Many Kenyans are attracted to urban areas with the promise of job opportunities. One industry that has served as an obvious entry point over the decades is the secondhand clothing industry, popularly known as Mitumba. According to the Mitumba Consortium Association of Kenya, this sector employs at least 2,000,000 Kenyans directly, highlighting its importance in the country’s economy, especially given the high unemployment rate.
In 2021, World Bank data showed that 5.7% of Kenyans were unemployed, up from 2.8% in 2013. In comparison, Tanzania’s unemployment rate is at 2.6%, Ethiopia’s at 3.69%, and Uganda’s at 2.94%. A 2021 report by the Mitumba Consortium Association of Kenya estimated that 91.5% of Kenyans buy secondhand clothes, further indicating the sector’s importance to the people and the economy.
Kenya imported 185,000 tonnes of secondhand clothing in 2019, equivalent to approximately 8,000 containers. The government collected 12 billion shillings in taxes through the sector in 2019, with the sector contributing at least 1 billion shillings in revenue per month. Despite the many challenges faced by Mitumba traders, such as harassment by city-county officials, known as Kanjos, many people in the sector have become millionaires.
While many attribute their success to hard work and determination, some say that research, arriving at the market early, understanding the market language, good customer relationships, avoiding buying stock from brokers, and studying seasons and time form the backbone of their rise.
According to Vee, a Mitumba trader based in Gikomba, research is crucial when starting the Mitumba business. As a business person, one needs to identify where to get stock at a cheap price and the location of their target audience. Traders get good stock at a cheap price in the early morning hours, and Vee says she gets to Gikomba by 5 am as businesses there open at 6 am.
The market language is what lures many customers to buy products. Shouting “mia na mia,” which translates to a hundred shillings and another hundred shillings, is a common tactic used by Mitumba vendors. Good customer relationships are essential to ensure customers return. Understanding the customer’s needs, helping them find what they want, and offering complementary items, such as a blazer that matches a dress, can increase sales.
Brokers usually sell their wear at a higher price than the actual prices. Traders are advised to get their products directly from the seller to avoid spending too much. The wear traders sell should match the season to ensure their stock does not last too long. For example, selling vests and shorts during the rainy season or heavy jackets during dry weather may result in slow sales.