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Is Kenya ready for ban on ‘mitumba’?

The ban on importation of second-hand clothes, popularly known as ‘mitumba’, will officially take effect in three years, giving traders time to gradually ease out of the multi-billion-shilling business. The decision to push the business to its deathbed was sealed by East African Community (EAC) heads of state during a special summit in Arusha, which significantly calmed tension that was swelling within the sector that directly employs an estimated 65,000 traders in Kenya.

The move also put cotton and textile sectors on the spotlight because of the expected knock-on effect the ban will have on the moribund industry that used to employ in excess of 500,000 Kenyans during its prime.

In the communique by the leaders, EAC partner states were also urged to procure their textile and footwear requirements from within the region where quality and supply capacities are available competitively, with a view to phasing out importation of used textile and footwear.

The writing was on the wall, and sealed in 2015, when then Industrialisation Principal secretary Wilson Songa reiterated that banning mitumba imports was not an option. People Daily has learnt that if well actualised, the move could revive the textile sector and employ thousands of people and boost exports to earn the country foreign income.

On the other hand, the opportunity cost in killing the well-entrenched mitumba business that has already morphed into an ecosystem spanning the entire country will also send tens of thousands of traders out of business. But are the textile and leather industries ready to rise to the occasion and fill the vacuum that will be created by the ban of mitumba?

John Mutua, a researcher at the Institute of Economic Affairs says while it makes economic sense to revive cotton farming and textiles, the government and stakeholders must first look at the things that made the industry go under. “Whichever way we look at it, the two (local industry and mitumba) will co-exist for a while,” he said, adding that there is urgent need of a cost-benefit analysis, particularly by looking at the opportunity cost.

“Based on the regional poverty levels, the demand for mitumba clothes and shoes will be still high,” he said. Mutua said to completely phase out the imports might take longer. “The government must, therefore, do a proper feasibility study first and then put incentives in place so that the private sector can come in and restore the textile sector,” he said.

The assumptions are that within the three years, the concept of cotton growing and ginning in the country would be up to speed to start manufacturing. In that period, the government must revive ‘dead’ textile mills and ginneries in the country.

Some policy suggestions by various experts are that the government must also encourage the setting up of weaving and milling plants through incentives on capital for equipment, ensure regional development of textile within the EAC region to maximise on comparative advantage, and provide competitive prices for cotton farmers, through organisations such as the Cotton Development Authority.

The government must also ban or levy the export of cotton lint. Kenya’s leather industry, which is also a prime sector with a high potential for economic development and creation of employment opportunities, must also be made competitive, the experts say. This can be achieved by ensuring that low recovery of hides and skins due to poor slaughtering and flaying techniques, poor animal husbandry, coupled with the export of raw hides and skins must be addressed urgently.

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