President Uhuru Kenyatta has long been known to wear colourful kitenge shirts in public, so much that it is now not odd to stir national conversation.
While the shirts have always been a prominent part of the president’s wardrobe, in recent weeks, he has certainly upped the frequency in which he is seen in public wearing them.
Commentators, especially on social media, have taken notice and often focus on the satirical nature of the garments. They are, however, missing a deeper message.
Just as many industries have suffered during this recent pandemic period, local manufacturers, including those in the textile industry, have seen a great drop in demand and sales.
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First, there were lockdowns in neighbouring countries like Uganda and Rwanda, which prevented our manufacturers from exporting regionally, while the shutting down of the skies impeded exports to nations further afield.
Then came the need for mere survival with many saving their cash for food and basic amenities. Clothes, while important, are not considered as essential and therefore
shirts that previously might have been replaced will now have to survive another season or year.
Manufacturing has been critically hit with many businesses already closed or teetering on the brink of being shut. The industry desperately needed a boost and it received one by a simple gesture from President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Fashions and trends have always been formed by associations. Often, we wear our choice of clothes because some trends succeeded. Usually, the successful trends were because of third party endorsement by celebrities and opinion-shapers.
Hitherto, there is no bigger figure in Kenya than the Commander-in-Chief and what he says and does matters and is the subject of constant debate.
The wearing of locally manufactured kitenge shirts sends a strong signal that even the most powerful people put them on with pride. Uhuru’s shirts of vibrant colours and patterns are intentionally sending a message to the public.
"In support of the local textiles sector, the president continues to encourage Kenyans to wear locally made clothing and items and is leading the way with his colourful authentic Kenyan print shirts," reads a Facebook post by State House on Sunday, August 31, that was shown with a display of some of the shirts the Head of State had worn.
This did not start during the pandemic period. Remember the circular issued from the Office of the Attorney General in October last year, by the Solicitor General Ken Ogeto, as part of a scheme to achieve President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four Agenda which includes manufacturing?
It underscored manufacturing’s nature as a vital component towards progress on the other development goals.
The strategy behind the concept is that manufacturing will create an increasing number of better and higher quality jobs thus improving the living standards of those working in the industry, raising up their standard of living in order to access decent healthcare and affordable housing.
So, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s wearing of locally made kitenge shirts are not just a fun curiosity or fodder for social media amusement. It is a deliberate and concerted effort to move Kenya forward, especially after the debilitating last few months.
Uhuru promised to revive textile factories such as including Rivatex, Thika Cotton Mills and Ken Knit and regularly wearing their shirts and broadcasting their significance, the industry will surely beam with life again.
-Mr Kihoro is a Research and Data expert. [email protected]