- Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that the country imported 13,334 tonnes of second-hand clothes in 2020.
- Experts say the textile and fashion industry is the second biggest polluter, with very few possibilities for recycling or circularity.
Every day, hordes of Kenyans throng Gikomba market for second hand clothes.
Most of them spend hours searching for their favourite clothes.
Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics shows that the country imported 13,334 tonnes of second-hand clothes in 2020.
This is in comparison to 45,659 tonnes shipped from various countries in 2019.
However, some of the clothes are of poor quality and no one buys them.
This means left over mitumba are disposed in dumpsites or burned, causing pollution.
Experts say the textile and fashion industry is the second biggest polluter, with very few possibilities for recycling or circularity.
This is worrying as the consumption of textiles is on an upward trend.
However, young Kenyan designers say they are willing and able to reverse the trend.
Already, 12 designers have been given the requisite skills for upcycling mitumba left overs.
The Completely Out of Fashion, run by Reuse NGO and CXP Africa, has been mentoring the 12 young female designers from marginalised areas.
The designers have a particular love for fashion- one that is conscious about its impact to the environment.
Irene Juma is one of the beneficiaries, she says she will have a fashion house of her own in the next five years.
“The love for fashion is really pushing me as a designer. It is something that is in me as it started at tender age,” she says.
Others are Violet Mugweru and Sarah Wagura who own a design company called Ausi.
"We started around three years ago and we design everything. Right now, we are focusing on clothes.
"We have learnt that design is simple but complicated at the same time. Sometimes you need to pause and think to find an answer," Mugweru says.
She however says being exposed to things that motivate one also helps.
The designer says this is the right time for young people, as the world is opening up to new jobs.
Juma, Mugweru and Wagura were among the 12 Kenyan designers that graduated from the six-month upcycling and incubation programme on April 3.
During the graduation, the 12 showcased their upcycled collections made entirely from post-consumer textile waste.
The workshop involved technical training and environmental knowledge to raise and create awareness about the negative impacts of poor textile waste management.
The designers make clothes and bags, which they sell through their online platforms. Each goes for Sh3,500 and above.
The project is funded by the Estonian Centre for International Development and co-funded by the European Union Regional Fund.
The project's main goal was to take the designers through a series of lessons on upcycled design, as a method and tool for reducing textile waste.
Also, as a way for them to channel their creativity and love for fashion in creating pieces made out of textile waste.
Three fashion design students from the Estonian Academy of Arts, visiting Kenya in the framework of an exchange programme with Moi University, were present during the event.
Estonian fashion designer Reet Aus, a long-time pioneer in upcycling design says she found out that there was a post consumer problem in the country when she jetted in for a UN event several years ago.
“I had spoken with local designers and people from the textile industry in Kenya,” she said.
Aus who is a researcher from Estonia Academy of Arts says the upcycling idea was conceived when she started making a documentary about textile waste.
She said her research pointed to the possibility of using mitumba rejects to make useful items.
Apart from conserving the environment, the pieces of each designer's collection also showcase the cultural preservation angle.
They use the post-consumer mitumba as the material base and incorporate their own designs and muses into the art they create.
The fashion designer says by making use of the leftovers, jobs will be created and the environment protected.
“We started the incubator programme with the young designers to help them to put together collections or upcycling,” she said.
Aus says the designers are taught how to source their materials before making useful products that can be sold back to the market.
She say the designers sourced their products from Gikomba market.
The fashion designer said they have also partnered with Africa Collect Textiles, which diverts used textiles and footwear from the landfills.
African Collect Textiles says it has collected 67,574kgs of textiles, saving 337 tonnes of carbon dioxide and creating 34 jobs.
Aus says the female designers are shortlisted after proving that they are capable and talented.
She says most of the products developed are sellable and can be sold in the country or even in Europe.
The fashion designer says they are planning to start a sustainable design and material lab in Nairobi with the purpose of working with textile waste.
She says the main thing that they have been doing is related to the circularity, adding that lessons learnt in Estonia are infused into the project.
Customer Xperience Africa CEO Robin Mugani says they believe in sustainable solutions for Africa.
“We are at a time that we need to be on the frontline on environmental issues and things affecting us,” he said.
Mugani said young people easily learn new ways of doing things.
“We are trying to modernise the aspect of sustainability. We are trying to make it more fun and approachable. It starts with reuse, repair, recycle and upcycle. We can at least do one of those things, ” he said.
The CEO said the move takes Africa to the world as a new frontier to learn new things. "Also, to advance in what we are doing and compete in a global scale."
However, he says, the competition will fail without information.
Mugani says Kenya has the best technical institutions but lacks advice on how to take the theoretical information and make it successful. “I’m a designer in Kenya but how can I reach the world?”
The CEO said the Estonia Academy of Arts has not only been researching on textile and fashion industry but also participating in some of the biggest events.
“Bringing them here and collaborating with them is basically to show that we have the technical expertise, waste that we want to get rid of and the youth who are ready to learn,” he said.
Mugani says they have utilised about Sh5.6 million in the last six months of the programme.
The young designers are offering a solution even as the world races against time to find one for plastic pollution.
On March 2, heads of state, environment ministers and other representatives from 175 nations, endorsed a historic resolution to end plastic pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement, by the end of 2024.
The landmark resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal.
The UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2) took place online and in-person in Nairobi from February 28 to March 2.
The resolution is based on three initial draft resolutions from various nations.
It established an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, which will begin work this year.
The INC aims to complete a draft legally binding agreement by the end of 2024.
(Edited by Bilha Makokha)