Rise of designer outdoor clothing market... but used


Martin Mutua, a second-hand hiking gear dealer at the Adams Arcade Toi Market on March 1, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

He holds a shoe which has an excellent grip, part leather-part suede.

“This goes for Sh25,000,” says Martin Mutua at Toi, one of Nairobi’s largest secondhand apparel markets. I am left wondering why a used hiking pair of shoes would cost that much and who would buy it anyway.

But I am wrong.

As Kenyans seek the thrill of outdoor adventure, demand for hiking, running, cycling and water rafting gear has gone up. But because Kenyan entrepreneurs have not yet warmed up to the idea of stitching the gear locally or selling it affordably, a majority of adventure-lovers are turning to the secondhand designer market.

A frugal hobby

The market for pre-owned luxury items in Kenya has been booming with no signs of slowing down, from designer bags, clothes, and shoes. However, the coronavirus pandemic, which gave Kenyans the push to do more outdoor activities, has created another niche – hiking gear.

Martin makes a living selling pre-owned designer hiking gear. Every morning on select days, he will go to Nairobi’s Gikomba market – the haven of second-hand clothing. He will rummage through bales of clothing and shoes looking for mildly-used hiking gear which he will wash, dry, and hung ready to sell to clients visiting his stall located in Toi Market.

“I’ve been selling hiking gear since 2013. That’s when I saw the need for such clothing. However, the pandemic multiplied demand. Sales grew 20 percent over that period,” the owner of Smarta Hiking Gear says.

“Before the pandemic, I used to take some time to sell the stock but today, sourcing it is the problem.”

Martin says the interest in pre-owned luxury hiking gear has also accelerated by the increased desire by Kenyans to wear designer but at an affordable cost.

Still affordable

The increased demand is not only local but globally. In 2019, the global hiking gear and equipment market size was estimated at Sh514 billion ($4.5 billion), according to a report by Grandview Research. The buyers are mainly men and women in their 30s and 40s.

A hiker himself, Martin says that though mountaineering is a sport that knows no age, one cannot just engage in it haphazardly.

“You need a special kind of clothing especially if you’re engaging in mixed trails and technical climbs,” he says.

“Unfortunately, such gear is not made in Kenya. Therefore, consumers are forced to import it which is rather time-consuming and expensive.” For example, a brand new Salomon hiking shoe costs not less than Sh27,000, which Martin sells at Sh16,000, but used.

The most popular boot among his male and female customers in his store is the lower boot from Vasque. Prices range from Sh4,500.

Although still affordable, why would someone spend so much on a hiking shoe? Martin says his clients know that the success of a climb is dependent on the state of one’s mind and the wrong gear can wreak havoc.

He also believes that Kenyan consumers are more aware of what they want. With a higher purchasing power, they are willing to pay for the gear. There is also the durability aspect of the gear that makes it resalable.

Besides shoes, he also sells breathable tops, thermal wear, hiking pants, gloves, bags, day and porters’ packs, and related hiking accessories from companies such as Meindl, Salewa, L.L.Bean, Lafuma, Vasque, and Quechua.

Most of his customers are mostly middle-class, he says, and come through referrals.

“These are people who spend at least Sh3,000 per weekend on a hike,” he says, adding that some come ready to pay while others pay a deposit and pick the shoes or gear once the balance has been cleared.

He also gets customers on the mountain slopes or peaks. He shares an instance where he met someone who had shown up for a hike in shorts and running shoes.

“You’ll be surprised to know that although many people are acquainted with hiking, they have no idea of the importance of the right gear in avoiding injury and ensuring total enjoyment of their time outdoors.”

Climbing Ngong’ Hills, Mt. Longonot, Mt. Ol Donyo Sabuk, and Mt. Kenya twice, has taught him some lessons about business.

“Life challenges are like mountains. If you can’t move the mountain, you might as well walk over it. This is the attitude I have adopted when I face challenges. Hiking gives you a certain grit,” he says.

But this secondhand business is not without pitfalls, with the first one being the increasing complexity of sourcing his stock.

There is competition for the now scarce goods, which leads to higher pricing. Another challenge is getting a quality item.

For a shoe to make the cut, it has to be light with a quality sole that has a good grip and made using Gore-Tex, a durable, highly breathable, and water-proof material.

“It’s very easy to get bags, shoes, and other clothing directly from consumers who are looking to sell off their items. To get a hiking gear in good condition is kin to striking oil.”

Does he think that his secondhand business is a threat to the original brand sellers?

“No. We rarely get enough supply to match them. They get theirs from their storehouses. We get the crumbs,” he says.