State should reconsider mitumba ban


Traders spent Sh17.77 billion on second-hand clothes imports in 2019. FILE PHOTO | NMG

On March 25, the government suspended importation of mitumba as a Covid-19 prevention measure, which to be honest was a flimsy ground because there are health safety guidelines that can be enforced during the handling of imports. Kenya simply used the Covid-19 pandemic to impose the ban on mitumba, a policy it has previously attempted to implement many times but failed.

Then last week, an article calling for a total ban on mitumba imports was published in this newspaper. From that frame, the conflict of interest in that proposal was more than visible. It has become fanciful for self-preserving local industry players to simply argue for an importation ban to boost local production.

The policy spectrum is not that fluid as self-preserving local players put it, it is dynamic.

The first argument was that low-cost used garments from Western countries are what depress demand for clothes produced domestically. This is a fallacious argument in Kenya's public policy discourse because there is no evidence establishing that direct relationship.

I would challenge the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, which has been pushing for the ban, to demonstrate that evidence. The existing fact is that there is a correlation between increased imports of mitumba and a decline in local apparel production. But as statisticians and economists say many times, correlation is not causation.There is no causal relationship that mitumba has caused decline in local production.

In fact, the decline of local apparel production is linked to competition from low-cost Asian competitors who export to Africa's domestic market.

So, if local apparel producers want a ban on competition then their target is importation of new clothes. The Kenya Association of Manufacturers has found the mitumba market to be a soft target since it lacks a reliable lobby group to directly engage with them across the table on the government policy debate.

We have never seen them raise the same voice against secondhand vehicles, helicopters and other used imports to be substituted by local production.

Truth is, a large part of the low-cost mitumba clothes are not in the same market tier with local apparel producers. I am a "bend over boutique" shopper as some call the mitumba informal markets, and a good quality T-shirt at my vendor goes for around Sh250 when the same at a local producer goes for around Sh2,000. Surely, local apparel producers should smell the coffee that these two are different tier markets.

Second, is the moral argument about Kenya being a rubbish bin for the West to dump its used clothes. The article was now pontificating like our politicians who wonder why some Kenyans sleep hungry when there is food being sold in retail stores and shops.

I proudly wear mitumba clothes and shoes and I have never been bothered by them being used before because they are still serving a purpose – dressing decent and presentable. The worst indignity is in fact not wearing used clothes but lacking clothes or being under dressed.

I have seen Caucasians shopping at Toi Market many times. Maybe I should ask them next time if they feel degraded wearing mitumba and why they don't buy from local apparel producers.

Lastly, the article drew lesson of what Kenya can learn from Rwanda which implemented the mitumba ban. Now, it's important to understand structures of economies before drawing copy-and-paste policy conclusions.

To start with, Rwanda's Sh1 trillion is a small economy than Kenya’s which is ten-folds bigger and has little lessons to draw from. Then to argue that Kenya should forgo the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) to implement the mitumba ban like Rwanda is terrible economic reasoning.

The opportunity cost for Kenya to forgo Agoa is huge. Agoa has singlehandedly transformed Kenya’s textile and apparel industry from obscurity into a thriving sector.

Kenya is the second biggest exporter of textile and apparel to the US among Agoa countries after Lesotho and local production cannot substitute that market value. So, its false to argue that those two markers are a substitute of each other.