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Mitumba is good, but a thriving local textile industry much better

 A mitumba trader displays clothes for sale at Gikomba market in Nairobi. [Edward Kiplimo,Standard]

In his inaugural address as the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt was very categorical about his path to economic recovery and growth.

This address, delivered on Saturday, March 4, 1933, was coming at a time when America had endured more than three years of economic depression. As such, millions of Americans were out of employment, banks were collapsing and the US dollar was performing poorly.

Untold, is how Roosevelt made it a tradition for all future American presidents to spell out what they seek to achieve in their first 100 days in office. True to his word, he passed 76 laws in his first 100 days in an attempt to save the economy.

But two things stand out from Roosevelt’s inaugural address. First, and that which is known to many, is when he said that the only thing Americans have to fear is fear itself. This famous expression, which has been used to inspire hope, was used by Roosevelt to mean that the only thing that was holding Americans back from building back better was their fear.

Second, and what forms the basis of our line of reasoning, is when Roosevelt indicated that even though international trade was vastly important to the US, it sometimes comes secondary to the establishment of a sound national economy. And such was the time.

As such, he claimed that of necessity to Americans was to have practical policies that overemphasise on the building of their economy and that when the time was right he would spare no efforts in restoring world trade.

Four score and nine years later, Kenya finds herself facing a similar dilemma: Whether we should focus on building a sound national economy or open ourselves to unrestricted entry of goods from all over the world.  

National interest

Now, this article avoids taking an economic tangent of either or. We are not entirely against globalisation and neither are we fully advocating for a protectionist approach. What this article calls for is to rethink Kenya’s participation in the global economy given our national interest. It also calls upon those Kenyans who have been lucky to get the benefit of education and enlightenment to make a conscious choice about whether they want to betray their calling, and thus be judged by history, or be honest to the country and fellow countrymen and provide guidance.

Instructively, it is this group that leads or misleads the country. Bearing in mind that Kenya is in a political season, these highly educated Kenyans can either disabuse the collective ignorance of our politicians by standing with the truth or say things that will make ‘their’ candidate win. Today, unemployment is a ticking time bomb in Kenya. Therefore, if we don’t deal with this crisis now, the army of unemployed and poor Kenyan youth will, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have said, one day eat the rich. Consider these arguments.


Mitumba on sale along Ang'awa Avenue in Kisumu. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

When Raila Odinga launched his manifesto, he seemingly touched a raw nerve when he spoke about the future of mitumba. He has received criticism and support in equal measure. Those who have criticised him have singled out the affordability and employment opportunities presented by mitumba. On the other hand, those who have supported him have done so because of either their sycophantic support of Raila or the existential threat that mitumba poses to Kenya.

And even though William Ruto, his main rival, had spoken about the same matter earlier, his sentiments on the mitumba issue didn’t elicit discussion, anger and criticism as Raila’s sentiments have.

It must be noted that Ruto and his economic advisor David Ndii have been playing politics on how to build a sound national economy using the poor.

For instance, when it came to the public that KFC imports potatoes from Egypt, Ndii called out the government for allowing the importation of potatoes yet the local farmers were struggling to find a market.

However, when Raila wonders out aloud why the government would allow the importation of mitumba to the detriment of the local textile industry and our dignity as a people, they accuse him of wanting to focus on local manufacturing at the expense of menial jobs created from importation. How oxymoronic can one be?   

Classical conditioning  

Their sentiments notwithstanding, the next government must initiate the process of banning the importation and sale of mitumba. For starters, no sane government can ban mitumba in their first 100 days in office.  Banning the importation and sale of mitumba is a process more than an event considering a value chain has to be established and operationalised first.

But Kenyans can’t hear any of this. Like the bell used by Pavlov in explaining the classical conditioning of his dog, Kenyans have been conditioned to believe that without the importation and sale of mitumba, a majority of them will not only lose a livelihood but also go without affordable clothing. Unbeknownst to them, this conditioning has negatively affected their perspective on everything including self. Psychologically, the continued use of mitumba affects the image of self and dignity. As such, Kenyans have been conditioned to see no value in anything new because their markets are awash with anything and everything second hand. This ‘mitumba is king’ mentality not only erodes personal dignity but that of the nation too. Ever wondered how we are viewed by those countries that dump here all manner of plastic electronics, substandard linen, mitumba cars, expiring food and, recently, expiring vaccines?  

How do they view our men and women knowing all too well that a majority of them are dressed in mitumba inner wears? Better yet, how are these men and women made to view themselves?

At the national and personal level, the highly informal mitumba business goes against the decent work agenda. This agenda, which sums up the aspirations that people have for their working lives, calls for a fair income with security and social protection, safeguarding basic rights, offering equality of opportunity and treatment, and also prospects for personal development and to have their voice heard.

 Bales of mitumba at a shop  in Nakuru town. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Furthermore, the ‘mitumba is king’ mentality has gone deep to affect our political system. It is the reason Kenyans tolerate even ‘mitumba’ leadership. This explains why Kenyans would overlook virtue and integrity on the ballot and worship the corrupt. First-class leadership is greatly detested by Kenyans. They want something second hand. As a consequence, Kenya has basically become a country of mitumba.

Sustainable industrialisation

On the bright side, this election presents a chance for the next government to take a bold step in the right direction. For instance, a departure from the importation and sale of mitumba and a focus on sustainable industrialisation will save Kenya from imminent collapse. Investing in local textile industries hold key to dealing with the high rates of unemployment, urban poverty and a shrinking economy. And these three pose an existential threat to Kenya.  

Noteworthy, the value chain of textile alone, from the input, processing and final products, can absorb thousands upon thousands of Kenyans into employment. Much more importantly, and to the fear of many Kenyans, this value chain will still heavily rely on the local distribution networks, used by the current mitumba sellers, to get the goods to market.

Simply put, by banning the importation and sale of mitumba, our focus will shift from consumerism to production. And like in any market that produces goods or offers services, the laws of supply and demand will ultimately determine the quality, pricing and quantity.

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