Indians in Kenya: economic impact and reception

This page includes information about the economic impact of Indian immigrants and their descendants in Kenya in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the reception and perception of the “Indians” both by native Kenyans (mostly blacks) and by the settlers of European origin (mostly British). Kenya chieved independence from their erstwhile British rulers in 1962.

Indians in Kenya are an example of a “market-dominant minority” in the jargon of Amy Chua’s World on Fire. Thus, a lot of the discussion here parallels general discussion of market-dominant minorities.


Unfortunately, very little of the material quoted here is available online, both because it’s historical (before the advent of the Internet) and because it is relative to a country (Kenya) where detailed records are not so easily available. The main references are the following books, with varying degrees of availability.

Secondary sources (relatively more easily accessible but condensed):

  • Migrations and Cultures by Thomas Sowell. Chapter 7 of this book is titled The Overseas Indians. There is a section on Kenya that covers pages 323-328.
  • World on Fire by Amy Chua: Chapter 4 covers various market-dominant minorities in African countries.

Primary sources (harder to access, may have more details):

  • A History of the Asians in East Africa by J. S. Mangat.
  • Indians in Africa by Haraprasad Chattopadhyaya.
  • The Asians in East Africa by Aghenanda Bharati.

Economic impact: the story of market dominance

Below are some quotes from Page 323-328 of Thomas Sowell’s Migrations and Cultures.

[I]n Kenya, Asians were only 2 percent of the population at their peak in 1962. […] But these modest numbers of Indians were no measure of their contemporary or historic importance. Their large role in the modern urban economy was indicated by the fact that they were one-third of the population in the city of Nairobi, where their businesses dominated the main street.

Reminiscent of the somewhat mis-stated immigrants do jobs natives won’t do argument, also made in the context of migrant labor in the US agricultural sector, Indians were willing to do job that did not appeal that much to native Africans:

At a time when most Africans were unwilling to be wage workers for more than the one or two months needed to raise money to pay their taxes, and showed little interest in selling their crops in the market, the Indians established a reputation for their relentless work and economic competitiveness.

On Page 314-315 (not in the Kenya section but in a general discussion of Africa):

The East African Railway

As they transitioned from wage workers to retailers and traders, the Indians out-competed

"The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP" — Bryan Caplan