I follow what is going on in fashion because I am shallow, vain and materialistic, (not so much, mind you, when I’m walking the intrepid doglet around the neighbourhood). I think what has been happening in African fashion over the past few years is very exciting: lots of new designers, people trying out new things, great combinations of African fabrics and other materials with contemporary designs, more international recognition of African designers, their participation in fashion weeks around the globe.
On a smaller, local scale, I love finding new things at the regular crafts markets, or new events like the monthly FAFA food and fashion get-together at Juniper (the intrepid doglet attends, too). Ankara shoes, messenger bags made from recycled fabrics, lots of great new brass jewellery. These are good (if costly) times for fashion victims. But a lot of this is still very artisanal: small, local productions – certainly not mass market products yet, neither with respect to volumes nor with respect to prices.
On the other end of the scale, one of my focus group members (Facebook friends) recently wrote a post in support of banning the importation of mitumba. I have always been a bit in two minds about mitumba.
On the one hand, it was a way of finding the brands I knew, even if used (but a lot more affordable than those new, should they make their way to Kenya at all), and which I preferred to cheap new imports from Asia. On the other hand, I have often felt a little bit of sadness at seeing someone else’s worn suits, with their bad materials and oversized shoulders, especially when compared to many West Africans embracing their traditional fabrics and cuts. Yes, this is contradictory; or would it make more sense if we called the first ‘vintage’, and the second mitumba?
What I didn’t know, and learned from a Guardian article published in mid 2015, is how massive an industry mitumba actually is in Kenya. Kenya imports around 100,000 tonnes of second-hand clothes, shoes and accessories a year. Getting this distributed requires quite a bit of a value chain, with wholesaler importers of bales – who also pay duty and taxes – and the people who work for them, some employees, many casual labourers. This is a sector which is largely informal, in an environment where formal jobs are generally very hard to come by.
My friend who supported the ban on mitumba – which has been discussed by East African heads of state for at least a year, if not longer – argued that such a measure would create a market for local fashion and apparel industries. But he also noted that the ban would have to be accompanied by the creation of value chains that could satisfy local demand at the same price point, that is a programme of public subsidies and capacity creation among local producers.
Superficially, there seems to be an employment argument. The Guardian cites statistics that the number of employees in the local garment industry has fallen from around 500,000 to currently 20,000 since the 1980s, almost dwindling into insignificance. But unfortunately, the Guardian had no estimates of how many people find an income in the mitumba industry.
And then, a ban is a heavy handed, clunky instrument, not the least because it would still leave the market open for cheap far East imports, which Kenyan producers would also have to compete with, while reducing consumers’ choice.
There are a lot of things that are important for manufacturing that should basically be good housekeeping for a government. They include affordable electricity, good infrastructure, qualified human resources, security and so on – and possibly a revival of the cotton sector? Having all that in place would not just help the textile industry, but everyone.
And at the same time, I would be very cautious about launching any public subsidy programme. It is not that this would automatically have to fail, but I suspect that any attempt to do so in an environment with deeply entrenched corruption would mostly be a major loss of money to the usual suspects. See the National Youth Service scandal and countless other examples.
Thankfully (I guess?), I suspect that the usual hustlerdom will prevail: mitumba is such a big industry that surely someone will find the necessary cash to give to the right people to make the ban idea go away. At least in this year: who would want to take the floor out from underneath a large informal sector so close to an election?