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Yes, China is Kenya’s biggest trading partner - but it’s not a balanced trade

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  • Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said China was Kenya’s number one trading partner.

  • In 2017, the value of Kenya’s total exports to and imports from China was the largest among its trade partners.

  • But the trade is unequal, as Kenya buys much more than it sells to China.

Kenya’s trade with China is rarely far from the headlines. The latest is a widely reported claim that China could seize Kenya’s assets over debt.

This interest comes from increased trade between the two countries. In November 2018 President Uhuru Kenyatta said trade with China had grown “more than eighty-fold” between 2007 and 2017.

Kenyatta was speaking at the opening of the first China International Import Expo in Shanghai.

“China now ranks as the number one trading partner with Kenya, accounting for 17.2% of Kenya’s total trade with the world,” Kenyatta said.

Does Kenya do most of its international trade with China?

Kenya’s trade figures

Official statistics bear Kenyatta out. The 2018 Economic Survey gives the most recent value of Kenya’s exports and imports.

Kenya trade with main partners in 2017 (billions US$)
Area Exports Imports Total Share of Kenya’s trade with world
World 5.8 16.98 22.8  
Africa 2.2 1.97 4.2 18.3%
China 0.01 3.8 3.9 17.3%
EU 1.2 2.0 3.3 14.3%
US 0.5 0.6 1.03 4.5%

Source: Kenya National Bureau of Statistics

Kenya exports mainly goods such as hides, skins, coffee, tea, titanium ores and plastics. From China it imports mainly leather, rubber, machinery and transport equipment and chemicals.

When exports and imports are added together, China is Kenya’s largest trading partner. Overall, its trade with all other African nations combined is larger than with China, but this is with 54 countries.

Trade numbers well in favour of China

But much of the trade was “heavily skewed” in favour of China, Kenyatta said. He said Kenya’s exports to China in 2017 were valued at $96.88 million, while it imported $3.79 billion in goods from China.

“It is important to correct the existing trade imbalance to enable a fairer share of the benefits of trade,” he said.  

Towards this, he offered some suggestions to China:

  • China should reduce or remove tariffs on the African goods it imports to give the countries better access to its market.

  • Help African goods overcome barriers such as Chinese standards.

  • Help promote African goods in China.

  • Encourage Chinese firms to manufacture goods in Africa, to sell to the world.

  • Establish more joint ventures, and so help grow African industries.  


Kenya shouldn’t be ‘too dependent’ on one country or region

Dr Ken Opalo, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, gave two ways that Kenya could improve its trade.

One is to deepen its existing markets “to ensure that trade goes beyond exporting raw commodities and importing finished products”.

“Also it should diversify the portfolio of trading partners by opening up new markets so as not to be too dependent on one country or region.”

Conclusion: China is Kenya’s number one trading partner

At a trade expo in China, President Uhuru Kenyatta said China was Kenya’s number one trading partner.

Official statistics show that in 2017, exports to and imports from China made up the largest share – 17.3% – of Kenya’s total international trade.

We therefore rate the claim as correct.

Carole Kimutai is the managing editor, digital at the Standard Group in Kenya. This report for Africa Check is part of the work produced during her time at Politifact, the US fact-checking organisation under the World Learning Media Exchange. Carole worked with Politifact’s Jon Greenberg.

Further reading:


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