For more than two decades, Kenya was an important country for Norwegian development cooperation, until the cooperation between the two countries ceased abruptly in 1990. It was then resumed in 2002. Kenya has one of the strongest economies in East Africa and serves as a regional hub.

Facts about Kenya

The flag for Kenya
Life expectancy
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GNI pr capita
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Percentage poor people (below 1.25$)
The flag for Kenya
The flag for Kenya

Kenya gained its independence from British colonial rule in 1963. Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party, was the country’s first president.  Kenyatta was one of the principle nationalist leaders in independent Africa and served as president until 1978. When it became independent, Kenya was better placed economically than its neighbouring countries in East Africa and in addition enjoyed economic growth throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Kenya chose to align itself with the West in its foreign policy, and its economy was organised as a mixed economy that included both state control and scope for private business and industry. It became in practice a one-party state in 1969, with the banning of a left-wing opposition party formed by the country’s first vice president, Oginga Odinga.

Kenya encompasses several ethnic groups, the most important being the Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo and Kalenjin groups. At the time of independence, ethnicity was already a significant aspect of Kenyan politics. Kenyatta, himself a Kikuyu, emphasised the importance of balancing the different interests. Following Kenyatta’s death in 1978, vice president Daniel arap Moi became president. Moi belonged to the Kalenjin ethnic group.

Experts and support for higher education

From 1970, Kenya became a preferred partner country for Norwegian development cooperation. In common with other newly independent nations, the country suffered from a severe shortage of educated professionals. Norway sent advisers to the central administration and professional practitioners such as architects, engineers and agricultural experts.

An investment was made in higher education. From 1965, the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science was involved in a pioneering initiative to establish a new Department of Animal Production at the University of Nairobi, writes Jarle Simensen in volume 1 of his historical work Norsk utviklingshjelps historie (the History of Norwegian Development Aid).

Norwegian development aid also went towards establishing a Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Technology at the university, and strengthening degree programmes in engineering. Norway also helped to establish a three-year degree programme for healthcare workers who were to work in the new public health clinics around the country, through a new educational facility in the town of Thika that was opened in 1969.

Kenya was one of the main countries for FK Norway, and from 1968 onwards several hundred Norwegian volunteers served in the country through FK Norway. Many of them worked in the school sector, often as teachers in upper secondary schools.

The fisheries industry in the desert and drinking water

In the late 1960s, what was to become an ambitious, Norwegian-driven regional development programme started in Turkana. Turkana is a semi-arid region of northwestern Kenya. One of the first projects was to ensure a better road link, to exploit the abundant fisheries resources in Lake Turkana, Kenya’s second largest lake after Lake Victoria. Construction of the road began in 1970, and in 1975 the building of a large fish-processing and freezing facility by Lake Turkana was started. However, the facility, which was completed in 1981, was never put into operation as planned.

One of the reasons why the plans failed was that the economic assumptions failed to hold true, and account was not taken of the fact that the water level in the lake could vary due to natural causes. When the water level fell considerably over the course of a few years, the facility was left standing in the desert. Another factor was that the traditional livelihood of the local population, who belong to the Turkana ethnic group, was cattle farming, and fishing did not appeal to them as a way of life.

Turkana was a poor, outlying region of Kenya and had received little attention from the country’s authorities. The Norwegian programme also included health and education, forestation and agricultural development based on irrigation. In 1987, as many as 35 different projects were encompassed by the programme, write Arild Engelsen Ruud and Kirsten Alsaker Kjerland in volume 2 of Norsk utviklingshjelps historie (the History of Norwegian Development Aid).

Norwegian development aid predominated in the region. In total, more than NOK 870 million was spent, based on the 1991 value of the Norwegian krone. The programme was terminated in 1991, along with most other Norwegian development aid to Kenya (see below).

Alongside the Turkana programme, water supply development was another important area for Norwegian development aid in Kenya in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the largest programmes was based on boosting the supply of drinking water in 50 small and medium-sized towns. The long-term consequences were evaluated in a report from 2007, which found that more than 90 per cent of the installations were still in use.

Criticism of Moi and a halt in Norwegian development aid

Kenya under President Moi increasingly became the subject of international criticism for human rights violations. Following the end of the Cold War, Western aid donors pushed for increased democracy, and in 1991 multiparty elections were introduced. Moi won the elections held in the 1990s and served as president until 2002.

In 1990, Kenya broke off diplomatic ties with Norway. This rupture resulted in the cessation of virtually all development aid from Norway to Kenya – after more than two decades of cooperation. The background for the rupture was Norwegian criticism of the human rights situation in Kenya. The Kenyan government accused Norway of having supported the opposition in the country. The case of the Kenyan activist and opposition politician Koigi wa Wamwere played an important role.

In 1986, Wamwere was granted political asylum in Norway, but was arrested in Uganda in 1989 and was brought to trial in Kenya, accused of high treason. Norway criticised the treatment of Wamwere, and his case was widely publicised in the Norwegian media. A massacre of ethnic Somalians perpetrated by Kenyan security forces in the city of Wagalla in 1984 also played a part in the Norwegian debate.

Diplomatic ties between Norway and Kenya were re-established in 1994. Development aid of any significance was only re-established in 2002 after the signing of a memorandum of understanding on development work.

Elections and ethnic violence

The KANU ruling party lost power for the first time in the presidential election of 2002, when the opposition candidate Mwai Kibaki won. In the 2007 election, the votes were very evenly divided. When Kibaki, the incumbent president, was declared the victor, violent riots broke out, in which conflicts between the Kikuyus and the Luos surfaced. At least 1100 people were killed in the violence, and 600 000 were forced to flee their homes. Raila Odinga, the son of the country’s first vice president, was the opposition candidate and later became prime minister following a power-sharing agreement.

Following the riots that were triggered by the election in 2007, a revision of the Constitution was undertaken to address the underlying causes of discontent in the population. In 2010, a new, progressive Constitution was ratified in a referendum. The Constitution strengthened citizens’ rights, and paved the way for comprehensive transfer of power and influence to 47 new counties.

The elections in 2013 were largely conducted peacefully. Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Jomo Kenyatta, was elected president. At that time charges had been brought against Kenyatta, along with other key Kenyan politicians, by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for his role in the riots following the election in 2007. The charges were later withdrawn.

Aid for governance and economic development

Support for good governance was an important component of Norwegian development aid to Kenya in the 2000s. Norway has, for example, contributed to the preparation of the new Constitution, strengthening of political parties and decentralisation of power. Norway has furthermore supported the work of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights in preparing a national action plan on business and human rights.

Kenya’s economic growth since 2000 has been significant, and it became a middle-income country in 2014. The economic growth has largely been driven by public investment in infrastructure. Kenya has greater economic inequality than many of its neighbouring countries. In 2005, 46 per cent of the Kenyan population lived below the country’s own poverty line.

Kenya is an economic hub in East Africa, and for foreign investors can often serve as a gateway to the entire region. Norfund has invested extensively in the country, in sectors such as energy, agriculture and banking. In 2015, Norfund and investment company Norfinance jointly acquired a large stake in Equity Bank, which is Kenya’s second largest bank. The purpose of the investment was to support access to capital for small and medium-sized businesses. Norfund has also invested in the country’s largest wind farm, the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project, which was started in 2014.

The Government Pension Fund Global (the Petroleum Fund) made its first investment in Kenya in 2012, and in March 2017 held shares of almost NOK one billion in 15 different companies. The investments included companies in the finance, energy, cement production, consumer goods and telecommunications sectors.

Published 29.08.2014
Last updated 20.02.2019