their population totals by 40% or 900,000 people. This led to a new total of only 37.7 million people. The politicians in those districts, understanding that the resources that the government would provide for those districts were based on their population, went to court to contest the 40 percent decrease. They won their case. During the 2017 election, voter registration in those districts (now called sub-counties) was very low compared to the rest of Kenya, confirming that the census figure was too high. Therefore the 2009 count was probably closer to the revised figure of 37.7 million instead of the “official” one of 38.6 million people that demographers use. I also suspect that some other areas of Kenya may also have somewhat inflated their population count.

This may be cleared up this month because the 2019 census will be conducted beginning on August 24. There has been a reaction to the over counting in the 2009 census. Politicians from the other parts of Kenya realized that the over counting led to less resources being allocated to their home areas.

As a consequence the government has required that every person in Kenya over five years old get a special Huduma Number (Huduma means “service” in Swahili) which is essentially equivalent to the social security number in the United States. Only 36 million people registered. Even if one accounts for children five and younger (perhaps 7 million children, but when I registered I saw lots of under six year old children being registered including our three and five year old children), the total is way less than the estimated population of either 49 million or 52 million. Of course there will be some people who have failed to register, but it can’t be too many because without the Huduma Number a person will not be able to access government services like enrolling in school, going to the hospital, getting a driver’s license, and so on. As far as the census is concerned, the number of Huduma Numbers issued in an area will verify or not verify the accuracy of the census.   

The results of the 2019 census will not come out until the end of the year, but I will be interested in seeing what they indicate about population growth and fertility in Kenya. I’ll update you at that time.


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David Zarembka

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Reports from Kenya: