Kenya is planning to develop guidelines that will allow the resumption of importation of second-hand clothes and shoes, giving hope to thousands of traders and casual workers who rely on the sector for their livelihood.
Industrialisation and Trade Cabinet Secretary Betty Maina has given the green light for the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) to look into the possibility of lifting the March ban on second-hand clothes and shoes imports, popularly known as mitumba, without the risk of importing the coronavirus disease that has infected over 10 million people globally.
Kebs imposed a temporary ban on mitumba imports in line with one of its standards, which prohibits buying second-hand clothes from countries experiencing epidemics. The move was meant to ensure that disease-causing microorganisms domiciled in those countries are not imported into Kenya.
The decision was taken following the emergence of the now global Covid-19 pandemic. Kenya has since March reported 6,366 positive cases which have resulted in 148 deaths. The country has also recorded 2,013 recoveries. “The mitumba guys have appealed and we have said that we need to work together to develop protocols for dealing with used clothes in the context of the pandemic,” Ms Maina said on telephone.
“We have received their petition and they need to work together with the bureau (Kebs) to advise if there’s a way or mechanism for handling the matter given the fact that the pandemic is going on for a bit longer than people had thought.”
Kebs managing director Bernard Njiraini said the gradual easing of lockdowns in key source markets such as the US, Europe and China now makes it possible for its inspectors abroad to ascertain conformity with sanitary and phytosanitary measures.
The inspection was not possible back in March when the ban was enforced due to travel restrictions in most source markets.
“Now that other areas are slowly opening up, such activities like inspection are possible. We had to first stop importation to protect Kenyans,” Mr Njiraini said. “The technical committee can now look at it and say ‘well, we need to facilitate trade to continue because we understand the critical role that trade plays in micro and small medium enterprises in their daily activities in importation and many clearing agents in that value chain’.”
The technical committee, which includes representatives from the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) and the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa), will be required to determine whether or not the cororavirus disease can last over the duration it takes to ship in second-hand clothes.
The importation can take as much as two months or more, according to traders.
Superior quality and relatively lower prices for second-hand clothes and footwear have continued to drive demand for the merchandise at the expense of locally-made clothes, fetching traders who largely operate in informal markets higher margins.
That has kept their demand elevated over the years, with orders for mitumba clothes alone hitting Sh17.77 billion in 2019 from Sh16.93 billion in 2018, Sh13.06 billion (2017), Sh12.86 billion (2015) and Sh10.15 billion a year earlier, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.
Mitumba Association of Kenya, which has held talks with Ms Maina, said they have developed Covid-19 protocols such as repeated fumigation of the merchandise and were engaging various authorities, including Kebs.
The lobby group’s chairperson, Teresiah Njenga, said most traders have run out of stock, pushing them out of work, largely at the Gikomba and Toi markets which act as wholesalers.
“It has not been easy. We are dealing with so many people who are not working. The impact has really been big because mitumba caters for the importer, broker, retailer, the transporter and even food vendor at the market,” Ms Njenga said. “The importers are not so many, probably 500 at most, but we have like 10 million people who depend on the sector.”
The lucrative second-hand clothing market had seen traders from China open shops in Gikomba, Kenya’s largest informal market for mitumba, in recent years to cash in on rising demand to the detriment of the local struggling textiles and apparels sub-sector.
Omega Apparels Ltd, a local manufacturer, said demand went up five percent during early days of the temporary ban of mitumba imports, but has since slowed down.
“Now there are no sales of such items as there is no money in rotation in Kenya due to Covid-19. People are broke. This mitumba ban will help us after Covid,” the company’s director, Mehul Shah, said.