Kenya looks to boost local textile industry

Second-hand clothing donations are creating a dilemma for the Kenyan economy.

    Several East African countries have agreed to ban imports of second hand clothes by next year.
    Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have already started taxing them more heavily.

    It’s part of a move to try and boost local manufacturing. But in Kenya, many people don’t want a ban. 

    Across Nairobi, there are many street markets where shoppers rummage through piles of second hand clothes, bargaining for a good deal.

    With prices ranging from as little as under a dollar to about 5 dollars an item, business is good.

    “We are fond of second hand clothes. New clothes today are sometimes made from cheap material but we can rely on second hand clothes because we know it is affordable and the quality is good, ” Felista Nthenya, street vendor told Al Jazeera. 

    Government figures show that in 2014, second hand clothing contributed $95m to the Kenyan economy that grew to $128m dollars by 2016.

    “Oxfam says that in 2015, East Africa imported more than $150m worth of second hand shoes and clothes, mostly from the US and Europe. But cheap imported clothing hasn’t made it easy for the local textile market to grow- already struggling with poor facilities and lack of money.”

    There are however a few exceptions- one of them is this factory which produces mostly high end clothing. 

    Owner, Jaswinder Bidi says this is necessary to ensure his business survives in a market where used clothes are so cheap.

    “We would largely do business where there would be less impact of second hand clothes, for example the business that we go into in the region, would be corporate wear, uniforms. You can’t expect a police uniform to be second hand , it has to be brand new, so we have found our own pockets,” Bidi said. 

    The local textile industry has too few skilled workers and it’s also impacted by illegal imports from Asia and the Middle East.

    Some say a ban on the second hand clothing market is not the solution.

    “Market driven policies are what are better. What would really make a difference for the textile industry is if we actually drove competitiveness, competitiveness in this area. If you look at India, China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, their textile markets are huge,” Flora Mutahi, from the Kenya Association of Manufacturers told Al Jazeera.

    Those who make a living from selling used clothes, say any sort of ban would mean thousands of people would lose their jobs. While others argue that as Africa’s spending power increases, the lure of second hand clothes will likely decline.

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