It is 10 am, and Timothy Kimani has already had a full day. His day usually starts with a trip to Gikomba market, the biggest second-hand clothing exchange in East Africa. Timothy specialises in leather shoes. The business is highly segmented with each trader focusing on a specific niche.
Goods arrive by bale in Nairobi, and he selects the best shoes and inspects the general condition, including dirt, discolouring and holes. “You have to be very careful what you buy” he notes. Once he has selected the shoes, he returns to his market stall where the shoe-shining, repairing and trading begin.
Kenya is one of the largest importers of second-hand clothes, and the collapse of the Kenyan textile industry is blamed on the Mitumba, as the traders are commonly known. However, the trade provides thousands of jobs.
A typical Mitumba supply chain could stretch through several countries. For example, It could start with an NGO collection bank in Western Europe, which sells the clothes and shoes to an intermediary exporter in Italy. From there, an intermediary in Europe will sell the goods to an importer in Mombasa. From Mombasa, the bales might pass through several wholesalers and sub-wholesalers, before traders such as Timothy select individual items for resale at the Gikomba market. The Mitumba also taps into a range of other service providers including loaders, transporters, laundries and repairmen and women.
Items often include top western brands such as Timberland and Dockers. However, the Mitumba could soon be out of business as the Kenyan parliament plans to ban the practice.
For the moment, Timothy seems unconcerned. Enforcing the law will be much harder – especially in a region where “tea money” still plays an integral part in business society.