In the 1970s and 1980s, the average Kenyan town hosted a tailor at every street corner. There was a gentleman’s tailor and another one to carter to the ladies perched on the highest veranda frontage at the market. On a montage behind the tailor stood a display of the best of their works. Usually, these were the uncollected pieces. Beside the busy Singer sewing machine stood rolls of textiles. It is these textiles that made work easy for the village tailor. They were all made in Kenya and proudly sported their manufacturer’s label on the ribbon at the edge. Kicomi and Rivatex were a mark of Kenyan excellence.
Fast-forward to the 1990s. Open-air second-hand markets have replaced the tailor as the focus of the village market. Here, you could buy everything, from used underwear to babies’ clothes at low prices. If invited for a ‘first camera’ viewing when the mitumba bales were opened, you could even chance upon a designer label. Suddenly, the village girl matched her city rival in countenance and dress. The village boy too could hold his own against the more savvy and streetwise city dweller. On the face of it, it looked just fine.
But the importation of used clothes killed a whole value chain, from the cotton farmer, the textile mills and all the way to the village tailor. It killed the innovation that drove local fashion such that we now rely on hand-me-downs from West Africa, Europe and America. Except for West African wear, the fabrics used never get to the Kenyan tailor. Hence, dressmaking, which almost every woman from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s could do, is a dying art.
It is not just the textile industry that has taken a hit. Everything from fruits, toothpaste, cooking oil, sugar, wheat and furniture is now imported. What this means to local industry is death. With unregulated imports of even basic agricultural products, even our farmers are slowly being pushed out of the market.
It started with the death of the fisheries industry at the Coast, with local fish exporters such as Wananchi Marine going down, allowing Japanese and Korean trawlers unrestricted access to local resources. Next came the death of the cashew nut sector. Sugar and rice followed. Now the maize sector is staring into the barrel of the gun.
From a vibrant and promising economy that assembled cars and refined petrol and cooking oil in the 1970s, we have now become a nation of traders importing even bananas from South Africa and oranges from Israel. We have exported Kenyan jobs to the most unlikely places on earth. Brazilian horsetail hair or real Bulgarian human hair have become must-have accessories won by upwardly mobile women.
But that is just one part of the story. Recent revelations on the importation of sugar laced with mercury bring to the fore the question of the safety of imports.
There have been reports of fake medicines, fertilisers, seeds or even infant formula. The Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) and other import inspection agencies have either struggled or been compromised, allowing suspect goods into the country. Now we are graduating from destroying jobs to the more sinister destruction of the health of our people. The bold revelation by Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i on suspected contaminated sugar has led to speculation that the high incidence of cancer in the country is associated with the consumption of toxic foods and chemicals, including fake medicines.
Globalisation is not an excuse for the destruction of local production. As the sugar scandal has shown, the cheap import is often unfit for use and might have been dumped in the market. What globalisation calls for is a more robust quality inspection regime and the fine-tuning of local industry to improve competitiveness. Except for limitations arising from climate shocks, our agricultural sector should hold its own, particularly against producers in the region. It is also possible that some of the produce said to originate in neighbouring countries comes from elsewhere and is merely rerouted into Kenya. This is true for sugar and maize.
It is possible that unregulated imports of unmilled maize or maize seed from North America have brought in pests such as the fall armyworm, which has devastated crops in the last year. Countries such as Australia or even the European Union impose strict conditions on the importation of plants and plant or animal produce to limit the occurrence of disease or pests. It should be remembered that the importation of the water hyacinth as a pond beautification plant now threatens fresh water lakes in the region. Likewise, prosopis juliflora commonly known as mathenge, is threatening native species of trees in the arid and semi-arid areas.
It is evident that unrestricted imports threaten not only the economy and human lives but also the flora and fauna. It is high time laws governing imports were enforced without let. Also, institutions charged with import verification, testing and registration such as Kebs, KEPHIS and the Poisons and Pharmacy Board must comply with their mandates.
Trade and industry policies must also shield local producers from unfair competition.