Ann McCreath of KikoRomeo (a local fashion design house) invited me to talk to a group of young fashion designers and students.
They wanted me to address the topic ‘‘Impact of Technology on Fashion Design.’’ Although I am not an expert in fashion design, technology, especially Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), is a cross cutting issue.
After my presentation, curiosity got me into asking questions around the entire textile industry.
Since I had time on my side, I decided to talk to industry players. My small research exercise took me through designers, merchandisers, garment manufacturers, spinners and weavers.
Responses from all different groups were strikingly similar with respect to challenges and opportunities the sector can bring.
A brief search on the internet for background material was even more surprising when I landed on a report titled Policy Research on the Kenyan Textile Industry, Findings and Recommendation by African Cotton and Textile Industries Federation (ACTIF) dated June 2013.
It basically validated everything I had obtained from stakeholders.
The highlight of Kenya’s Textile industry begins in early 1980s, when it was the second largest employer after the civil service.
According to a KIPPRA report, cotton production in 1984 was in excess of 70,000 bales supplying the domestic textile industry, which comprised of 52 textiles mills and employed over 42,000 people.
Some analysts blame the IMF and World Bank-driven changes to our economic orientation from Import Substitution (which gave protection to local industries) to market liberalisation in return of promises for cheaper credit for the decline that followed.
The reforms infamously referred to as Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of the 1980s and 1990s severely dented growth of local industries that were not ready for competition.
In addition, ACTIF report puts the blame squarely on corruption and mismanagement at the defunct Cotton Board of Kenya for the collapse of the industry.
Domestic spinning and weaving capacities weakened reducing the number of mills from a high of 52 in 1984 to only 15 that are currently in operation and producing below capacity.
The industry faces myriad of problems including, lack of fabric consistency and failure to protect intellectual property.
There is also a challenge of preparing the design students in the fast-paced industry of design. The educational institutions are teaching with dated curriculums and thus students graduate but are unable to excel in their chosen field of design.
Other key challenges revolve around poor productivity, high input costs including labour and energy, transport, out dated technology, expensive credit, low investment and poor product quality and unpredictability of prices and lack of market outlets.
This has resulted in the influx of second hand products displacing the Kenyan industry.
Ironically as we import used clothing, Kenya exports garment to North America under the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) using imported fabric. Some industry players quietly say that the real problem in developing local fabric production is politics.
The closure of Rivatex for example was largely political. At the height of its success, Rivatex was globally competitive in fabric quality and production. Kenya had developed significant capacity to see its take off but today we struggle to attain consistency in fabric production.
We cannot always cry over spilt milk. Much of the problems can be dealt with by learning from other countries.
In Kenya, textile activities are centred in urban areas often attracting higher cost of living and translates to higher input cost.
Shift operations to rural locations can help avert escalation of cost. Time is ripe to demand service level agreements from energy suppliers, improved transport networks and preferential credit for creating rural employment.
Further it should be mandatory that all government garment needs are procured locally.
Immediate benefits of procuring uniforms and hospital lines locally would be employment of 8,275 people and engagement of 6,325 new farmers at no cost to the government since these resources are already budgeted for in the respective ministries.
Dr Ndemo is a former Information PS and a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.