Kenya’s textile industry was once considered progressive and was the second largest employer after the public service in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Thirty years later, the industry is a pale shadow of its former self after several textile companies closed down, leading to more than 500,000 Kenyans being rendered jobless. Currently, the industry has less than 5,000 employees.
Major factories such as Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi), Rift Valley Textiles (Rivatex), Raymond and Thika Cloth Mills collapsed or scaled down their operations following the influx of cheap second-hand products.
Liberalisation of trade by Western countries in the early 1990s through organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) saw the Kenyan market become a major destination for used clothes, locally known as mitumba, which effectively killed the textile industry.
Rose Wesonga, a 61-year-old mitumba trader, says she used to buy cotton clothes at a wholesale price of Sh300 in the 1990s, but when mitumba came, the price plummeted to Sh30.
“As a trader, I decided to make good money from mitumba sales as opposed to going for cotton clothes, which were expensive,” said Ms Wesonga.
Following the liberalisation of trade, major cotton ginneries in the country - that were the main producers of raw materials for the cotton mills - became obsolete.
Mwea, Malakisi, Nambale, Amukura, Mulwanda, Nyanza and Meru ginneries are among the 22 cotton facilities that are today obsolete.
Speaking to The Standard yesterday, Eric Wanyela, a former cotton farmer and Bungoma West Cotton Growers Union chairman, said the influx of cheap used products, high production costs, intensive labour and lack of credit facilities led to the collapse of the industry.
Mr Wanyela, who sold his produce to Malakisi cotton ginnery, said poor prices and delayed payments prompted many farmers to uproot their plantations and venture into maize farming.
“We were getting Sh20 per kilo or sometimes Sh40. Farmers would wait even six months without payment, yet the ginnery was making profits,” said Wanyela.
Morris Wanyama, a cotton farmer in Lwandanyi location, said the Malakisi ginnery used to pay only for cotton fibre, not seeds.
Mr Wanyama wants both the national and county governments in cotton-growing areas to join forces and revive the textile industry.
Busia Governor Sospeter Ojaamong’ has promised to revive some of the four ginneries in his county.
Triza Okiyo, research officer at Plant Breeder and head of Cotton Research Programme at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Centre, said the Government was currently working on setting up a certified seed system and research on better varieties of cotton.