The heads of state of the East African Community have resolved to ban importss of second-hand clothing, popularly known as mitumba.
The used clothes have been blamed for the collapse of the textile industry in East Africa.
The phasing out of mitumba is being fronted as the only way to revive the local textile industry.
A total ban on mitumba or the imposition of high import duty needs to be considered carefully.
It is important to understand why mitumba have become a way of life.
Mitumba are popular largely because they serve a basic need: they cover the nakedness of our poverty.
For as little as Sh50, one can buy a shirt for a child in the Mathare slums to wear to school.
It might be argued that second-hand clothing is undignified because it is equivalent to wearing another person’s trash.
But it is better to put on another man’s discarded clothes than to walk naked.
Mitumba are also popular due to their uniqueness and mostly, very good quality.
Many Kenyans of middle-income status prefer buying a high quality second hand pair of designer jeans because a new pair is beyond their regular reach.
They also find mitumba better than the alternative cheap imports from China.
While mitumba are blamed for killing the textile industry, it is the cheap imports mainly from China that have ensured that the industry stays dead.
Most buyers of new clothes go for the cheap variety from the East.
Banning mitumba under the present circumstances will have a two-fold effect on demand.
The lower middle class who can spare Sh500 for a shirt will simply buy the cheap import.
The absolute poor who cannot afford more than Sh50 for a shirt will have little alternative than to walk half-naked.
The possible outcome of banning mitumba reminds one of how the imposition of excise duty on sorghum beer led to the revival of illicit brews and drove sorghum farmers out of production.
To revive the textile sector, it is important to understand consumer needs. The clothing market is segmented.
The absolute poor need cheap durable clothing without much regard to style and fashion. They buy mitumba.
The lower middle class needs stylish and affordable clothing. They buy mitumba or cheap imitations from the East.
The upper middle class and the rich need stylish quality clothing. They buy from designer shops, go shopping abroad, or at times buy mitumba too.
Each of these market segments gives rise to a thriving sub-sector that creates employment.
The death of the textile industry has not created unemployment in the absolute sense.
It has shifted business from the old shopkeepers who used to sell new Kenyan clothing to the many young entrepreneurs who sell China-made clothes in tiny stalls across towns.
It has shifted business to the widow who requires very little capital to hawk mitumba in the mad traffic of second-hand imported vehicles.
It has also shifted jobs from the farmers and factory workers in Kenya to the farmers and factory workers in other countries.
It is important to appreciate the dynamics of today’s global market and seek to have comparative advantage in meeting consumer needs.
The textile industry in Kenya failed because it did not adapt to changing circumstances. Serious questions beg answers.
For example, why do the export processing zones in Kenya produce high quality clothing for export under the African Growth and Opportunity Act framework only?
If East Africa was to give similar tax exemptions for local clothing sold locally, would the benefit of job creation be greater than the foregone tax?
Why do khanga (leso) factories in Morogoro, Tanzania, continue to survive despite the onslaught from mitumba and China?
Why does the leading shoe producer in Kenya import shoes from India and brand them for local sale?
For the local textile sector to prosper again, the producers and the government must study the market, understand the needs of consumers in particular market segments, and develop sustainable strategies based on those needs.
It will be difficult to force people to buy what they do not want or what they cannot afford.
Mr Chando is an auditor at Nation Media Group. [email protected]