NAIROBI – Drayton Maina looks sharp behind the wheel of his car in a grey suit, colourful tie and shiny leather shoes.
It would be hard to tell that the Kenyan driver — like millions of his fellow Africans — is dressed from head-to-toe in second-hand clothes brought in from the West.
“The only thing you can’t get in a Kenyan second-hand market is a wife!” he jokes, picking out a fleecy top to counter Nairobi’s morning chill for a mere 200 shillings ($2.64) at the vast Gikomba street market.
Maina is proud to tot up the modest cost of his smart work attire: wide-collared suit 500 shillings, white shirt 150, cartoon tie 100, black leather shoes 800.
Despite widespread poverty across the east African nation of 32 million people, that sort of price is affordable for many and underpins the roaring success in the last two decades of the second-hand clothes trade known in local Swahili as “mitumba.”
Popular as the clothes may be among the poor, Kenya’s mitumba explosion has annoyed many in the former British colony.
Textile manufacturers say it has helped decimate their industry, while cotton-growers are equally aggrieved.
And the mass use of second-hand Western clothes has given a sometimes drab look to Kenyan streets — at least in the capital Nairobi, where colourful traditional African dress is rare.
Shipped into Kenya in enormous quantities, vast piles of clothes are shifted at Gikomba, a teeming labyrinth of makeshift stalls, boxes, carts and barrows full of clothes and shoes in a densely-populated, pot-holed suburb of Nairobi.
“MITUMBA FEEDS MANY MOUTHS”
Many of the sellers sit on top of their wares, as buyers rummage through the garments. Some clothes are sold by item, others by weight. Bargain boxes sell women’s underwear and children’s clothes at 20 shillings an item.
Many come to Gikomba to pick up large quantities to take out to the countryside and sell on at smaller markets.
Middlemen buy the clothes in bags known as “bales” from a handful of major importers who draw on charity stores, out-of-date stocks or over-runs in the West or in Asia.
Most importers and middlemen are reluctant to talk about the exact origin of the clothes, whether they pay for them and whether the donors are aware that the clothes are sold on again.
Some people in the business believe traders get the clothes for free by saying they will be donated to poor people in developing nations. Others think they pay a nominal fee to charities, or to Western firms to take seconds off their hands.
Jas Bedi, chairman of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers’ textile and apparel group, says the mitumba industry is exploiting goodwill in richer countries.
“People in Europe and America have sent clothes in good faith to Africa for the under-privileged and the poor, not to be turned into business by unscrupulous traders.”
The source of the clothes may be as muddled as Gikomba’s market but all agree that the clothes are prized.
“Everyone prefers mitumba in Kenya,” said John Omare, 25, next to his pile of boys’ T-shirts in Gikomba. “This is one of the largest open-air markets in east Africa. The mitumba industry is feeding a lot of mouths.”
“NAIL IN THE COFFIN”
Bedi estimates the mitumba trade employs some 30,000 people. That dwarfs the 12,000 left in the formal textile industry, which used to employ around 100,000 in the 1970s and 1980s.
In that heyday, Bedi says, there were some 100 major factories, compared to 7 or 8 now. Cheap Asian imports also played their part in the decline but mitumba gets most blame.
“Allowing imports of mitumba obviously had a negative impact on the industry. Mitumba is sent free, then sold, so with zero procurement costs, how can we compete?” Bedi said.
Between 200 to 300 containers of mitumba, each holding about 10 tonnes, enter Kenya’s Mombasa port each month, Bedi said.
“If you think a shirt weighs about 4 grams, then you can see just how much is coming in. It’s dumping basically. The people (textile manufacturers) who are surviving are barely surviving. They are waiting for the final nail in the coffin.”
Textile firms that have struggled on have done so by virtually abandoning the mass market to diversify into niche areas like school or factory uniforms, or the fashionable local “kikoi”: a colourful cloth worn around the waist or shoulders.
Lobbyists for the textile industry want the government to level the playing-field by raising taxes on mitumba imports — or just by ensuring taxes are paid at all at the ports. But in fact in the last budget in June, Finance Minister David Mwiraria halved tax on a kilo of mitumba.
“We have tried to fight this battle for the last 20 years, we’ve even taken it up at (World Trade Organisation) levels, but we have not won,” Bedi said.
“The politicians say we’re a poor country, we can’t do anything. OK, fine, so why not just give it away then?
Meanwhile, mitumba is every season’s must-have across Kenya, with some estimating that between half and two-thirds of the population wear second-hand items from the markets.
“This is an important service we provide for our nation,” said mitumba middleman Justus Malila in Gikomba, hustling a delivery through a muddy backstreet as the cheers and chants of a religious meeting next door rang out.