It is 10 am and Timothy Kimani (pseudonym) has already had a full day. His day normally starts with a trip to Gikomba market, the biggest second-hand clothing exchange in East Africa. Timothy specializes 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, discouloring 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 (in some cases) and trading commence.
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. A common supply chain starts with a NGO collection bank in Western Europe, which sells the clothes and shoes to an intermediary exporter, e.g. Italy. From there, the goods are sold to an importer in Mombasa. The importation is normally controlled by a handful of traders. 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 repair men and women.
Items often include top western brands such as Timberland and Dockers. Even the second hand clothing industry is struggling with counterfeits. However, the Mitumba could soon be out of business as the Kenyan parliament plans to ban the practice. For the moment Timothy seems unconcerned. When I asked him why he does not move further up the chain, he gives me a concerned look. “You don’t know these people”, he says. “You take their business and they might take you” he warns.