The Different Challenges Kenya Still Faces that are Keeping Many of its Citizens Poor

Written by Charity Nyawira on 14 June 2021

Kenya has the 6th highest GDP(1) out of the 46 countries in Sub Saharan Africa, at $101.05 billion. Unfortunately still, over 36% of Kenyans(2)  live below the poverty line, earning less than KES 5000 or roughly $50 a month. The majority of Kenya’s poor population suffers multidimensional poverty, experiencing different kinds of hardships at the same time. 

What’s ailing the country? From harmful cultural practices to social inequalities, inadequate medical coverage, unemployment, and harsh climatic conditions; let’s scrutinize the various factors that make Kenyans poor and what the future holds.


Harmful cultural practices - polygamy, early marriages, and biased property inheritance

Polygamy has always been part of the Kenyan culture but not a helpful one for the most part.  

Since marrying many wives is a sign of prestige and status for men, even resource-poor men who cannot afford polygamous lifestyles still take on several wives and sire even more children. 

With a huge family and not enough resources to meet their basic needs, parents will give up their young girls for marriage. Male children are forced to abandon school to take up casual jobs.

In some pastoralist communities like the Maasai where ‘a girl is worth a cow,’ even financially abled parents neglect the education of their female children in favour of marriage. 

Women and girls are also not allowed to inherit property. As a result, male children wind up more educated and wealthier, creating a community where most women are poor and dependent on men to meet their basic needs. 

Empowering women financially by giving them access to credit/loans is one way to end this cycle of poverty. Loans provide capital to buy key production inputs for income-earning, thusly, increasing income levels, savings, and investments. 

Rural dwellers who rely on agriculture as a means of livelihood need education and access to high quality and affordable farm inputs for superior yields. 

For sustainable farming, farmers also need access to reliable markets. These include wholesale buyers like co-operatives, supermarkets, restaurants, and food processing plants. Farmers should also have access to community markets or mobile apps where they can display their products directly to potential buyers. 


Inadequate healthcare protection 

Most Kenyans pay their healthcare costs out of pocket(3). This eats into household budgets and can get very costly in case of long-term diseases. Most Kenyans will only go to hospitals as a last resort. Often, it’s too late and too expensive.

Only about 20% of the Kenyan population(4) has access to health insurance, with the rural population being the least covered. The majority of employers do not offer health benefits to workers, especially youths and those in informal employment.

The $5 per month cost of taking out a government health insurance (NHIF) membership is still expensive for many Kenyans. Some citizens also shy away from NHIF insurance as it has been marred by news of corruption and misuse. 

The hope of better health coverage for many Kenyan citizens may lie in independent insure-techs that target low-income earners. Plans that offer Kenyans lower monthly costs, easier terms, and better health coverage can help many citizens access proper healthcare.


Government corruption and social inequalities

Poor use of public resources and abuse of power, contributing to poor infrastructure, have also been major contributors to poverty in Kenya. Business people, especially in remote areas, frequently experience delays in getting their products to market thanks to poor road networks. Generally, having better road systems helps citizens to access health, education, and other essential services contributing to poverty reduction. 

Poor rural electrification also hinders productivity. 

Rural electrification(5) can help to increase farming activities, for example through irrigation projects. It also promotes opportunities for entrepreneurial activities like computer services and hairdressing. Solar panel innovations that provide cheaper power have fortunately become a breakthrough for many families in rural Kenya.

Land grabbing

There have been many instances where people in powerful positions grab land and other assets from owners. In rural settings where literacy and ignorance levels concerning land ownership rights are high, there’s a need to educate and establish proper land ownership systems that protect those with less power and resources.

Lack of basic amenities in remote areas and congested towns

In some of the most remote areas in Kenya like Tarbaj and Duse in Wajir county; residents suffer from a lack of clean water, good sanitation, developed transport systems, and basic schooling. Insecurity in the form of kidnappings, terrorism, and tribal clashes are also a pain for residents of secluded towns in counties like Wajir, Turkana, Isiolo, Mandera, and Marsabit.

Kenya’s capital Nairobi hosts more than 40 slums including Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa. About 60%(6) of Nairobi residents call these impoverished environments home. Owing to the overcrowding in these shanties, insecurity is high and basic needs like clean water and good sanitation are hard to come by. 

Due to congestion, slums are also prone to flooding and the uncontrollable spread of diseases which lead to loss of lives and property. Innovations around clean water, electricity, decent housing, and proper sanitation can help improve the quality of life of slum dwellers.


Unfavourable climate - drought, famine, and floods

For pastoralist communities like the Pokot and Turkana who keep cattle as a source of livelihood, prolonged droughts that cause the death or malnourishment(7) of livestock leaves many poor. 

Floods and landslides caused by overflowing rivers, bursting canals, or poor drainage systems have seen people lose their lives and property. In early 2020, 36 out of Kenya’s 47 counties suffered floods that led to the displacement of over 115,000 people(8). Places in Western Kenya (which hosts Lake Victoria and River Nzoia that have been experiencing a rise in water levels) were the hardest hit.

Special insurance and preventative solutions targeting pastoralists and residents of flood-prone areas can help cushion against these harsh weather conditions. 


Unemployment and under-employment

It’s no secret that the Kenyan job market is flooded. About 800,000 youths including 50,000 graduates(9) join the already overcrowded job market every year. 

With formal jobs already limited, most graduates are happy to settle for odd jobs like hawking, manual cleaning, roadside food selling, and other informal jobs. A high number of graduates do not get a chance to apply the skills obtained in school and earn less than their potential.

Entrepreneurship has become the hope of many Kenyan youths. Projects aimed at funding and supporting the youth to start and manage businesses are called for.


A long way to go

Kenya has been working to lower its poverty rates. The rate of poverty was reported to have dropped from about 46% to 36%(10) between 2005 and 2015. There’s however, a long way to go. 

Only a portion of the population has enjoyed the reported economic growth in Kenya. Most urban dwellers and people in remote counties like those in North and North-East Kenya continue to live in poverty. 

The fight against poverty in Kenya requires a focus on the different causes of poverty and robust solutions and innovations to address each need.


1. Statista
2. All Africa
3. IEA Kenya
4. The Conversation
5. Science Direct
6. The Conversation
7. Devex
8. Relief Web
9. Standard Media
10. World Bank

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