Risk drivers and outlook

Kenya has been growing firmly in recent years, but growth has been driven by debt financed infrastructure projects. This has resulted in a growing twin deficit since 2005 and thereby to a build-up of external debt. This is worrying given that the country’s export receipts have stagnated since 2013.

Additionally, in recent months Kenya is going through a turbulent political time given that the August 2017 presidential elections were declared invalid and the opposition refused to participate in the rerun of the elections in October 2017. Nevertheless, it is not likely that the current situation will result in large scale political violence as has happened in 2007. Therefore, no long-lasting impact on the economy is expected. However, the political turbulence is undermining the credibility of the current president’s second term mandate. This could have a negative effect on the new government’s ability and willingness to push through economic reforms.

Due to the external debt build-up Credendo decided to downgrade Kenya’s medium-/long-term political risk to category 6 (the premium classification of the OECD remains in category 6). The short-term political risk classification remains in category 4. This medium/high risk outlook is warranted given the relatively large short-term debt overhang, which has increased in recent years. Commercial risk remains high (category C) due to the uncertain political environment, the impact of the interest rate cap on credit availability in the economy and the country’s difficult business environment.

Facts & figures


  • Diversified economy
  • Economy grew at a robust rate in the last decennia
  • Large infrastructure investments supposed to address export bottlenecks in the long term


  • Twin deficit weighs on external debt levels
  • Kenyan exports stagnated in recent years
  • Turbulent political situation expected to weigh on the economy in the short-term

Head of State and head of government

  • Uhuru Kenyetta (since April 2013)

Description of electoral system

  • Presidential and parliamentary elections every five years, lastly in October 2017.


  • 48.5 million

Per capita income

  • USD 1,380

Income group

  • Lower middle-income

Main export receipts

  • Private transfers (22.7% of current account receipts), Manufactures (15.4%), Transportation (12.9%), Tea (10.0%), Tourism (6.0%), Horticulture (5.5%), Coffee (1.6%)

Country risk assessment

Country with a history of disputed elections

Kenya has been independent since 1963. Since then the country has been relatively stable. After almost four decades of one party rule, free elections were introduced in Kenya in 2002. In Kenyan politics ethnicities play a strong role. Political parties are mostly organised along ethnic lines. For the elections, political parties organise themselves in broader coalitions. These coalitions are however relatively volatile; it is not uncommon for parties to switch coalitions.

In August 2017 elections were held in Kenya. These were later declared invalid by the Supreme Court and new elections were held in October 2017. While the vote has been disputed, the incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta has been declared the winner by the election commission. Since free elections were introduced in Kenya in 2002, the country has had a history of disputed elections. Political violence erupted after the disputed 2007 elections and the 2013 elections were also disputed by the opposition.

The 2007 elections were marred by widespread fraud, but nevertheless the then incumbent president Mwai Kibaki (who ran against Odinga) was declared the winner. The interethnic violence that erupted after the hasty inauguration of Kibaki led to the death of 1,200 people and to 600,000 people being forced to leave their homes. Due to the violence the current president Kenyatta and current deputy president Ruto, who were political rivals at that time, were put on trial at the International Criminal Court. The trial against both was eventually dropped due to the lack of evidence.

Despite Ruto and Kenyatta being bitter rivals before, they united against the ICC charges and formed a political alliance (the Jubilee Coalition which later became the Jubilee party) that won then the 2013 elections. During these elections, the Jubilee coalition ran against Odinga. Kenyatta won the elections with 50.51% of the vote. Odinga afterwards claimed that the poll was rigged and tried to contest the result in the Supreme Court but his case was rejected.

During the August 2017 elections Kenyatta (backed by Ruto) ran against Odinga once more. Kenyatta officially won the August vote with 54.2%. However, a petition was filed by the opposition at the Supreme Court claiming that the elections were fraud. It came as a large surprise when the Supreme Court in Kenya ruled that the organised elections were invalid due to irregularities in the electoral process that were considered large enough to jeopardise the integrity of the vote. This resulted in new elections being held on October 26th. Odinga did not participate in the election rerun. He claimed it would still be marred by the same flaws as the August vote. After the election Kenyatta was declared the winner with 98% of the vote according to the election commission. However, turnout was only 38% compared to 80% during the August elections. The current tensions over the elections have left Kenya strongly divided as violence related to the elections has already led to the death of up to 80 people. As a result, there is an increasing risk of further violence between ethnic groups. Nevertheless, it is not expected that the situation will escalate as it did after the elections in 2007. The main clashes after the 2007 election were between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities and these are currently united in the Jubilee Party of Uhuru Kenyatta. Nevertheless, the low turnout and the disputed process leading to the election are expected to undermine the credibility of Kenyatta’s mandate during his second five-year term. Therefore, it might limit his ability and willingness to push through the needed economic reforms and fiscal consolidation.

In Kenya there is a two-term limit on presidential elections. It is currently expected that Ruto will stand as a candidate for the presidential polls scheduled for 2022. If elected, he would likely continue the infrastructure based development of Kenya that Kenyatta is currently implementing. Given Odinga’s age (he is currently 72 years old), the current elections were probably his last chance at the presidency.

Uncertainty over EU trade agreement looms over economy

Kenya is a member of the East African Community (EAC) together with Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Within the EAC, its members are working towards economic integration. In 2010 import duties between the EAC countries were eliminated and the countries are slowly moving to remove non-tariff barriers.
In recent years, the EAC has negotiated a free trade agreement with the EU (Economic Partnership Agreement or EPA). Negotiations were concluded in October 2014, but while the agreement should have been ratified by October 2016, this has not yet happened. The EPA with the EU needs to be ratified by all members of the EAC, but only Kenya and Rwanda have done this so far. Opposition to the agreement has increased, especially in Tanzania but also in Uganda. In Tanzania, the opposition to the agreement is mainly driven by the fear that the Tanzanian companies will not be able to compete with EU companies and because the government is opposed to the inclusion of rules that guarantee access to primary resources for EU companies. The talks seem to be deadlocked and there is currently little sign of a solution. This has important implications for Kenya due to the fact that it is the only country in the EAC that does not classify as a Least Developed Country (LDC). LDC’s have duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market under the Everything But Arms scheme. Given that Kenya is no longer a LDC, it risks losing duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market. This would be problematic given the importance of the EU market for Kenya. Around 22% of its total exports are destined for the EU, with coffee and horticulture exports being the main products exported to the EU. Currently, Kenya still enjoys duty-free and quota-free access to the EU market given that the EPA with the EAC is still considered to be in the process of being signed, but this could be annulled if the EPA does not materialise. The Everything But Arms scheme is also reducing the incentive of other EAC members to ratify the EPA with the EU given that they still are classified as LDC’s.

Additional worries for Kenya’s export capacity arise from the fact that the country is losing market share in the EAC countries. Since 2013 exports of goods to the EAC countries have contracted by almost 20% while total imports of these countries has increased. This is mainly due to reduced agricultural and manufacturing exports. The reason for this is the increased competition from East Asian and Chinese exporters. This is a worrying development given that the EAC is currently its largest export market.

Economic growth driven by infrastructure projects

Kenya is investing heavily in several large infrastructure projects. These projects are a key part of the current government’s economic policy.  In May 2017, for example, the USD 3.8 bn Mombasa-Nairobi Standard-Gauge Railway (SGR) was inaugurated. At the same time Kenya is expanding its port capacity in Lamu and Mombasa, a number of large power plants are being built, the country is expanding its road network and a number of airports in Kenya are being modernised. These projects are launched in light of the Vision 2030 plan. This plan started in 2008 and has the ambitious aim of moving Kenya to an industrialised middle income country by 2030.

The large infrastructure projects have led to robust growth. Kenya’s economy grew 4.9% on average in the period 2007-2016. Nevertheless, average growth has been lower than in most other EAC countries (except Burundi and South Sudan). In 2016 growth was 5.8% with a strong expansion in the construction and electricity sector and a recovery in tourism being the main drivers of growth. In the medium-term growth is expected to stay around 6% with infrastructure investment expected to remain a strong driver of growth.

In 2017 growth is expected to be impacted by the uncertainty related to the elections, the drought in the beginning of the year and the lack of available credit. An interest rate cap was introduced in August 2016 with the aim of addressing the high borrowing costs in the country. However, instead of lowering interest rates, the rate cap – at 4% above the central bank’s benchmark rate – is reducing commercial borrowing. While the rate cap is expected to be changed or annulled, this is likely to happen only after the new government has taken office and it will therefore continue to put pressure on growth in the country on the short term.

Infrastructure investments have led to a larger twin deficit and higher debt levels

Since 2005, the country has been running a twin deficit. The current account has been in deficit since 2004. Historically the current account deficit has been large and averaged 7% of GDP over the period 2007-2016. The increasingly large current account deficit arises mainly from large infrastructure related imports. The current account deficit has been mainly funded through external borrowing (around 77% on average) and to a lesser extent through FDI (around 22% on average).

In 2016, the current account deficit (incl. official transfers) has narrowed to 5.4% of GDP down from 10.4% in 2014 due to the low oil prices and lower investment related imports. The current account deficit is projected to rise again in the coming years mainly due to an expected strong increase of imports.

An advantage of the Kenyan economy is that it is relatively diversified. Kenya does not rely on the export of natural resources as most other Sub-Saharan countries do. This has made it less vulnerable to reductions of commodity prices. This has avoided a stronger impact on the current account balance as was the case in other resource depended countries. Kenya’s main sources of current account receipts are private transfers (which represent more than 20% of the country’s current account receipts), manufactured goods, transportation services, tea, tourism, horticulture and coffee. The improved security situation after the 2013-14 terrorist attacks is expected to lead to increased tourism receipts.

The fiscal deficit has been increasingly large since 2005 due to the large public investment programme. While the deficits were around 2.6% of GDP in the years 2006-2008, they rose to around 8.1% of GDP on average in the years 2014-16. In 2016, the fiscal deficit was 8.7% of GDP. The IMF projects the fiscal deficit to be reduced step by step towards the East African Monetary union deficit ceiling of 3% by 2021, (which is an optimistic projection). Due to the cost of the election rerun and due to the impact of the subsequent political tensions in the country further fiscal slippages could arise in 2017. Additionally, the political crisis could possibly lead to a postponement of the promised fiscal consolidation.

The large fiscal deficits have increased the public debt, from 43.9% of GDP in 2012 to 52.6% at the end of 2016. Around half of the public debt is currently held externally. Most of the external public debt is on concessional terms but the commercial share has increased. Additionally, the concessionality conditions of new external public debt have become less advantageous for Kenya and new debt is on an increasingly short maturity.

Besides from the increase in public debt, the gross external debt has strongly increased too, which has led to an increased external debt service. While the external debt was around 20% of GDP and 70% of current account receipts in 2007, it has increased to more than 40% of GDP by the end of 2016. Around 60% of the external debt is publicly owned foreign debt. More worrying is that the external debt to current account receipts ratio has surged to close to 220% in 2016. It is expected to be above 230% in 2017 and to rise to 240% by 2019. In the long term, the IMF expects Kenya’s external debt to rise further.

This brings us to the key issue of the Kenyan growth story, namely that the strong GDP growth has been mainly driven by external borrowing and has not resulted in an equally strong growth of the country’s export receipts. In the period 2000-2012, the export receipts of Kenya have been growing robustly at around 12% a year. However, since 2013, they have stagnated and grew by less than 1% over the period 2013-2016. At the same time external debt has grown at around 20% a year in nominal terms, which explains the high external debt to current account receipts ratio. This trend raises the question of how the country will be able to pay for the build-up of external debt, given that this external debt of course has to be paid in foreign currency. Therefore Credendo has decided to downgrade the medium and long term political risk classification to category 6.