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Why emotions overwhelmed economics on mitumba debate

Customers purchase mitumba items from traders at Toi Market in Kibra, Nairobi on June 09, 2022. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

It was unprecedented that second-hand clothes (mitumba) could get so much airtime in the run-up to the 2022 polls.

The leading presidential contenders traded barbs on who is likely to ban or support mitumba.

The only other time the mitumba debate was this emotive was when the media reported that a Chinese man was selling mitumba somewhere in Gikomba.

We felt he was invading our space. There is a conventional belief that mitumba is the only economic space left for ordinary Kenyans, another reason any talk of banning that trade is so emotive.

Let’s be blunter, mitumba is more of a Kenyan philosophy. It’s a belief that foreign goods and services, and cultures are superior to our own.

Noted how it has become fashionable to give our kids mitumba names? It was surprising that we demanded local potatoes from KFC.

Let’s leave emotions and look at the economics of mitumba. Is that a Swahili word? Whatever the language, mitumba refers to second-hand clothes but it could include anything from second-hand shoes, cars, and books among others.

The main argument for the popularity of mitumba is its price.

They are affordable to the hoi polloi. Others add their quality. But among the young generation, it’s the brand or the label that matters.

Image is everything. Why the emotions? One is that everyone wears clothes and the prospect of Kenyans going naked frightens everyone.

That was not uncommon in the early years of the republic even in some ostensibly progressive parts of the country. The second source of emotions is the informality of the Kenyan economy.

More than 80 per cent of citizens earn their living from the informal sector. Trading in mitumba is one such preoccupation.

Ban this trade and two million Kenyans will be jobless or idle.

No politician would love that as we head to the polls and even after.

It’s the number of people, read voters that would be affected by this ban that made our presidential contenders trade barbs.

It might be more than the ordinary traders; who controls the mitumba supply chain? The answer to this question could explain further why mitumba and not innovation espoused by patents made headlines.

Let’s ask boldly if banning mitumba makes economic sense. First wearing mitumba strips us of our dignity.

And the two leading presidential contenders should say that loudly and make no apologies about it.

Demand for cotton

There is nothing heroic about wearing someone’s clothes. Even siblings rarely share clothes. Clothes are very personal. Based on dignity only, mitumba should be banned.

But wait a minute. If we banned mitumba, we would have to make new clothes and other items ourselves. That would demand cotton, processing, dying and other additives like polyester.

Add buttons, zips, labels, and other accessories that go with clothes. Designers would be required, tailors, distributors and not forgetting all the machines. That’s lots of jobs.

Cotton growing would wake up the sleepy villages and hamlets. But that is the rosy part. Would our textile industries be competitive enough?

Remember we shall need the power to run such industries? Shall our wages be competitive? What of taxes?

Shall our quality compete with European, Turkish or other leading textile manufacturers?

Shall we be patriotic to buy “Made in Kenya.”? Ask Kenyans why they buy mitumba. If we restarted cotton and its ancillary industries, we could create lots of jobs and wean ourselves off mitumba. The same applies to cars and any other mitumba.

But the market must be big enough. How about riding on Africa’s free trade area, East African communities and other trade blocks?

But we can’t secure such a market without being competitive and innovative. We can learn from others.

What makes Italian shoes so competitive? We must create a brand, focus on quality and gradually build our market. We can’t ban mitumba overnight, but we can set a target of say ten years to revive cotton growing and wool production.

There is another reason why we need to act now. It’s from cotton seed that we get cooking oil, the new gold. From cotton, we also get shortening, soaps, and cosmetics.

Add animal feeds and many other byproducts.

Even academia will benefit from new areas of research.

One unintended consequence of mitumba is killing innovation.

Cotton is also grown in marginal areas, without much rainfall which makes it more attractive with climatic change. It is not just cotton that will need to be grown.

What of wool? In cold regions like Nyandarua, Molo or Meru, sheep are reared. Wool would supplement cotton in textiles.

The beauty of textiles is that it creates lots of jobs. That is what we need in Kenya today.

As we develop, we can shift to the high technology of making cars, electronics, aircraft and other high-value machines.

What happened to textile mills that pioneered the industrial revolution in the UK? Remember the dark satanic mills?

What of other mitumba-like cars? We can use the same approach. The basic truth is that we can’t manufacture everything.

We need to identify the products where we have a comparative advantage and invest in them.

Did Vision 2030 identify them? Do the manifestos of leading contenders identify them?

But we can be bold enough and create a comparative advantage. How did we crack it with M-Pesa?

The key issue in the mitumba debate should be jobs which give us dignity, meaning and pride. With jobs, we can buy new clothes, new cars and new dreams.

Our presidential contenders can trade barbs but the economic reality is that mitumba is tied to the Kenyan psyche.

The contenders can create an environment that makes it easy for the private sector to invest and create jobs, good enough to wean ourselves off mitumba. 

We are waiting. It’s 5 am and I am just about to drive my mtumba car to Nakuru. You can see “tuko pamoja.”