At Gikomba, Kenya’s largest flea market situated in Nairobi, it is easier to pick out the most popular business as one walks around.
From one stall to another, dozens of second-hand items that include shoes, shirts, trousers, utensils, and T-shirts lie in a heap or sit pretty on the make-shift shelves or hang on the walls of the shops.
At one spot of the market, two young men called out prices of their wares - T-shirts at Sh50 in unison as dozens of customers surrounded them.
This was the same case at nearly every stall as the traders competed for business at the busy market that is flocked by hundreds of wholesalers, retailers, and consumers from Kenya and neighbouring countries.
The scenes at Gikomba have replicated at various other markets across the country as second-hand items business soars in Kenya, overshadowing many others amid increased demand for wares.
Over the years, the sector has created dozens of jobs across the value chain and continues to employ tens of people each day, thanks to the ease of getting into it.
With even five dollars, one can buy dozens of T-shirts at wholesale price from Gikomba and take them to the residential areas and sell at a profit.
“This is where I get my bread and butter. Rent, school fees, and food all come from here. I have been in the business for seven years,” said Bernard Kamau, highlighting the value of the business to many families.
Demand for second-hand items, locally known as mitumba, is at three levels, depending on peoples’ income, with the traders selecting items to satisfy each of the markets here are designer clothes like suits, shoes, and jackets that are selected and sold to high-end earners and celebrities for as high as Sh50,000 each.
Then middle-income earners who form the second largest market buy items, especially clothes from Sh500 dollars to Sh10,000 for shoes.
These items are also selected by the traders and sold at stalls in the central business district in Nairobi and other major towns.
Low-income earners, who are the majority, are the ones who flock in huge numbers markets like Gikomba for bargains.
Secondhand items are bought by everyone, from the rich to the poor.
The rich seek for exclusive unblemished designer wear and other items that even include bulb holders and utensils or fridges,” Protus Kimeu, a trader with a stall in Nairobi, said.
“For clothes, I select them, take to the laundry and deliver to specific persons that include lawyers at a premium price.”
Second-hand items trade surged significantly, with traders importing 177,160 tonnes of clothes in 2018 valued at about Sh17 billion, up from 135,868 tonnes in 2017 and 106,974 in 2014, according to data from Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS).
“The secondhand items business in Kenya is soaring because of three things, first is stifled incomes, second it is offering thousands of jobs and third the items are of good quality fuelling demand,” said Ernest Manuyo, a tutor at Pioneer Institute.
“Most of new clothes and shoes made in Kenya are exported because their prices are way above the common man’s reach.” However, even as second-hand items business grows, Kenya is working to boost the manufacturing of clothes using genetically modified cotton.
The cotton is expected to start to be grown this year. But as the country works on the cotton, apparel exports mainly sewn at the export processing zones surged to a new high in 2018.
According to KNBS, the export of apparels increased from Sh32.4 billion in 2017 to Sh34.2 billion in 2018, accounting for about 6.3 per cent of total domestic exports.