It is barely 10am on a Saturday when I arrive at Alice Otieno’s tiny tailoring shop within Nairobi’s Lang’ata estate. I am a long-time customer and I need a simple replacement of a broken zipper on one of my trousers, but she will not attend to me for close to 20 minutes.
She is busy taking and noting down body measurements of three women I found at her shop. She is barely done with them when a fourth woman arrives with a roll of fabric ready to be taken through the same process as those ahead of us.
“Sorry for keeping you waiting for that long,” a smiley Ms Otieno, with a measuring tape hanging round her neck, says when she finally picks my garment for repair.
As I wait for her to finish the work, I don’t fail to notice how busy other next-door tailors have also become.
For a long time, the traditional tailor shops were largely idle except for a few customers occasionally popping in for minor repairs or resizing of garments.
“I am lately receiving more and more customers who want fitted garments,” says Ms Otieno.
“You also notice more tailoring shops are opening in this neighbourhood because there is now work for them”
A survey around Nairobi confirms heightening activity in many tailor shops whose clientele are in the middle and low-income market.
“Business is picking up well. Many people are coming back to have their clothes fitted than buy ready-made ones,” says Margaret Shiawitsa, the proprietor of Maggy Fashions tailoring shop on Nairobi’s Kimathi Lane.
For close to a decade, the tailoring business had been on a slump in Kenya, largely due to an inflow of used clothes, popularly known as mitumba and cheap new ready-to-wear clothe imports mainly from China.
Many shoppers shifted their attention to small business malls popularly known as ‘‘exhibition’’ which stocked huge consignments of cheap imported clothes from China and a host of other countries such as Turkey.
Others took to portals to shop for clothes with the blind hope they would fit them.
Some shoppers also thronged open — air markets for mitumba from Europe and the US. In 2017 alone, Kenya imported about 135,868 tonnes of used clothes worth Sh13.06 billion, according the Economic Survey 2018. This compares to 131,941 tonnes of imports in 2016 valued at Sh12.85 billion.
Today, things are changing gradually as more buyers discover that the foreign wear swamping the market do not work for them.
Tailors now have growing orders for garments including dresses, bridal gowns, trousers, skirts, suits among others.
To some buyers the design of the imported clothes simply does not match their fashion taste.
Some buyers of the imported ready-to-wear clothes are also confronted with the horror of trying to find a perfect fit because the garments were designed for completely different body shapes to theirs.
“Most of the imports are a disappointment for many. They struggle to fit in them and in desperate cases take them to the tailors for modification,” a second-hand clothes seller at the City Stadium market, popularly known as Mathe says.
Like in most other African countries, many women in Kenya are curvy and find it difficult fitting into small-sized imported Chinese and European garments. But it's not just women affected by this. Men are also finding it difficult to find clothes that fitted well.
The situation is compounded by rising cases of obesity as more people, especially in Kenya’s urban areas, eat junk food with little physical exercise.
A latest 2018 survey by the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) showed that obesity cases have doubled in Kenya, Benin, Niger, Rwanda, Ivory Coast and Uganda over the past 25 years.
The sedentary lifestyle of many Kenyans has been worsened by high imports of motor vehicles and motorcycles, which cuts off exercise through walking to work.
The number of newly registered motorcycles went up by 55.1 per cent from 123,539 units in 2016 to 191,601 units in 2017, according to the Economic Survey 2018. There was a 55.7 per cent rise in the number of registered motor and auto cycles over the review period.
Similarly, the number of motor vehicles imported through the port of Mombasa increased by 16.8 per cent to 114,133 in 2017, reversing the observed declining trend in the previous two years.
Although many Kenyans would wish to tailor their own clothes, affordability remains a major concern.
A new tailored dress for example costs a minimum Sh3,000 — way more expensive compared to second- hand imports that may cost a few hundreds of shillings. This is largely attributable to lack of raw material locally.
Fabric remains expensive in Kenya, with consumers relying on costly imports mainly from China and the wider Asian market.
For example, about 93 per cent of cotton used locally is imported to meet Kenya’s quantity and quality demands, estimates by a World Bank-backed survey report showed.
“This means the majority of export quality fabric manufactured in Kenya is made from imported fibres due to the poor quality and high trash content in local lint. The implication is that the textile sector in Kenya has to choose between the high-cost of imported material and the low-quality of local fibre which requires additional processing,” the assessment report said.
While the cost structure of apparel companies in Kenya varies significantly by firm size, for the larger companies, the high cost of imported material (which is a fixed cost due to the absence of export quality fabric in Kenya) contributes to the majority of the manufacturing cost, approximately 64 per cent.
Kenya’s annual import bill for fabric, mainly from China, is roughly about $170 million (about Sh17 billion), estimates by the Export Process Zone Authority (EPZA) showed.
Although the country has more than 400,000 hectares of land suitable for cotton growing, less than 35,000 hectares is presently under the crop.
Kenya currently produces less than 12 million square metres of woven fabric per year, against a market demand of approximately 171 million. Taking into consideration that textile mills are operating at about 45 per cent capacity, even if all textile factories currently operating in Kenya were to operate at 100 per cent capacity, this would produce 26.7 million square metres of fabric, which is only 15.6 per cent of the total local market demand.
“We are targeting to increase the area under cotton from less than 35,000 hectares to 350,000 within a year,” Mr Fanuel Kidenda, chief executive officer of the EPZA says.