Kenya’s future people: Old, old and very, very old

Aged out

Low fertility rates coupled with longer lives mean Kenya will have three times more adults than youth by 2050.

Longer lives and fertility rates that hover near the replacement level of births per woman are leading to rapid population aging, which could adversely affect public finances and standards of living. The number of children per family is also falling sharply, from eight in 1978 to four in 2008... and by 2050 that figure could go down to just two. As a result, the fastest growing age group in Kenya’s population is not young children and youth any more, but adults, who will almost triple in size from 21 million today to about 60 million in 2050. That is tricky territory for economists, and it could get worse.


Is more good? Or less better? These are the questions Kenya’s economists are grappling with as they study its fertility rate, which has been falling drastically in recent years as its population grows.

On one hand, lower fertility rates could ease pressure on the economy and the country’s infrastructure, but on the other they could rob the developing nation of its workforce, and also result in an ageing population that can scarcely feed itself within a few decades. It’s a catch-22, and it is almost getting out of hand.

The 2014 Kenya Demographic Health Survey shows that Kenyan women are giving birth to an average four children each (3.9), down from five (4.6) in 2008, and the lower rates have been hailed as an indicator of improved population control measures instituted by the state and other players in the reproductive health sector.

And between then and now, according to the CIA Factbook, things have got even worse, as the updated 2017 figures show that Kenya’s total fertility rate has gone down even further in the last three years, to about three children per woman (3.4).


But even as the fertility rates drop, Kenya’s population is still rising. The CIA Factbook’s July figures put Kenya’s population at 47.6 million, making it number 30 in the world. China (1.3 billion), India (1.2 billion) and the US (326 million) are the three most populous countries in the world.

The Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific Ocean have the world’s lowest population of only 54 people, followed by Cocos Islands — an Australian external territory in the Indian Ocean (596), and Vatican City (1,000).

That means Kenya’s population is ageing, and calls for a rethink of the country’s economic, health, and social support policies.

In a paper published by the Population Council, a research think tank, Prof Ronald Lee of the departments of Demography and Economics at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School; and Assistant Professor Yi Zhou of Center for Social Research, Peking University, examine the issue of ageing populations versus prospects of future economic growth.

“Traditionally, population ageing has been driven almost entirely by fertility decline over the demographic transition, while mortality decline has played a minor role. Populations today are still ageing but in the past 25 years an era of changing mean ages has sometimes been interpreted as showing that recent ageing is mainly due to declining mortality rather than fertility,” they say.

The two academics argue that it is necessary to question this interpretation and evaluate the indirect effects of mortality change as well as the direct ones.

“Longer lives and fertility far below the replacement level of two births per woman are leading to rapid population ageing in many countries.

Many observers are concerned that ageing will adversely affect public finances and standards of living,” they say.


Forty-eight per cent of the world’s people live in countries where the fertility rate is below replacement, about two births per woman. With fertility this low, population growth will give way to population decline and population ageing will be rapid. The median age of the southern European population, for example, is projected to reach age 50 by 2040 as compared to 41 in 2010 and 27 in 1950, argue the scholars.

In 2013, governments in 102 countries reported that population ageing was a “major concern”, and that 54 countries had enacted policies intended to raise fertility.

Today, concern should probably not focus solely on whether Kenya’s fertility rate and corresponding population growth are unsustainable, but rather whether the demographic shifts, coinciding with an increase in arid, dry land and a rapidly changing global climate, will give rise to large, displaced groups of people unable to thrive in their environment due to constraints they cannot overcome.

Women in urban areas have about two children less compared to their rural counterparts, with steep variations across different counties. Also, fertility decreases by education as women with no education have an average of seven children (6.5) while those with secondary or higher education have an average of three.


Kenya National Bureau of Statistics director-general Zachary Mwangi says these falling numbers could actually be good for the economy, and so we should not worry that much.

“We are managing our population within reasonable levels, and this gives us no cause to worry since the 3.9 percentage is still well above the replacement rate of 2.1 per cent,” says Mr Mwangi.

While he agrees that the country needs a large working population for optimum economic activity and ready markets for industries and consumer goods, he cautions that the growth should be managed within levels that do not strain the state’s ability to provide essential services.

And the way to keep the numbers at the optimum level, he continues, is to take girls to school.

“There has been noticeable success in girls’ education and empowerment programmes as evidenced by the low fertility rates in educated women,” he says. “This is a sign that the more educated women are, the less likely they are to go ahead and have large families as opposed to their semi-literate or unschooled counterparts.”

The demographic survey also reports that women from poor households have an average of six births (6.4) compared with their counterparts from wealthy households, who only have three (2.8). Wajir County had the highest fertility rate during the time under study, at eight children per woman (7.8), followed by West Pokot at seven (7.2), Turkana at seven (6.9) and Samburu at six (6.3).

The report attributes the decline in the national average number of children per woman to the use of contraceptives, greater access to education, and reduction of poverty levels among the educated. It is important to note that the three counties with the highest fertility rates also have the lowest literacy levels.

Dr Samwel Nyandemo of the University of Nairobi shares the thinking of the KNBS director on the relationship between fertility rates and economic development.

“Our current GDP cannot sustain a population growth to levels of, say, 50 million people,” says Dr Nyandemo. “Any exponential growth rate would severely strain our already scarce resources, resulting in the diversion of state resources from development expenditure to the provision of essential services for the increased state facilities’ dependents.”


The diversion of state resources for the provision of essential services would stagnate Kenya’s drive to develop vital infrastructure, he continues.

“We will have too many mouths to feed and, in the process, poverty will result as the state will be forced to utilise the bulk of its resources on social capital, thereby denying vital development projects the funding to propel the country’s productive population into high-income status.”

Therefore, he adds, the falling fertility rate should not be any cause for alarm since the country is way above the global average, which currently stands at 2.5. The academic says the government would be well advised to go the Chinese way in encouraging families to have smaller families through the provision of state goodies like education subsidies and more favourable medical insurance terms for compliant families.

“We can even go a step further and provide economic incentives like education and healthcare subsidies for families that cooperate with the scheme and get fewer children,” he says.

Dr Nyandemo says Kenya’s fast population growth in the wake of falling fertility could be as a result of decreasing infant mortality due to improved maternal child health programmes and increased life expectancy as a result of subsidised healthcare and insurance programmes, like the National Health Insurance Fund.

“Less babies are dying in hospital due to improved healthcare that emphasises on maternal child health, meaning the survival rate of our children is much better. That means there is greater need than ever before to educate mothers to plan families well in advance so as to regulate the population growth,” says Dr Nyandemo.

Recent United Nations projections indicate that Kenya’s population will grow by around one million people per year — or 3,000 every day — over the next 40 years, and will reach about 85 million by 2050.

That, if the narrative by Dr Nyandemo and Mr Mwangi is anything to go by, would spell catastrophe to the nation, but Mr Wolfgang Fengler, a blogger, population expert and the World Bank’s lead economist in trade and competitiveness for the Western Balkans, differs, saying there is an opportunity hidden in the population growth projections for the continent, particularly Kenya.

“Africa is at the centre of the most profound demographic transition that our generation is experiencing,” says Mr Fengler.

“The continent’s population is rising rapidly and will most likely double its population by 2050. Depending on the source of data, Africa will soon pass one billion people (and it may already have) and could reach up to two billion people by 2050.”

His projections are based on the UN’s 2009 World Population Prospects report, which projects Africa to exceed 1.7 billion by 2050 despite its sharply declining fertility rates. This rate makes Africa the fastest growing continent, and its rapid growth could also shift the global population balance. By 2050, Africa will be home to more than 20 per cent of the world’s population. And Kenya, according to Mr Fengler, mirrors Africa’s population growth.

“While the speed of population growth remains unchanged, its sources are different. In the past, population growth was driven by increasing numbers of children while today, and in the future, it is driven by longer life expectancy and the ‘base effect’ of the previous population boom, meaning there are just many more young families which have children. However, they have fewer of them,” he writes.

In Kenya, the number of children per family has fallen sharply, from eight in 1978 to four in 2008. By 2050 that figure could go down to two.

As a result, the fastest growing group in Kenya’s population is not young children any more, but adults, who will almost triple in size from 21 million today to about 60 million in 2050.

Mr Fengler says this could be good news for the country, given the corresponding urbanisation.

“Population growth and urbanisation go together, and economic development is closely correlated with urbanisation,” he says. “Rich countries are urban countries. No country has ever reached high income levels with low urbanisation.”

Population growth increases density and, together with rural-urban migration, creates higher urban population, which is critical for achieving sustained growth because large urban centres allow for innovation and increased economies of scale.

The urban boom, says Mr Fengler, enables companies to produce goods in larger numbers and more cheaply, serving a larger number of low-income customers.

Population growth could, therefore, shake the foundations of our social and economic structures, but it could also herald a golden age of development in Kenya if managed well.

An ageing population will require better healthcare services and social support programmes, yet it will offer less productivity compared to the current youthful generation. Other countries have been here before, but is Kenya prepared?


Average number of children Kenyan women are currently giving birth to, according to a recent report by the US Population Reference Bureau, down from five (4.6) in 2008. The lower birth rate has been hailed as an indicator of improved population control measures instituted by the state and other players in the reproductive health sector, and they could be getting worse, according to the CIA Factbook, whose updated 2017 figures show that Kenya’s total fertility rate has gone down even further in the last three years, to about three children per woman (3.4). As a result, the fastest growing group in Kenya’s population is not young children any more, but adults, who will almost triple in size from 21 million today to about 60 million in 2050.


Kenya’s population growth per day, or one million per year, over the next 40 years, according to recent UN projections. That means the country will be home to about 85 million by 2050, and that, if the narrative by the country’s economists is anything to go by, would spell catastrophe to the nation. But the counter-narrative is that there is an opportunity hidden in the population growth projections.


Total fertility rate (TFR) — defined as the average number of children that would be born per woman if all women lived to the end of their childbearing years and bore children according to a given fertility rate at each age — is a more direct measure of the level of fertility than the crude birth rate, since it refers to births per woman.