East Africa’s used-clothes trade comes under fire

GIKOMBA market, just north of Nairobi’s downtown, is a place to buy just about anything. At its entrance, where ragged minibuses push their way through rutted red mud, stalls sell piles of pillows, plastic toys, cutlery and soap. But the most common wares are second-hand clothing. Piles of old T-shirts and jeans; winter jackets, incongruous in the equatorial heat; dresses and leather shoes; all are watched carefully by stallholders. This market is the biggest wholesale centre of the mitumba, or used-clothing, trade in east Africa. The clothes worn by the bulk of Nairobi’s population are sourced here.

Yet if the governments of the East African Community, the regional trade bloc which comprises Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, get their way, all will change. By 2019 the EAC wants to outlaw imports of second-hand clothes. The idea is that ending the trade in old clothes—mostly donated by their former owners in rich countries—will help boost local manufacturing. On March 10th Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, met market traders upset by the idea, and defended the need for “Kenyan manufactured apparel”. Yet the ban seems sure to fail.

Mitumba trading is a big employer for Kenyans, most of whom work in the informal labour market. By one estimate, there are 65,000 traders in Gikomba alone. Imports have increased massively over the past two decades. In 2015, according to UN data, Kenya imported about 18,000 tonnes of clothing from Britain alone. Whole-salers buy bundles for anything up to 10,000 shillings (about $100), and sort the contents by type and quality. Retail traders then come and source stock for their own stalls elsewhere in the city, to be sold on to ordinary Kenyans.

Few traders are happy with the idea of a ban. “Just let them dare,” says Elizabeth in front of her stall in a dark corner of Gikomba, piled high with women’s dresses, on being informed of the proposal. “How could they! We will remove our clothes, we will demonstrate in the streets, we will take our children.” Selling clothes is a relatively lucrative activity. A trader can make 1,000 shillings in profit a day in a part of Nairobi where many people get by on a tenth of that. And it is skilled work: traders have to put their own capital at risk, assessing how likely each item is to sell.

Mr Kenyatta argues that new, better, jobs will be created in the textile industry to make up for these losses. That is not implausible, reckons Andrew Brooks, an academic at King’s College London who has studied the used-clothes trade. Kenya had a textiles industry in the 1960s and 1970s; South Africa has a ban, and a substantial textile industry. But to work, it would rely on east Africa’s borders being effectively sealed. A more likely outcome is that cheap clothes would simply be smuggled in, and the government would lose the 35% tariff levied on their import.

Many traders think that the proposal is bluster. At Toi market, a warren of shops at the edge of Kibera, Nairobi’s biggest slum, where many of the clothes sold at Gikomba go next, Simon Kimondho runs a stall selling smart slacks and jeans. “Nothing will happen, they are just not able,” he says. Another trader, Julius Batu, opposite him disagrees. The ban will come in, he says, but he is not worried. “We can just go to China and get new clothes.”


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