There was a sigh of relief throughout East Africa when it was announced that the ban on the importation of second-hand clothes, popularly known as mitumba, had been postponed. In three years the ban will be in place. This has left thousands of mitumba traders restless and the question of what will happen to their livelihoods remains unanswered.
If their pleas fail to persuade the East African Community leaders to reverse their decision, they face the prospect of watching the slow death of a thriving industry. The traders will shift to selling new clothes and doing other kinds of business. In generations to come, the word mitumba will no longer refer to clothes but to other used imported products.
What is disturbing is the plight of those who wear mitumba. What will happen to that college dropout shopping for a shirt or blouse to wear in his/her next interview? The answer of the bureaucrats in Arusha is that new clothes will be readily available. That may be true, but will a youth looking for employment and with only a few shillings to spend afford such clothes?
It has been argued that the ban is aimed at protecting the local industry, which includes the peasant cotton farmer in Nyakach and all the way to the limping Kisumu Cotton Mills.
This sounds like a persuasive and patriotic argument. However, what we have not been told is whether the local textile industry has the capacity to clothe the massive East African Community population, which stands at around 170 million.
If it cannot, what will happen? Are we going to walk naked or, like Adam and Eve, cover ourselves with leaves? None of that is going to happen for there is a steady supply of cheap new clothes from China and its neighbours in the Far East.
BENEFIT LOCAL INDUSTRY
Therefore, it appears that the ban is not meant to benefit the local industry but manufacturers in certain foreign countries. In this, the government shall have abdicated its duty of protecting its citizens. Our markets will be flooded with cheap imports while the cotton farmer in Nyakach will content himself with growing maize and beans, and the circle of poverty will continue.
On the other hand, the local garment manufacturers will produce garments that are too expensive to compete with the cheap imports. With time, the Kicomis and ginneries we were keen on reviving will take their last breath and their machinery will eventually be sold as scrap metal.
If the EAC is keen on protecting the local textile industry, it should devise ways of supporting the farmer, ginneries, and manufacturers.
What the farmer desperately needs is access to better seeds and fertiliser and credit to take care of the farming expenses until he sells his crop.
Like the farmers, the ginneries and the garment manufacturers need money to invest in modern machinery and other infrastructure and ready cash to pay the farmers as soon as they deliver their crop. In short, most of the problems facing the silk and cotton industries can be sorted out.
As the industry receives the necessary support to face increased demand, policies aimed at discouraging the importation of both second-hand and new clothes should be implemented. The result should be that all imported clothes are more expensive than the local ones.
Import duty on machinery for the factories should be zero-rated while taxation on the finished products minimised. Incentives such as free land and tax holidays should also be made available to all the companies that wish to establish textile industries in the region.
With time, the importation of both new and used clothes will die a natural death and the textile industry will grow to meet the increased demand. Our economies will be healthier and the living conditions of our people improved. After all, who wants to wear a used shirt if it costs the same as a new one?
Mr Kariuki is a hotelier based in Thika and an author. [email protected]