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Banning of ‘mitumba’ is a noble move

By Martha Getachew Bekele | March 12th 2016

Secondhand clothes and shoes, known as mitumba, are commonly available throughout East Africa. In addition to employing thousands in these countries, the sector also allows governments to earn from import revenues and business license fees.

Consumers are also a happy lot as mitumba allow them to have access to varieties; from inner wear to pajamas; from a decent look to that classy casual look on a weekend. The mitumba sector caters mainly for the poor. One would be mistaken, however, to think that only the poor buy secondhand clothes and shoes. It is not uncommon to spot a high corporate look with designer office suits and shoes complete with designer handbags or designer ties, thanks to mitumba and all these at cheaper prices.

East Africans are spoilt for choice. One can buy a Calvin Klein dress for about $5, which is definitely better than that $30 Chinese dress that thins and fades after the second wash or a pair of Grenson shoes for less than $10. This is certainly better than those shoes imported from Asia that burn your feet as if you are wearing the Sun itself!

But not everyone is happy with mitumba. Local producers have been lobbying East African governments to impose a higher levy on secondhand clothing and footwear. It must have been music to their ears then when the 17th Ordinary Summit of the East African Community Heads of State held in Arusha, Tanzania on March 2, 2016 directed Partner states to phase out importation of used textile and footwear within three years. The move, ‘Buy East Africa, Build East Africa’ is aimed to promote industrialisation of the region. Any economist worth their salt would tell you mass shipment of secondhand clothing and footwear would literally kill the local textile and leather industry.

Notwithstanding the positive impact of banning used clothes and shoes on local industries and long term growth of the region, the move may not necessarily be optimal.

Consideration of improving the business environment under which domestic producers can be as competitive is optimal. By providing reliable and cheap electricity and water, improving access to good roads, reducing corruption that add on cost of doing business and providing incentives to foreign companies to establish plants in the region go a long way.

The move to ban used clothes and shoes will result in social and economic costs, albeit in the short-run. The reality is that thousands of secondhand business operators will be out of work after three years without preparations or even a plan for safety nets.  East Africans will be forced to buy either firsthand imports or low quality but dearly priced locally manufactured clothing and shoes for some years to come. This basically makes the move less pro-poor.

One is inclined to pose more questions such as how the three-year transition period has been decided on. Does it mean that either our income levels will rise greatly? Or our local manufacturers will be able to satisfy East Africans’ demand by 2019 with high quality and reasonably priced clothes and shoes? One can only hope that the region’s policy makers have done their homework by analysing benefits in terms of industrialisation and growth through protection of local industries as well as costing the negative effects of banning mitumba as a result of losses in import revenue and fees. Also the burden of high living cost on consumers.

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