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Raila Odinga's plan to revive textile industry divides opinion

Azimio presidential candidate Raila Odinga. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Azimio presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s plan to revive the textile industry by limiting importation of second-hand clothes has kicked up a storm.

During the launch of his manifesto in Nairobi on Monday, Raila promised to promote cotton growing and revive textile factories, suggesting the industry collapsed due to importation of mitumba clothes.

“We will re-introduce cotton growing in large numbers. We will go to primary production so that our people who are importing mitumba can have good products to sell here,” the ODM leader said.  

“I’m saying we are not moving anybody out of business. We will ensure those who are importing mitumba get the first hand to market goods which are going to be manufactured here. We will get the cotton, gin it here, spin it here and make finished products here,” he said.

But that statement has elicited mixed reactions.

Some supporters of Deputy President William Ruto claimed the move would kill mitumba business.

Economist David Ndii, a Ruto supporter, said the plan to curtail importation of second-hand clothes was ‘misguided economic nationalism’.

“The mitumba debate is important because fundamentally it is about freedom and class. People dress to express themselves, to look and feel good. Many wear mitumba, not because they cannot afford new clothes, but to wear fashion labels they cannot afford or find new,” said Ndii.

“They are entitled to, and no politician has the right to cramp their style with misguided economic nationalism.

Ndii delinked mitumba with the death of the local textile industry. Rather, he said, they offered the public a solution.

“Back in the heyday of Kicomi, Rivatex, Raymonds suits and Deacons ... the only decent clothes most children had were school uniform. Village wazees wore clothes so patched you couldn’t tell the original colour,” he said.

But Fred Rabong’o, a Raila supporter, believes the Azimio candidate has the right idea for revitalising the textile industry. “We have factories that are lying idle. There was an entire cotton industry which is no more and needs to be revived,” said Rabong’o.

Rivatex, Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

He further said Raila’s words were deliberately taken out of context and twisted as a political tactic.

“What he said was no one will be out of a job. The current mitumba traders will be given priority to sell the locally manufactured textiles,” he said.

While it has split opinion, the pledge to cut down on the importation of textiles from abroad to spur the growth of local textile industries is one that Ruto too has made.

Ruto said in a rally earlier this year that the country should stop relying on imports of textiles so that the local industry can thrive. “We import everything: clothes, shoes, chairs, we will stop so that all wood products are made locally to end poverty and provide employment for the youth,” Ruto said.

The ODM leader yesterday clarified his statement at a meeting of the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry yesterday. He acknowledged that mitumba created employment and he was not out to kill the business.

“So when I was talking about mitumba yesterday, I did not say that I’m going to kill mitumba business. No. We’ll promote it because that’s where production starts. We are not moving anybody out of business. We’ll ensure that those who are importing mitumba get the first-hand to market goods, which are going to be manufactured here in this country,” he said.​

A ban on the importation of second-hand clothes is one that the country has toyed with before.

In 2015, Kenya, alongside other countries in the East African region proposed a ban on second-hand clothes, bags and shoes as a measure to promote the region’s textile and leather industries.

In 2017, President Uhuru Kenyatta opened an initiative at the Export Processing Zones to sell locally manufactured clothes to Kenyans.