East Africa’s Economic Giants Kenya second-hand Clothes imports from China Jumped by 86.2 per cent

The influx of second-hand clothing imported from China, a primary source of affordable garments in Kenya, surged by 86.2% in the initial quarter of this year, indicating a notable rise in demand. Chinese authorities’ data reveals that between January and March 2024, 31,594 tonnes of second-hand clothing and accessories were exported to Kenya, amounting to $22.732 million (Ksh3.03 billion) in value.

Comparatively, during the same period in 2023, the value of second-hand clothes imported from China stood at $20.651 million (Ksh2.768 billion) for 16,962 tonnes. Known colloquially as “mitumba,” these second-hand clothes hold significant popularity, particularly among individuals with lower and middle incomes due to their affordability compared to new clothing items.

This trade represents a substantial multi-billion-shilling sector, supporting an estimated two million jobs, as per government assessments. Vendors of these economical used garments predominantly operate in major markets and commercial centers like Gikomba, Eastleigh, Muthurwa, Toi, as well as along roadsides and within residential neighborhoods.

In 2022, traders imported 177,664.4 tonnes of second-hand clothes valued at Ksh19.9 billion, according to data from the Kenya National Bureau of Standards (KNBS). While China remains the primary source, the United States, Canada, and European Union countries also serve as significant suppliers of low-cost clothing to Kenya.

However, as the second-hand clothing trade flourishes, the domestic textile industry grapples with challenges, hindering its ability to meet escalating demands amidst Kenya’s population growth. Of the 52 textile mills in Kenya, only 15 are operational, with the rest facing issues such as low labor productivity, technological constraints, and operating at 45% capacity, according to the Kenya Institute of Public Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra).

Kippra’s analysis further points out that the textile industry contends with rising operational costs, particularly high electricity expenses, which diminish its market competitiveness. Additionally, the livelihoods of millions supported by the second-hand clothing trade are under threat from exporting countries implementing restrictions to curb environmental pollution.

A significant portion of the imported affordable garments ends up in landfills like Dandora, posing environmental challenges. Notably, France, Denmark, and Sweden recently proposed stringent limitations on exporting second-hand garments to developing nations, signaling potential disruptions to this trade flow.