The haze has yet to lift from Nairobi’s cool morning air but shoppers are already flooding into Gikomba, an open-air market that sells everything from soccer cleats to satin slips — all of which come secondhand from Western countries.
It takes three men some serious effort to wheel in an oxcart packed with packages of clothes, referred to here as bales because they’re basically the same size and shape as bales of hay.
Perpetuah Gathigia Maina is sorting through a bale of baby clothes she just bought in order to figure out how much to charge for each of them.
“We’re told they come from the U.S. and the U.K. but we’re not sure,” she says of herself and the hundreds of others who are selling secondhand items in Gikomba market.
Charitable organizations like Goodwill or Oxfam send clothing to African countries as aid, but locals have turned the donations into a huge business. Kenya imports 100,000 tons of secondhand clothing a year. Although exact figures are not available, thousands of Kenyans earn their livings by buying and selling secondhand clothing — a business which has come to overshadow the country’s once robust garment industry.
Examining a velour onesie in royal blue, Maina says that she’s continually impressed by how nice the clothes look even though most of them have been used before.
“Here in Kenya, we can’t afford to wear clothes and leave them as secondhand like [Americans] do,” she says. “We think those people [who can donate their clothes] are well-off.”
Maina says that she wears her clothes until they simply can’t be worn anymore. Then she cuts them up to use as rags around the house. Secondhand clothes, or mitumba, as they’re called in Kenya, last a long time, she said, because they’re better quality than those made locally.
Alice Agini agrees. She works as a waitress in a small restaurant in a strip mall where I spotted her wearing a shirt that was printed for someone’s bridesmaid party.
She tells me through a translator that she doesn’t know what her tee-shirt says, but that she needed a white shirt for work and liked its design. Plus, Agini adds, the prices at Gikomba are unbeatable.
“Gikomba market is really cheap,” she says in Swahili. “You can find clothes there for as little as 50 shillings (about 50 cents). With a thousand shillings you can buy an array of clothes. With 1,000 shillings at a store, you might end up buying just one piece of clothing.”
Part of the reason why secondhand clothing is so cheap is it isn’t taxed in the same way as new clothing.
“We have Goodwill and Oxfam which collect these commodities from consumers in the developed world as charity but in the process of transferring this charity, it becomes a trade [item],” Paul Kamau, a professor of development studies at the University of Nairobi explained.
Unlike new clothing imports which are taxed based on their value when they arrive in Kenya, secondhand clothing is marked “no commercial value.”
By the time it arrives in Kenya, Kamau says it’s no longer considered charity but how that transformation occurs once involved “clandestine activities that occur outside of formal trade.” He suspects that politically-well connected people who buy the bulk of secondhand clothing have used their influence to legitimize the business over the years.
Since the shipments could contain anything from designer jeans to holed socks, Kenyan authorities settled on weight as the standard measurement to tax the tons and tons and secondhand items that come into the country everyday.
Kamau has studied the impact of secondhand goods on the Kenyan economy and he believes that secondhand goods are taxed far below their actual worth.
“The economy at large loses in revenue because the taxation that is imposed on these bales is very minimal,” he says. “The industry which would have produced the [clothing Kenyans purchase] is also losing out because the demand [for their goods] decreases.”
Kenya’s textile and garment industries have employed roughly the same amount of people for decades, Kamau says as he flips through a government economic survey.
Joseph Nyagari of the African Cotton & Textiles Industries Federation says that’s because secondhand clothing have killed local industry.
“The average cost of a secondhand garment is between five and 10 percent of a new garment [made in Kenya], so [local industries] can’t compete,” he says.
With such little profit, local industries have had to make do with less — and so their products have suffered.
“We have compelled the industry to concentrate on very low-quality products and very basic products because they’re struggling and that’s the only way that they’ll remain in business,” Nyagari adds.
That’s made locally-made clothing even less appealing to most Kenyans.
In order to resuscitate local industries, several East African countries including Kenya proposed an all out ban on the import of secondhand clothing earlier this year.
That’s not something that even Nyagari would like to see go through.
“With a total ban, where would people get their clothing?” he asked. “The industry has already collapsed.”
Along with his organization which represents the textile industry, he’s pushing for stronger regulations and higher taxes on secondhand goods in order to create an environment where local industries have a better chance at competing.
That’s something Moses Oiputa would like to see happen as well.
Although the 23-year-old University of Nairobi likes to peruse Gikomba’s sprawling stalls for Adidas jerseys and Nike soccer cleats, he’d like see local industry make a comeback too.
“I would prefer [to produce our own clothes] and create jobs for more people, especially us who are in university,” he says. “But since producing in our country is expensive, we should do it both ways: produce locally and also bring in [secondhand] clothes from outside.”