Over two decades ago, before market liberalisation policies opened up local economies to mitumba, the clothes were only popular with a handful of Kenyans.
The local textile industry was so vibrant back then it employed thousands of Kenyans, and clothed them too. The industry was, in fact, the second largest employer after the public service.
Across the country, in areas where cotton growing had become a booming venture, cotton collection points, which to date are still known as store pamba, propped up and blossomed into small town centres.
Notably, during the boom, the government supported the industry through the Cotton Board of Kenya, which had an organised marketing system that saw farmers get paid promptly. The board also invested heavily in textile factories such as Raymonds and Rift Valley Textiles (Rivatex) in Eldoret and Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi), which provided ready markets for lint.
Elizabeth Auma, a cotton farmer in Kisumu’s Ahero, recalls the days when growing cotton was a profitable venture up to the mid-90s.
“I educated my five children and eked a living growing cotton on four-acre piece of land,” explains the 68-year-old farmer.
Out of the blue, the market began shrinking, cotton pests and diseases became rampant, making the crop less remunerative, the farmer says.
Vincent Egesa, the chairman of Luanda Cotton Farmers Co-operative Union in Vihiga County, understands better the genesis of cotton downfall.
“Our woes began after the liberalisation of the industry in the early 90s when importation of second-hand clothes was given the green light. This led to the collapse of the Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing Board,” he says.
The removal of limitations ultimately caused a huge price drop on mitumba, which flooded the market.
The superior quality and originality of mitumba caught the eye of the young urban population, further killing the demand for locally produced clothes.
Gradually, firms like Kicomi and Rivatex closed down and more than half of the cotton ginning factories breathed their last. And just like that, mitumba tormented its local counterpart into oblivion.
Over the past five years, the government has been aggressively stepping up efforts to revive the once lucrative sector by passing the 2006 Cotton Amendment Bill, which led to the formation of the Cotton Development Authority — now known as the Fibre Crops Directorate — to oversee the process.
Because pests and diseases were other factors that contributed to the death of the local textile industry, local scientists also embarked on research. The research included genetic modification of cotton to make it resistant to pests and diseases.
Already, the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) has planted the first Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton for environmental testing in Kibos, Kisumu County.
The commercialisation of Bt cotton is expected in January 2019, while farmers are likely to plant their first biotech cotton seeds in March the same year.
Dr Charles Waturu, the director of Kari’s Thika centre and Bt cotton lead researcher, says introduction of this variety is key in reviving the crop’s production, which had declined from an all-time high of 70,000 bales in 1985 to just about 20,000 bales currently.
“Compared with the conventional cotton seeds that produce about 2,500kg per acre, Bt Cotton yields yield double,” said Dr Waturu.
Nonetheless, whether Bt cotton gives double yields or not, the most disturbing question is how a revamped textile industry will thrive alongside mitumba.
The dark side of used clothes from Europe and America forced the East African Community (EAC) member states to impose a ban in 2015 on used cloth imports. The dramatic U-turn from the clothes was aimed at reviving and promoting textile and leather industries across the region, according to EAC.
Acknowledging the idea as critical for the growth of the domestic textile sector, the Kenyan government announced its plans to roll out the ban. But the US, Kenya’s third largest export market, responded by threatening to end the country’s eligibility for duty-free clothing exports to its market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).
Kenya smelt danger and quickly reversed its decision.
While issuing the threat to EAC, US State Department’s Harry Sullivan, the Africa Bureau acting head of economic and regional affairs, noted that “while we understand the East African Community’s desire to build a domestic textile sector, we firmly believe the ban on imports of used clothing will not achieve that”.
Mr Sullivan further questioned “whether consumers of used clothing will be able to afford the new apparel being made in the EAC market”.
The road to Bt cotton commercialisation puts Kenya in a dilemma of either re-awakening local garment manufacturing or growing cotton for EPZ and export, and continue importing used clothes. Going forward, the government is pumping money into the sector’s revival while at the same time feeding the very monster that severed the industry.
A few years ago, the government slashed import duty on second-hand clothes by 10 per cent — rates which are still applicable — a decision which led to increased mitumba imports.
Dr Waturu, on the other hand, strongly believes that a revitalised textile industry will easily push mitumba clothes out of the market even without a ban.
The government has invested about Sh3 billion in the rehabilitation of Rivatex, which has the largest capacity compared to all the milling factories combined and once complete, the local textile industry will be back on its strong feet, Dr Waturu observes.
“Once operational, Rivatex will provide affordable and high quality fabric and no Kenyan will want to wear second-hand clothes again,” he says.
Owing to its size, the factory will require large volumes of cotton, which is good news since it will offer a ready market for farmers. He says the government plans to plant 200,000 hectares of cotton.
Currently, Kenya imports about over 100,000 tonnes of second-hand clothes, shoes and accessories every year.
Currently, the prices for locally manufactured clothes and shoes remain unaffordable to most low-income earners.
A substantial amount of cotton lint and cake seeds for local textile mills and feed manufacture in Kenya are mainly from Tanzania that produces 15 times more than Kenya every year. Some are from Uganda, whose output is five times more than Kenya’s annually.
Dickson Kibata of the Fibre Crops Directorate says adoption of Bt cotton is expected to lower the cost of production by 40 per cent. “Cotton has a long value chain, from production, ginning, spinning, weaving, garment and non-apparel making as well as production in peripheral industries such as oil, animal feed and sanitary ware,” he says.
Twenty-one counties produce cotton. They include Kitui, Machakos, Makueni, Isiolo, Embu Tana River, Taita-Taveta, Kwale, Kilifi and Lamu. “Thirty-two per cent of all production costs goes to pest control. Persistent use of synthetic pesticides is expensive, destroys beneficial arthropods and induces pesticide resistance,” says Dr Waturu.