KIRDI is a public research institution under Ministry of Trade, Investment and Industry. The history of KIRDI dates back to 1942, when the then colonial government established a central laboratory at Kabete, Nairobi, to promote industrial development. This laboratory was administered by the Kenya Industrial Management Board (KIMBO).
Later, when the East African countries gained independence (1961-1963), the management of KIMBO was transferred to the East African Community (EAC) and renamed as East African Industrial Research Organization (EAIRO) to serve Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. EAIRO ceased operations in 1977 following the collapse of EAC. The research operations of EAIRO in Kenya were transferred for an interim period to the National Industrial Research Complex. In 1979, the Science and Technology Act, Cap 250, came into force establishing the National Council for Science & Technology (NCST) and five research institutes (KIRDI, Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization (KALRO, formerly KARI), Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) and Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI)).
In 2013, the Science, Technology and Innovation Act, 2013, was enacted to replace the Science and Technology Act, 1979. The new Act failed to re-establish KIRDI as a body corporate with perpetual succession and a common seal. This omission was remedied through enactment of the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute Act, 2022 to be the successor of the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute specified in paragraph 3 of the Fourth Schedule to the Science, Technology and Innovation Act, 2013.