5 March 2016

East Africa: Mitumba Ban - a Plan That Will Soon Unravel


East African countries have just announced that they will be banning importation of used clothes and shoes into the region's market in order to create domestic demand for the local textile and leather industries and boost employment.

Banning the importation of used clothes is the five governments' latest effort to save an industry long viewed as extinguished.

Even though the motives behind the ban are laudable, it is not practical. It is possible to grow the local textile industry without taking jobs from the people who need them the most. There is currently no local industry that manufactures clothes and shoes in the region acceptable to the public.

There is no point in pretending: The textile manufacturers of East Africa make poor quality but costly clothes and shoes that do not last. Nor do they offer variety and different designs to choose from. The ban, if implemented, will automatically render hundreds of young citizens who rely on the business of selling secondhand clothes and shoes jobless.

Besides, the majority of people in the lower and middle classes who depend on "mitumba" to look presentable will be forced to buy low quality, expensive clothes that many from poor backgrounds simply cannot afford.

The cheapest one can buy a pair of new shoes is $10, compared with $1 for a secondhand pair. A secondhand shirt or T-shirt ranges between $1 and $4, compared with $10 to $20 for new ones.

In Kenya, some 500,000 people were employed in the textile industry in the 1980s. Today, that number has fallen to around 20,000.

The leaders should be mindful of the risk that comes with cutting off the secondhand clothes business without a fall back plan for the hundreds of thousands it employs.

The Gikomba market in Kenya and the Balikudembe (Owino) Market in Uganda are examples of the ground zero of secondhand clothes in East Africa; it is from here that merchandise is redistributed to retailers all over the country.

Kenya alone imports around 100,000 tonnes of secondhand clothes, shoes and accessories annually -- many of which were originally donated to charity centres in the West. Uganda imported $202.59 million's worth of textiles and textile products in 2014.

The East African countries need to focus on streamlining the local textile industry so that it can meet the large and diverse demand in the region, provide quality products at affordable prices and at the same time provide thousands of jobs directly and millions more in downstream activities.

In the meantime, it remains to be seen how the governments will walk the tightrope of reviving the local textile industry without killing the mitumba market and the people who thrive on it.

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