Kenya – Letter from a demographer

11 December 2007


Letter to the Editor, The Independent, 23rd January 2006

Sir: In your articles on the current drought in Kenya (13 and 17 January), blame is laid on deforestation. People cut down trees primarily for firewood and the more people there are, the greater is the need for firewood, and the more cattle they will own to overgraze the land.

I am a demographer and I have worked on all the censuses of Kenya in the last 50 years. I have watched the population of that country grow from 8.6 million in 1962 to 11 million in 1969, 15.3 million in 1979, 21.4 million in 1989, and 28.7 million in 1999, now in 2006 it is estimated to be in excess of 34 million. It has therefore quadrupled during my working lifetime.

Clearly such rates of growth cannot be sustained indefinitely. And only two things can stop it: either the birth rate comes down or the death rate goes up.

In Kenya in the 1970’s a woman who lived to the age of 50 had an average of eight live-born children, by the late 1990’s it was down to less than five births per woman and it was predicted that the downward trend would continue.

But in 2003 a survey showed that the decline had stalled at five births per woman: the government’s hitherto vigorous family planning programme had run out of steam. Unless the fall in fertility can be resumed in the near future, a further doubling of the population to about 70 million* by the middle of this century will be almost inevitable, despite rising mortality.

This situation is not peculiar to Kenya. In neighbouring Uganda, the population has grown from 6.5 million shown by the 1959 census to 24.7 million according to that of 2002.

Yet in all the discussions during the past year on how to lift Africa out of poverty, the question of population has been conspicuous for its absence. It is no longer fashionable or politically correct. In some circumstances population growth can be a stimulus to economic development, but in others the reverse is true. I have not the slightest doubt that in the case of Kenya it has been a grievous handicap, and instrumental in keeping the majority of the people in that country locked in poverty.

Centre for Population Studies, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

*The previous projection of the UN in 2002 for the year 2050 was 44 million