Why Kenya is second-hand clothes dumping ground

Kenyans pick through second-hand shoes at Gikomba market in Nairobi on February 4, 2024.  

Photo credit: File | Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

The Netherlands has said most of its second-hand clothes exported to Kenya are of very low quality, identifying the country as a disposal destination.

In a new report dubbed Destinations of Dutch used textiles produced in collaboration with Circle Economy and the Netherlands Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management further said the dumping is done through a complex network involving cloth laundering hubs in Poland and Pakistan.

Direct mitumba (used clothes) exports from the Netherlands to Kenya are 1,049 tonnes per annum, making Kenya its 31st destination for used clothes.

However, an additional 1,145 tonnes of low-quality textile sourced from the Netherlands is re-exported to Kenya through Poland per annum.

A similar re-export operation from Pakistan to Kenya stands at 1,146 tonnes per year.

“It is estimated that around 150 to 200 tonnes of used textiles that will immediately become waste enters Kenya every day,” the report reads in part.

“This pattern corresponds with the comments from Dutch sorters, who were transparent about the very low quality of textiles going to Pakistan (and, ostensibly, onward to Kenya given re-export estimates.)”

Gikomba market is the largest used clothes market in Kenya, employing thousands of retailers, upcyclers and waste workers despite the bales coming first through the Mombasa port.

The report noted that about 20 percent to 50 percent of imported mitumba is designated as fagia—meaning the lowest quality of used clothing in Swahili—and is unusable on arrival.

Kenya has a high import-to-export ratio of mitumba, meaning when second-hand clothes enter the market, only a small quantity is exported to other destinations after sorting.

The rest is considered waste, unmanaged landfill, which ends up in rivers and informal settlements and is used as fuel for heating or food roasting and open burning.

Open burning of textiles has had health repercussions and negative environmental impacts.

“What’s more, in 2021, Kenya imported 183,506 tonnes worth of used textiles. Only 1,519 tonnes were exported,” says the report.

“By contrast, the Netherlands imported 63,672 tonnes of used textiles but exported 167,674 tonnes. These consistently high import-to-export ratios lend further weight to the characterisation of Kenya as a reuse and disposal location.”

Kenyan mitumba traders interviewed said market prices for the bales do not reflect the quality and the resale system lacks feedback loops between exporters, importers and wholesalers.

Therefore, they are not able to return poor-quality products to the importer.

The study broke down the gender parity affecting traders with male traders receiving higher quality clothes and a majority of lower-wage, non-technical and manual labour-intensive tasks are performed by women.

Recycling and sorting enterprises are overwhelmingly owned and operated by men.

The chosen countries for the study were Ghana, India, Kenya, Poland and Pakistan.

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