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

Comments 4


China is Kenya’s number one trading partner.

Source: Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (November 2018)



Explainer: China was Kenya’s largest trading partner in 2017.

  • 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:


© Copyright Africa Check 2020. Read our republishing guidelines. You may reproduce this piece or content from it for the purpose of reporting and/or discussing news and current events. This is subject to: Crediting Africa Check in the byline, keeping all hyperlinks to the sources used and adding this sentence at the end of your publication: “This report was written by Africa Check, a non-partisan fact-checking organisation. View the original piece on their website", with a link back to this page.

Comment on this report

Comments 4
  1. By Dr harrison

    Focus on Kenya

    I would like to know if these comments might make it to the authorities in Kenya and China who make or influence economic decisions for both countries:

    In addition to some suggested ideas on how China and Kenya can work together to avoid such trade imbalances- where China would seem to own too much of Kenya debt:

    1. Kenya should focus more on exporting finished products. This point has already been said, but Kenya or Kenyans need to understand that sending your raw materials to another country is a bad business model.

    a. You should take your raw materials and turn them into finished products for export. This would produce more skilled jobs in Kenya, instead of China.

    b. Imagine having manufacturing facilities close to where the raw materials are produced- this provides employement opportunities both low skill and highly skilled.

    2. Ask China and other countries to provide in- kind training in Kenya: Chian should send more skilled Chinese to train the Kenyans on those areas where lacks or is still in infancy.

    3. I remember decades ago- Kenya used to refine jet fuel in the country (Changamwe-anybody recall?) – that went away. such fuel is now refined in places like Saudi (highly skilled jobs lost from Kenya)- then Kenya pays a premium to import such fuel. Why?

    4. Anybody recall the Pineapple industry -where is the processing done and why? Imagine Kenya importing Pineapples- these are the easiest products to grow in Kenya’s many arid or semi- arid lands. Imagine Israel ( a more desert country than Kenya- growing more pineapples than Kenya) and exporting them to Kenya.

    5. Kenya should get Israel experts to help teach Kenyan farmers the best-growing technics.

    6. Kenya has the perfect climate for growing banans in Africa. Kenya should dominate the world in banana exports. Imagine Israel growing bananas in teh desert. I recently visited and saw first hand acres and acres of greenhouses of bananas in the deserts. Wow.!!

    7. See how hectares and hectares of semi-arid lands are unused in Kenya – be creative and use these lands. There is no reason Kenya should be importing that many goods.

    8. If it is due to political and or greed..then that becomes a selfish motive…even greed can spur opportnities. Grow those imdustries in Kenya, employ more people then export whatever you produce and satisfy your money greed that way.

    Reply Report comment
  2. By olvia

    If Kenya unable to pay, China could seize Kenya’s assets over debt.

    Who gives CHINA that right?

    China did not comply with international Law in the China Sea incidents, then why should Kenya have to comply with international law. Just don’t pay them…

    Reply Report comment
  3. By Brian

    If you owe a bank money and you could not pay your debt ,the bank has every right to forclose your asset in order to settle the debt,the same would hold true in Kenya and China’ s situation,I would imagine all be it on a much bigger scale.

    Reply Report comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Africa Check encourages frank, open, inclusive discussion of the topics raised on the website. To ensure the discussion meets these aims we have established some simple House Rules for contributions. Any contributions that violate the rules may be removed by the moderator.

Contributions must:

  • Relate to the topic of the report or post
  • Be written mainly in English

Contributions may not:

  • Contain defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or harassing language or material;
  • Encourage or constitute conduct which is unlawful;
  • Contain material in respect of which another party holds the rights, where such rights have not be cleared by you;
  • Contain personal information about you or others that might put anyone at risk;
  • Contain unsuitable URLs;
  • Constitute junk mail or unauthorised advertising;
  • Be submitted repeatedly as comments on the same report or post;

By making any contribution you agree that, in addition to these House Rules, you shall be bound by Africa Check's Terms and Conditions of use which can be accessed on the website.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.