Is it Kwaheri for Mitumba in East Africa?

Is this the boon the fabric industry has been waiting for? Should Kitenge tailors, designers and creatives rejoice?

The second hand clothing business is a major employer in the informal sector of East Africa. Over 62% of middle and lower income urban Kenyans buy mitumba, this is according to an Ipsos survey conducted in 2013. I would however put the numbers much higher and the economic brackets even wider. Since the early 1980’s second hand clothing proliferation has creeped up and down the economic ladder and permeated through the classes. For most Kenyans, it’s the only way to look good on a tight budget. While on the other hand it provides a good source of income for the vendors – mostly tax free, and some people reportedly earning up to KSh. 500,000 per month.

East Africa’s proposed ban on the importation of used clothing has its advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious advantage is that the local textile industry might get a boost from the reduced competition as a result of the regulation of the mitumba sector. The hope is that the absence of mitumba would generate demand for local textiles and products. However a complete ban would eventually cause further decline due to the absence of a free market that drives innovation and change.

The best solution would be to tax the mitumba industry accordingly and look for ways to push domestic demand for locally produced textile goods. There is a growing need for more employment opportunities for the thousands of students graduating from high school and colleges each year to a society with high unemployment rates. Simply banning the import of second hand goods and clothing without providing a viable alternative is like painting over a large crack in the wall and declaring it fixed. The governments of East Africa would encounter less opposition to the ban if they included the people in finding lasting solutions.

Designers of African fashion might see the ban as a good thing. Ultimately, there would be less competition for customers and demand for their products might increase- at least that would be the assumption. However, the ban would only help those who are ready to evolve with the times. There needs to be a big enough “shift” in the system that will send ripples down the web. A shift big enough that would change the way people consume fashion in Kenya.

You can’t expect clients to come to you simply because their choices are limited. Designers and tailors have to be the movers of the industry if they are ever to break out of the mold. Change has to come from within and that means moving out of the comfort zone. If we should choose to seize it, there lies an opportunity to completely change the industry.

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