Evolution of Currency in Kenya

Evolution of Kenyan Currency new

Throughout history, trade has been an essential part of human enterprise. As early as man could communicate, he could trade.

Where previously trade was characterized by an exchange of goods for other goods/services, the need for a more precise, portable and divisible measure of value grew. And out of this need, modern currency was born.

In Kenya, the history of trade is as old as the history of the people themselves. But the history of currency is not. Herein lies the story of that currency, a story of growth, a story of success and failure, but most importantly, a story of change and constant evolution.

The one that conquered the world…almost- The Maria Theresa Thaler

Historical records point the first use of real currency in Kenya to The Maria Theresa Thalers which were introduced along the Kenyan Coast somewhere between 1800 and 1850.

The Thaler was a trade coin originally struck in Austria in 1741. It was named after Empress Maria Theresa who ruled the Austrian empire from 1740 to 1780. Soon after its inception, the coin gained immense popularity and by the 19th century, it had supplanted the Spanish coin as the most widely circulated coin in the world.

It became prominent as a result of the thriving slave trade. The Thaler was able to spread along the East Coast of Africa, eventually reaching as far down along the coast as Maputo in southern Mozambique. However, having been in use only along the coast, the Thaler was never really able to penetrate into the interior and it would take a number of years before any other form of currency was able to do the same.

The Maria Theresa Thaler

Maria Theresa 1I/co coinnetwork.com


The ill-fated one with the brief life – The East African Specie or Pice

In 1897, the leader of the British East African Protectorate (B.E.A.P), Harry Jackson, attempted to introduce a new currency known as the “Specie” or “Pice” into the region. Contrary to Jackson’s intent, the Specie never amounted to much and was promptly phased out by the Indian Rupee.

The one that finally made it- The Indian Rupee

The Indian Rupee was the first currency to penetrate into the Kenyan interior and move as far up as British Ugandan territory. When the building of the railway begun in 1896, the Indian rupee was used as legal tender to pay railway workers.

Indian labourers received approximately 30 rupees a month while a Swahili porter received 10 rupees a month with rations of flour, rice, a little meat and some oil.

An 1892 one rupee coin

Indian Rupee 2

I/co  snipview.com

As a result of various trading activities between railway workers and the African population, the rupee gained rapid popularity in the interior. By 1905, it was made the official currency of the B.E.A.P. (Kenya- Uganda).

Although an influx of Asian labour accompanied the construction of the railway, it was mainly as traders and business owners that the Asian community established themselves in the region. This gave rise to popular terms such as duka and dukawallah, used to refer to shops and shop keepers respectively.

A 1917 one Indian Rupee Note1917 One Rupee

“I wonder if in India the importance of one aspect of the railway construction has been realized? It means the driving of a wedge of India right across East Africa from Mombasa to Victoria Nyanza.. Indian penal code, Indian postal system, Indian coinage, Indian clothing.. Right across these deserts, forests and swamps…”

Sir Henry Johnston – 1899

The one that left its mark on the world – East African Rupee

The Indian Rupee was replaced by the East African Rupee. The government issued bank notes in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 40, 100 and 500 rupees .While coins were minted in denominations of 25, 50 and 1 cents.

A 1905 10  East African Rupees Banknote

10 EA rupees

 I/Co banknoteworld.com

The 1907 1 cent East African Rupee coin was the first aluminium coin in the world.

1907 East African RupeeI / Co downies.com/

This version of the rupee was abolished in 1920 after Kenya became a crown colony and in the same year, the East African Board of Currency was established. The board consisted of four commissioners under the advisory of the Bank of England and was mandated to oversee and supply currency within the British Colonies.

The one we can never seem to find – The East African Florin

Printed and minted by the newly established E.A Currency Board, the Florin replaced the East Africa Rupee and was used between 1920 and 1921. Coins were minted in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25 and 50 cents. Due to the short period in which it was used, few of the coins minted were actually issued for circulation making the East African Florin one of the rarest coins to find.

A 1920 5 Florin Banknote

East African Florin 3

I/Co .realbanknotes.com

A 1921 one Florin Coin

The inscription reads GEORGEIVS V REX ET IND:IMP” (meaning “George V, King and Emperor of India”).

East AFrican Florin 4


I/Co delcampe.net

The one that got away– The East African Shilling

The Florin was replaced by the E.A shilling which was introduced on January 1, 1922 in all the three East African countries. By June 1923, the E.A. shilling was established as the official currency in Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika

A 1943 one East African Shilling  BankNote

EA Shilling 1943

I/Co banknoteworld.com

1958 5 & 20 shillings Banknotes bearing the portrait of Queen Elizabeth IIQueen Elizabeth 1958 notes

I/ Co banknoteworld.com/

The E.A shilling remained in use for more than 4 decades upon which it was dropped in favor of individual state currencies at independence.

The one that never stood much of a chance – ‘ Lake Victoria Money’ 

In 1964 after Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania gained independence; interim currencies commonly known as ‘Lake Victoria Money’ were circulated within the region. The notes whose design featured a background of Lake Victoria were in the denominations of 5, 10, 20 and 100 shillings.

 1964 10 and 20 East African Shilling Banknotes

Lake Victoria Money 2

I/ Co delcampe.net

image_banknote (2)

I/Co - Todd Hunt , banknoteworld.com


Notice the background of Lake Victoria that was a synonymous feature in all banknotes printed during that time. Since the currencies were used in all three countries , their designs did not feature any presidential portraits. A number of coins also  known as ‘ Uhuru’ Coins were minted during this time.

In 1966 the East African Currency Board collapsed and so did the East African Shilling. The Central Banks of Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda came into existence and each country began minting her own currency. Although, independent shillings were introduced in the respective countries, the EA shilling was not demonetized until 1969.

The one that was here to stay – The Kenyan Shilling

The first Kenyan coinage issued in 1966 by the CBK was in denominations of 5, 10, 25 & 50 cents, and 1 & 2 shillings.

10 cents , 1 & 2 shilling coins issued in 1966

Kenya Coins 1966I/ co worldcoingallery.com


While notes were issued in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 shillings.

5 and 100 Kenya Shillings notes printed in 1966

Kenya Shilling 1966

100 Kenya Shilling 1966

I/Co banknotesworld.com

Over time, the steady growth of the country and an inevitable change in economic times meant the face of Kenyan Currency would experience a number of changes. Where some denominations were introduced, some were demonetised, while others experienced simply but a change in form or appearance. None remained entirely the same.

  • 25 cents coins were not minted after 1969.
  • 2 shillings coins were last minted in 1971.
  • 5 shillings coins were introduced in 1985.
  • 10 shillings coins introduced in 1994.
  • 20 shillings coins introduced in 1998.
  • 200 shilling notes introduced in 1986.
  • 500 shilling notes introduced in 1988.
  • 1000 shilling notes introduced in 1994.

 Of portraiture and commemoration

The portrait of the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta appeared on all of independent Kenya coins from 1967 to 1978.

Kenyatta 1966 CurrencyFrom 1980-2005 it was replaced by the portrait of second president, Daniel arap Moi.

Moi Currency 1980

In 2005, the central bank introduced a new coin series that restored the portrait of Kenyatta. A new series of notes on which Kenyatta reappeared with denominations of 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000 shillings were also circulated

Kenyatta 2005 Currency

In commemoration of 40 years of independence in 2003, the CBK issued a bi- metallic 40 shilling coin with the portrait of President Kibaki. New 40 shilling coins with the image of President Kenyatta were issued in 2005.

The 2003, bi-metallic, 40 shilling coin


 I/co static-numista.com

10 years later, the commemoration of 50 years of independence was marked by a 50 shilling coin that was not released for circulation but was made available for purchase at the following rates:

  • Gold Coin – KES.200,000
  • Gold plated silver coin – KES.10,000
  • Gold plated brass coin – KES.6,000

The 50 shilling Gold , Gold Plated Silver and Gold Plated Brass jubilee Coins

Jubilee Coin 2


I/Co centralbank.go.ke

Somewhat of a befitting conclusion….

As a coin changes hands from one person to another, it embodies the needs of its possessor and the satisfaction of its recipient. A single coin can tell the story of a million people. Perhaps as we draw more and more towards a cashless society, we will have fewer stories to tell. It remains for us to tell stories now of currencies whose history was tangible and whose future remains largely invisible.

 The Evolution of Currency in Kenya - © The Agora ,2015