Used clothes ban may crimp Kenyan style. It may also lift local design.
By Abdi Latif Dahir
Catherine Muringo’s wardrobe consists of secondhand outfits shipped from all over the world: colorful blouses and jeans from Canada, floral dresses from the United States, trench coats from Australia and leather handbags from the United Kingdom.
For years, Muringo bought the used clothes and accessories at cheap prices in open-air markets in Nairobi and used them to fashion her own idiosyncratic style.
Seven years ago, she also started a business buying and selling such items, distributing castoff fur coats, hoodies and shoes to customers in Kenya and in foreign markets like Botswana, Uganda and Tanzania.
But in late March, the Kenyan government banned the importation of used garments in what it said was a precautionary measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Even though used clothes are fumigated before being shipped, Kenyan authorities said they were taking precautions because of the spike in infections in countries like the United States.
Now, businesses like hers are threatened, as well as the sartorial choices of millions of Kenyans who depend on low-cost imports to stay stylish.
“Kenyans love to go to the secondhand markets and spend hours looking and searching,” Muringo said. “Kenyans love the diversity of secondhand.”
Officials also said the banning of imported clothing — known as mitumba, the Swahili word for “bundles” — could have an unexpected benefit. It could help Kenya revive its own textile industry, which was wiped out in the late 1980s as the country started opening its markets to foreign competition.
“I think corona has shown not just for Kenya but for many countries to look inward a lot and try and fill some of the market gaps,” said Phyllis Wakiaga, the chief executive of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers. “The reality is that there’s a big opportunity for us to produce local clothes for the citizens.”
For years, Kenya, along with other countries in East Africa, had tried to phase out used clothing to boost local manufacturing. But the countries faced the threat of being removed from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which promotes trade by providing reduced or duty-free access to the U.S. market. Many countries backed off from instituting a ban on imported clothing, with the exception of Rwanda.
Wagura Kamwana, the proprietor of a fabric shop, the Textile Loft, is seeking to capitalize on this moment.
Kamwana, 40, grew up wearing hand-stitched clothes from her mother, and later on, sought trendy outfits at secondhand markets. Kenyans like used clothes, she said, both for their affordability and because of the their high-quality fabrics.
In 2016, she opened her store, offering premium quality fabrics, sourced from Europe, to Kenyans who wanted to create high-end fashion locally.
In 2018, she started also offering production services to designers looking to develop smaller lines who were being turned away by factories only interested in bulk orders.
Kamwana said designers and manufacturers should collaborate and take baby steps to push the industry toward maturity.
“This whole value chain will take quite a few years to be feasible or to be seen,” she said, adding, “what we can do immediately is perfect our art of making.”
Other Kenyan companies are also responding to the challenges posed by the pandemic by focusing locally.
Frederick Bittiner Wear, which does fabric selection, design and tailoring for retailers in East Africa, Europe and the United States, has seen a reduction in orders because of the pandemic, so it has turned to producing leggings, T-shirts and vests for the local market, said Dominic Agesa, the managing director.
After approaching distributors with samples, Agesa said he got 50 orders in a week.
For too long, “Kenya has been reluctant” to incentivize local manufacturers, he said, but the import ban was one step toward making conditions more favorable for a local scene to eventually flourish.
“Are we able to satisfy the Kenyan market and beyond?” Agesa asked, then answered, “Gradually, the answer is yes.”
But before a robust clothing sector takes hold, experts say local manufacturers will have to overcome a host of challenges, including inadequate access to finance, the high cost of electricity, and the lack of raw materials, including cotton.
The fact that powerful lobby groups for the secondhand clothing industry in the United States have already criticized Kenya’s move doesn’t bode well either, said Emily Anne Wolff, a researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands who has studied plans to phase out used clothing in East Africa.
Kenya is aiming to be the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the United States, which could undermine Kenya’s will to retain the clothing ban.
Used clothes traders have appealed to the government in recent days to lift the ban, saying there is no public health risk associated with the trade. But officials have so far ruled that option out.
For now, Kenyan designers and manufacturers say the ban gives them a window of opportunity to start shaping the future of fashion in Kenya.
“Now is a good time to make choices and changes,” said Kamwana, the owner of Textile Loft. “You will be surprised by what comes out of this country.”