Kenya’s economic output has more than doubled during President Uhuru Kenyatta’s 10 years in office, but a debt binge that fuelled growth and investment could cramp his successor’s ability to tackle growing hunger and soaring prices.
Some 22 million voters will pick a new president, lawmakers and county officials on August 9. The election is being overshadowed by a drought that has left four million people dependent on food aid while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drives up global grain and fuel prices.
Kenya’s economy is now Africa’s sixth biggest, up from 13th when Kenyatta took power in April 2013. Annual growth averaging 3.8 percent over nine years has boosted gross domestic product (GDP) to 11 trillion shillings ($92.6bn) from under 5 trillion.
A close Western ally, East Africa’s most stable country also hosts the regional headquarters of international firms like Alphabet Inc and Visa.
Debt levels have surged, however, to 9 trillion shillings ($75.7bn), or 67 percent of GDP, from just 2 trillion, or 40 percent of GDP, when Kenyatta was elected.
“The increase in debt has been alarmingly fast,” said Robert Shaw, an independent economic policy analyst based in Nairobi.
Kenyatta, who is standing down after serving the constitutional limit of two terms, says borrowing, including $8bn from China, funded much-needed infrastructure and helped spur development.
His government has modernised Kenya’s crumbling, century-old railway network and built more kilometres of paved roads than the previous four administrations combined – over 10,000, Kenyatta told parliament in November.
He also said then that the number of households connected to the electricity grid had tripled to more than eight million.
In 2018, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) classified Kenya as at high risk of debt distress. That risk remains, the IMF’s Kenya head of mission Mary Goodman told journalists last week.