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Second-hand clothing hurting Kenya’s textile industry

The sale of second-hand clothing, called “mitumba,” is widespread in Kenya. But while mitumba may benefit the pocketbooks of many people, especially the poor, critics say it harms the country’s domestic textile industry.

It is a typical day at Toi Market in the Nairobi informal settlement of Kibera. Buying mitumba is very common in Kenya. Shoppers hunt for the best deals on shirts, trousers, dresses and other clothing.

“Kenyans find it a bit easier [to purchase mitumba] than going to the shop and spending much more money over there. So they find it cheaper, to come over, choose from mitumbas, and then they get it done,” explained Kelynne Wambui, one of the sellers.

But while the mitumba business may be good for Wambui and her customers, others say it hurts Kenya’s struggling textile industry.

Mitumba first came to Kenya in the late 1980s at a time when the textile industry was booming, employing some 30% of the formal labour force. But economic liberalisation policies that included the mass importation of used clothing led to the textile industry’s virtual collapse by the early 1990s.

In 2000, the signing in the U.S. of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) briefly revived the textile industry, but mostly in the export sector rather than the domestic market.

Last year, the government reduced import duties on second-hand clothing, leading the Kenya Association of Manufacturers to predict further job losses. The Kenyan textile industry currently employs less than 20,000 workers from more than 200,000 at the peak of the industry.

Big impact

Jaswinder Bedi is chairman of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers. He says the introduction of mitumba in Kenya had a huge impact on the textile industry.

“And why did it? Purely because you cannot compete with free things,” said Bedi. “I mean, if you are trying to compete with something which is really free of cost, you cannot. You have a cost of manufacturing, you have a cost of raw material, you have a processing cost. And, all those costs put together, you cannot compete with that.”

Bedi calls mitumba “free” because most of the garments sold are actually donations made by people in North America and Europe, who think they are sending their used clothing to the poor for free distribution.

He says he has no problem with clothing being distributed to the poorest of the poor for free, but that donations should not be made into a business.

For Bedi, a bigger problem is that a high percentage of imported clothing escapes the tariff by being smuggled into Kenya through what he calls “porous borders”.

Unfair competition

Moses Ikiara is the executive director of the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis. He says it is not just mitumba that evades the taxman.

“New imported clothing comes in disguised as mitumba and it gets into the market, and of course without paying taxes, which makes it a big challenge for domestic textile producers to be able to find a market. Problems like those have to be sorted out,” said Ikiara.

But there are some who believe that the domestic textile industry can compete effectively with mitumba. Richard Ndubai is CEO of Ricardo International, which manufactures and exports garments for Walmart and other American outlets. He plans to start producing for the Kenyan market.

“A lot of the mitumba that is coming into the country now is basically goods that are manufactured in Africa, in Kenya, which end up in countries like the U.K., America, Italy. They are then used by people for one or two months. They bale the same product up and bring it back to sell to us,” said Ndubai.

Game plan

Ndubai says that if the textile industry focuses on mass production, and if manufacturers in the Export Processing Zone are allowed to produce for the local market, companies in Kenya can sell clothing to Kenyans at the same price as mitumba or even cheaper.

Industry leaders are urging the Kenyan government to support the domestic textile industry. They seek a ban on the sale of mitumba, a crackdown on mitumba smuggling and broad changes in the cotton industry. – VOA


  • PAT

    I live in England and I have always been stonewalled by the ludicrous import duty tax imposed by the Kenyan Government whenever I have attempted to send 2nd hand clothes to a school that provides free education to children orphaned or partially orphaned by AID’s in the Kibera Slums outside of Nairobi; ‘Zelyn Academy’. In most cases the import duty exceeds the cost of the clothes I am sending for the children and when the cost of shipping is included, it is so expensive that it is simply not economically viable.

    I would be so grateful if anyone can advise me on a way to get clothes to these needy children in an economical way.

  • Joe Ndungu

    Tony is right. You, tony, hit the nail on the head. They speak baseless facts that are unsubstanciated and probably false. Mitumba cnnot compete with ungaro, DKNY or even ‘made in china’ wares. They would only compete with other mitumba. I think we are done with this topic as these guys just wanted ‘poison the minds’ of the readers who simply agree to whatever they read without double checking the facts. In fact, As a Kenyan who wore mitumba, if i coulf afford brand new jeans, i would go tot he stores on Kimathi, Koinange etc..i could not imagine getting a mtumba on Kenyatta avenue and then complaining that it wasnt made in Kenya or it is taking away jobs…the borders being porous? Please! Do you think people simply wake up in the morning and decided to walk across the border with bales on their heads? These things are heavy! As for the ports…how many stories have we read about in the local media where shipments of drugs are busted? i guess the borders are like george orwells Animal Farm eh? All borders are porus, but when it comes to textile and mitumba?

    The mitumba haters wnat us to think that the borders are open and free trade is hurting kenyan econ? Please, Tony, keep it up. As for the haters…send Tony an application, he might just hire you to transport bales into the ‘porus borders…’ lol

  • Tony Tiedemann

    September 21, 2010

    Cathy Majtenyi
    [email protected]

    Dear Ms. Majtenyi,

    I have several issues with your September 16, 2010 article entitled “Second-hand clothing hurting Kenya’s textile industry.” It is unbalanced and mostly inaccurate.

    In the fifth paragraph you report that last year the “government reduced import duties on second-hand clothing.”

    Rather, this happened because the Kenyan shilling has devalued to the U.S. dollar over the last year. Historically, Kenya’s currency has traded at 68 KES for every U.S. dollar. Today, the percentage is 19 percent higher. That is why the Kenyan government reduced import duties.

    In the next sentence you contend that “the Kenyan textile industry currently employs less than 20,000 workers from the more than 200,000 at the peak.”

    Who are your sources? Where did you get these numbers? They are unsubstantiated.

    Under the heading “Big impact” Mr. Bedi is wrong in stating that Kenya’s imports are free.

    Used clothing imported from the U.S. and Europe is not “free.”

    Exporters like my company, Arizona-based Tiedemann Globe, Inc. buy used clothes, pay taxes and shipping, invest in employees, insurance, facilities, and pay
    for the cost of doing business etc. Nothing is “free” as the article implies. We have similar costs of manufacturing and processing as Kenyan manufacturers.

    In addition, Kenya’s borders are not as “porous” as Mr. Bedi implies. All of our exports are checked at the port in Mombasa. We have been exporting used clothing to Kenya for 17 years. It is one of the least porous borders we have found in the world.

    Doesn’t Kenya import new clothing/textiles from countries like China, Malaysia, and Thailand at low prices? So, wouldn’t it would be difficult for Kenyans to manufacture their own textiles when they are buying from these countries at such competitive prices.

    Your article further states that “there are some people who believe that the domestic textile industry can compete effectively with mitumba.” Why would mitumba want to compete with new textiles? It doesn’t make sense. They would compete with other mitumba correct?

    I would appreciate you correcting many of the inaccuracies in this article.


    Tony Tiedemann
    President and founder
    Tiedemann Globe, Inc.
    1411 S. 47th Ave. St. #110
    Phoenix, AZ 85043
    E-mail: [email protected]

    • Ngugi Kimani

      Thanks Tony for your comments. I am a wearer of high quality mitumba and was considering stopping wearing the same after reading that mitumba is supposed to be donations. But when I read your reply I was glad to know that they are not ‘free’!

  • Omilo Omilo

    It’s a pity that what other people in Europe and North America give out as donations end up being traded in.Somebody is definetely reaping where they did not plant.

    Even though, when appropriate intervention gets the Textile Industry in Kenya back on its feet, quality is key to capture the sophisticated clothing market.

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