Friday, October 7, 2016

Kenyans Grapple with Potential Ban on Second-hand Clothing Industry

By: Dina Berliner
Produced and Edited by: Sam Campbell

Clothing Market in Kenya. Photo via uusc4all on Flickr
 As a little girl growing up in Kenya, Carol Ciku can remember looking “like a scarecrow” with oversized clothing hanging from her limbs. To afford clothes, her parents bought items two sizes larger than what fit her body, knowing “eventually you grow into it,” she said.
Nearly 30 years later, that is no longer the problem for most Kenyans, as a majority of its citizens rely on second-hand clothing imported from abroad.
However, an abundance of mitumba — a Swahili word to refer to second-hand clothing — has caused a rift between everyday people and the government.
That divide has been exacerbated by recent efforts to ban the mitumba industry altogether.
Mitumba as a lifeline
Second-hand clothing and thrift shops have gained popularity in Western culture in the past few years, even serving as the focus of the 2013 pop music hit “Thrift Shop” by American rapper Macklemore.
But what is considered to be trendy in the United States is seen as a source of income for thousands of people across East Africa.
“Mitumba tends to be good quality… if you have a mitumba shirt you will never find another shirt like that, but the new one you will find the same design, same color, so many of them,” Ben Muya, a Nairobi-based high school teacher, said. “The quality (of new clothing) has gone down and that’s why many people object to getting rid of mitumba.”
Both Muya and Ciku said mitumba also tends to be cheaper to purchase. Muya said he recently bought mitumba shirts for about 250 Kenyan shillings apiece, or the equivalent of a little more than $2; a new shirt would cost about 600 Kenyan shillings, or the equivalent of $6, he said.
“On the other hand mitumba gives the poor people an opportunity to dress well.  Mitumba has also created thousands of jobs.”
A country of more than 44 million people, Kenya has an unemployment rate of about 9 percent, according to the most recent numbers from theWorld Bank. Youth unemployment rates range from about 17 to 18 percent. Pockets of society also live in extreme poverty, as Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, is home to Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa.
“We had a thriving textile industry in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which got killed by mitumba,” Sabine Huester, founder and general manager of Kiboko Leisure Wear, a Nairobi-based garment manufacturing company, said in an email. “On the other hand mitumba gives the poor people an opportunity to dress well.  Mitumba has also created thousands of jobs.”
One of the main arguments against a ban is the loss of jobs it would cause. About 35,000 people in Kenya work within the mitumba industry, Abel Kamau, liaison officer with the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, said in an email. Meanwhile, domestic textiles and exports of those items both directly and indirectly employ approximately 190,000 individuals, he said.
The argument against mitumba
While mitumba has made it easier to buy quality clothes for less, many officials and manufacturers also blame it for the decline of Kenya’s textile industry. 
“I say the ban is good,” Charles Kahuthu, CEO and regional coordinator of the East African Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, a pro-business lobbying group, said. “I think politics will have to be put aside and we have to look at this from an economic point of view.”
Seller in second-hand clothes market in Kibera. Photo via Colin Crowley on Flickr
During the 1990s, mitumba began to pick up steam as donated clothes from places such as the U.S. flowed into the country. Organizations such as the Salvation Army receive clothes for charity and distribute those domestically before sending any excess to Africa. Once it arrives, individuals purchase the clothes in bulk and resell it for profit, according to Slate.
“When (mitumba) started accessing the Kenyan market, it was well in line with the needs in the market —  to cater for the poor in the society,” Kamau said. “It has over time provided poor Kenyans with clothing. However, back then, (mitumba) clothes were charitable donations. Fast forward, (mitumba has) been commercialized.”
The government has previously attempted to ban mitumba, according to The Daily Nation. The most recent effort was pushed back to 2018 after Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta met with leaders from neighboring countries. But as time goes on, the amount of mitumba and its worth continue to grow.
According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the value of the industry has increased five-fold from 2006 to 2015, now totaling the equivalent of about $98.6 million. In 2015 about 110 million kilograms of second-hand clothing was imported into Kenya, up from about 48 million kilograms in 2006.
“The current manufacturing capacity cannot be able to take care of the sudden demand patterns,” Kamau said. “There is a need for a win win situation for both manufacturing and (mitumba) trade.”
Looking ahead
Ciku, a Nairobi-based administrator for the professional services firm Ernst & Young, said if mitumba is banned it would put a strain on herself financially.
“It would be a problem because, first of all, that means digging deeper into your pockets to buy clothing from the stores,” she said.“They (the government) want to (regulate mitumba) in order to revive the local industry. We agree, but the problem is the things won’t be affordable.”
Ciku and Muya also said because most people they know buy and wear mitumba, a ban would force individuals to change the way they have shopped for decades.
“The manufacturing sector should provide an alternative clothing option to the market. As of now, that is the stand of the textiles and apparels manufacturing sector,” Kamau said. “With more development of the manufacturing capacity, new and affordable clothing will be available and provide alternatives to the growing middle class.”
Ciku believes the pros and cons of mitumba are part of the reason the government has postponed a ban.
“At the end of the day, I think the advantages of the mitumba industry are much higher than the other industries here,” Ciku said. “Everyone is involved: the rich, the lower class, the upper class… it would be a big thing to actually shut it down.”

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