The good, the bad and the ugly of 'mitumba'

Bales of mitumba being offloaded from a matatu in Nakuru town. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Azimio la Umoja One Kenya presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s remarks on second-hand clothes was yesterday a hot topic of discussion on social media.

The two presidential candidates - Raila and his main competitor William Ruto of the Kenya Kwanza Alliance - seem to agree on the need to stem the inflow of mitumba as a means of building the country’s textile production.

Raila’s competitors - who have been drumming up an economic system that speaks for the common mwananchi - were quick to latch on this, painting Raila’s team as one which was out of touch with common mwananchi.

But Dr Kennedy Manyala, an economist, said there might have been more heat than light on the debate on mitumba online.

“Mitumba does not allow you to grow,” said Dr Manyala, adding that there is not much a country gains from importing second-hand clothes. As a policy, the five Heads of State of the East African Community agreed to ban mitumba.

However, Manyala said Kenya has been sluggish about it, partly to remain in the good books of the US - one of the main sources of mitumba.

For Rwanda, which went ahead to ban importation of second-hand clothes, its apparel benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), a free trade agreement between Washington and select African countries, were suspended by former US President Donald Trump in July 2018. But Dr Manyala says Rwanda has built up its textile industry, and urged Nairobi to emulate Kigali and revive cotton by, first, providing farmers with the right seeds.

“Get the right seed and give it to farmers,” said Manyala. The government has since come up with BT Cotton, a genetically modified variety, that is pest-resistant, saving farmers on the cost of pesticides.

Critics, however, reckon that the mitumba business has helped employ millions of Kenyans, with the country importing 183,830 tonnes (about 8,000 containers) of second-hand clothing last year, according to official data.

Second-hand clothes on sale along Ang'awa Avenue in Kisumu County. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

This is a four-fold increase from 48,449 tonnes 20 years earlier, an indicator that demand for mitumba has been rising. There was an increase of more than 50 per cent in the quantity of second-hand clothing imported last year compared to 2020.

Moreover, a 2021 report by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a public policy think-tank, noted that the issue of mitumba is a demand-issue as a lot of poor Kenyans can only afford the cheap second-hand clothes and shoes.

The IEA report showed there are close to two million people who eke a living selling second-hand clothes and shoes. Their jobs range from handling, alterations and refinements.

On the other hand, there were only about 60,496 Kenyans involved in the making of textile products in Kenya by the end of 2020, official data shows. The mitumba industry, the IEA report showed, paid taxes valued at Sh12 billion in 2019. As part of one of the manufacturing pillars of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four Agenda, the Jubilee administration also had plans of ending the mitumba trade.

Former National Treasury CS Henry Rotich, after unveiling the Big Four Agenda in the 2018 Budget Policy, launched an assault against mitumba and even hinted that Kenya would stop the flow of the clothes into the country. “Our textile and footwear sectors are closing down due to unfair competition from cheap imports,” said Rotich in his Budget Speech in June 2018. 

Starting July 2018, Rotich said, all imported clothes including mitumba would be slapped with a higher import duty of $5 (Sh500) per unit or 35 per cent, whichever was higher. He said the tax was aimed at encouraging local production and creating jobs for the youth in the sector. 

But in official documents, Rotich proposed something different. He broke ranks with the other EAC Finance ministers and instead reduced tariffs on imported second-hand clothes in what was seen as a strategic decision by President Kenyatta’s administration to maintain cordial relations with the US. 

Rivatex textile company in Eldoret. [File, Standard]


An EAC Gazette released after the budget showed that importers of mitumba would bring into Kenya the products at a reduced tariff of $0.20 (Sh20) per kilogramme in the 2018/19 financial year. This was after a reduction of 50 per cent from an applied tariff of $0.40 (Sh40) per kilogramme. The proposals of this gazette have remained, with imports of mitumba, which dipped only in 2020 after the State banned their imports health measure against the spread of Covid-19, surging to new levels.

Uganda and Tanzania, which like Kenya had also promised to ban imports of mitumba, retained their duties on the used items. In mid-2017, Kenya said it would “comply” with America’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) and withdrew a proposed ban on used clothes. 

Just like Raila, experts have blamed increased imports of mitumba for the collapse of the once vibrant textile sector.  Others have cited inability for Kenyan producers to efficiently produce quality and affordable garments as the main reason for their collapse.

To revive textile manufacturing, President Kenyatta commissioned a revamped Rivatex textile company in Eldoret. It is expected to create 3,000 direct jobs. There are also plans to breathe life into the Kisumu Cotton Mills.