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Kenya’s Ban On Importing Used Clothes Opens Way For Renewal Of Local Design

Kenya’s Ban On Importing Used Clothes Opens Way For Renewal Of Local Design 

Abdi Latif Dahir | The New York Times

Millions in the east African country have depended on secondhand garments from abroad for their sartorial choices – but with pandemic-driven measures in place, manufacturers and designers are taking the opportunity to rethink the industry.

Makeshift clothes shops in Nairobi before the government prohibited the importation of used clothes ( EPA )
Catherine Muringo’s wardrobe consists of secondhand outfits shipped from all over the world: colourful blouses and jeans from Canada, floral dresses from the United States, trench coats from Australia and leather handbags from the UK.

For years, Muringo bought the used clothes and accessories at cheap prices in open-air markets in Nairobi and used them to fashion her own idiosyncratic style.

Seven years ago, she also started a business buying and selling such items, distributing cast-off fur coats, hoodies and shoes to customers in Kenya and in foreign markets such as Botswana, Uganda and Tanzania.

In late March, however, the Kenyan government banned the importation of used garments in what it said was a precautionary measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Even though used clothes are fumigated before being shipped, Kenyan authorities said they were taking precautions because of the spike in infections in the US and other countries.

Businesses like hers are now threatened, as well as the sartorial choices of millions of Kenyans who depend on low-cost imports to stay stylish.

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“Kenyans love to go to the secondhand markets and spend hours looking and searching,” Muringo says. “Kenyans love the diversity of secondhand.”

Officials also said the banning of imported clothing – known as mitumba, the Swahili word for “bundles” – could have an unexpected benefit. It could help Kenya revive its own textile industry, which was wiped out in the late 1980s as the country started opening its markets to foreign competition.

“I think corona has shown not just for Kenya but for many countries to look inward a lot and try and fill some of the market gaps,” says Phyllis Wakiaga, the chief executive of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers. “The reality is that there’s a big opportunity for us to produce local clothes for the citizens.”

For years, Kenya, along with other countries in east Africa, has tried to phase out used clothing to boost local manufacturing, but the countries faced the threat of being removed from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which promotes trade by providing reduced or duty-free access to the US market. Many countries backed off from instituting a ban on imported clothing, with the exception of Rwanda.

The pandemic gave Kenya a chance to promote its own clothing manufacturing, but thwarted a lively trade.

In Nairobi, the combination of the import ban, plus lockdown measures and an overnight curfew introduced to stamp out the virus, has drastically reduced activity at the popular Gikomba and Toi thrift markets, mazes of narrow pathways packed with bellowing vendors and piles of clothes, shoes and household goods.

As the largest importer of used clothing in east Africa, Kenya, with its new ban, is expected to not just upend supply chains but also lead to a hemorrhage in jobs connected to the trade and the loss of millions of dollars from government coffers as tax revenue and import duties fall.

But where some see problems, others see opportunity.

Wagura Kamwana, proprietor of the Textile Loft, a fabric shop, is seeking to capitalise on this moment.

Kamwana, 40, grew up wearing hand-stitched clothes from her mother, and later sought trendy outfits at secondhand markets. Kenyans like used clothes, she says, both for their affordability and because of the their high-quality fabrics.

In 2016, she opened her store, offering premium quality fabrics, sourced from Europe, to Kenyans who wanted to create high-end fashion locally.

In 2018, she started offering production services to designers looking to develop smaller lines who were being turned away by factories only interested in bulk orders.

Kamwana has already worked with prominent local designers such as Katungulu Mwendwa.

The pandemic has also offered the chance to start her own clothing line. Her new label is set to produce everyday clothing for women including dresses, scarves and trousers ranging from $25 (£20) to $150.

Kamwana says designers and manufacturers should collaborate and take baby steps to push the industry towards maturity.

“This whole value chain will take quite a few years to be feasible or to be seen,” she says, adding: “What we can do immediately is perfect our art of making.”

Other Kenyan companies are also responding to the challenges of the pandemic by focusing locally.

We will have to adapt while still producing the type of bright bags that make us unique. When we source locally, we create jobs and make our industries grow.

Frederick Bittiner Wear, which does fabric selection, design and tailoring for retailers in east Africa, Europe and the United States, has seen a reduction in orders because of the coronavirus, so it has turned to producing leggings, T-shirts and vests for the local market, says the firm’s managing director, Dominic Agesa.

After approaching distributors with samples, Agesa says he got 50 orders in a week.

For too long, “Kenya has been reluctant” to incentivise local manufacturers, he says, but the import ban was one step towards making conditions more favourable for a local scene to eventually flourish.

“Are we able to satisfy the Kenyan market and beyond?” Agesa asks, then answers: “Gradually, the answer is yes.”

Upcoming Kenyan fashion designer Moses Omondi Odhiambo at work (EPA)
Suave Kenya is a brand that transforms secondhand clothes ranging from silk shirts to leather jackets into stylish and colourful tote bags, backpacks and wallets. With the import ban, its founder, Mohamed Awale, is looking into sourcing from local tanneries and textile factories.

“If the pandemic persists, we will have to adapt while still producing the type of bright bags that make us unique,” says Awale, 32. “When we source locally, we create jobs and make our industries grow.”

Nowhere is the shift to adapt to the changes brought on by the pandemic more visible than in the special export zones on Nairobi’s outskirts. Established in 1990, these zones offer companies fewer regulations, plus tax incentives to promote export-oriented businesses.

However, with borders closed and exports plunging, some of the clothing factories have begun servicing the Kenyan market, with the country temporarily allowing manufacturers to exceed the usual limit of supplying no more than 20 per cent of their annual production to local markets.

Shona EPZ has 500 employees and makes reflective work clothes for companies including 3M and apparel for department stores such as TJ Maxx. Since the pandemic began, the firm has pivoted towards making personal protective equipment for Kenya, producing tens of thousands of masks and surgical gowns per day, says its director, Isaac Maluki.

Maluki says he has also partnered with secondhand importers and small-scale manufacturers, which, given the ban on used clothing, are increasingly considering collaborations with larger companies like his to make clothes for local consumption.

“We want to really encourage them to see the kind of quality that comes out of here that can be shared into the local market,” he says. “The local market is huge.”

Reviewing the day’s production of face masks at the Kicotec factory in Kitui (AFP via Getty)
But before a robust clothing sector can take hold, experts say local manufacturers will have to overcome a host of challenges, including inadequate access to finance, the high cost of electricity, and the lack of raw materials, including cotton.

The fact that powerful lobby groups for the secondhand clothing industry in the US have already criticised Kenya’s move doesn’t bode well either, says Emily Anne Wolff, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands who has studied plans to phase out used clothing in east Africa.

Kenya is aiming to be the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the US, which could undermine Kenya’s will to retain the clothing ban.

Used clothes traders have appealed to the government in recent days to lift the ban, saying there is no public health risk associated with the trade, but officials have so far ruled that option out.

For now, Kenyan designers and manufacturers say the ban gives them a window of opportunity to start shaping the future of fashion in Kenya.

“Now is a good time to make choices and changes,” says Kamwana, the owner of Textile Loft. “You will be surprised by what comes out of this country.”

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