The quantity of second-hand clothes (mitumba) imported into the country between July and September last year rose sharply by 268 per cent, following the lifting of an earlier ban that was aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19.
Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) shows that 49,176 tonnes of second-hand clothes were imported into the country in the third quarter of last year compared to 13,334 tonnes in 2020.
This was more than 45,659 tonnes that were imported in the review period in 2019, before the pandemic. "Last year was generally a good year compared to 2020," a trader, who did not wish to be named said.
However, the trader said they were affected by the shortage of containers which pushed up the cost of importation to nearly double.
The mitumba that Kenya imported during the review period was valued at Sh5.1 billion, almost a four-fold increase compared to Sh1.4 billion worth of second-hand clothes that were imported between July and September 2020.
At the height of Covid-19, in March 2020, then Cabinet Secretary for Industry, Trade and Co-operatives Betty Maina restricted the importation of used clothes and shoes in what the State explained was aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.
Many traders were affected by the restriction, with markets such as Gikomba and Toi in Nairobi taking a hit from the punitive measures.
In value terms, traders spent Sh1.4 billion to import mitumba between July and September 2020, a drop from Sh4.5 billion in the third quarter of 2019.
President Uhuru Kenyatta lifted the ban on August 26, 2020, setting the stage for the resumption of this trade. After lifting the ban, the State came up with new protocols for the importation of mitumba.
"All used textiles and used shoes intended for importation into Kenya shall be subjected to physical examination and certification under the Pre–export Verification of Conformity to Standards (PVoC) requirements,” read part of the protocols by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs).
"They shall be accompanied by a fumigation or treatment certificate issued by a competent authority in the country of supply.”
While banning the importation of clothes and shoes last year, Kebs Managing Director Bernard Njiraini said the move conformed to the Kenyan standards that prohibit imports from a country experiencing an epidemic.
Second-hand clothes dealers then accused the State of an attempt to kill a sector that employs a lot of Kenyans.
By the end of 2019, most of the used clothes, 37 per cent, came from China followed by Pakistan (9.85 per cent), Canada (9.76 per cent), the United Kingdom (8.89 per cent), and Poland (5.69 per cent).
Imported second-hand clothes from China in 2019 were valued at $61 million (Sh6.9 billion), Sh1.8 billion from Pakistan, and another Sh1.8 billion from Canada. The value of mitumba clothes brought into the country has doubled since 2014 when the imports were valued at Sh8.8 billion.
The surge over the four years points to the key role that these segments of the economy play in creating jobs and providing clothing to Kenyans.
"The second-hand clothes market supports two million traders directly and three million other small businesses in related trades, not to mention most Kenyans who prefer the clothing due to prevailing economic conditions,” Mitumba Association of Kenya Chairperson Teresia Wairimu said last year.
She said the clothes are inspected and fumigated at the source countries.