David Karanja, born in Mombasa but now Nairobi resident explains his love for Mitumba - the second hand clothing industry.
I love style, why do people choose to wear certain things and what does it say about them. I truly believe in the importance of looking good to feel good.
To this day, I have never bought a new item of clothing in his life. The eighth of nine children, we never had enough money to do so. Amid increasing focus on Mitumba, the second hard markets.
As I was growing up I was very fortunate to have a mother who owned a Mitumba stall (Second Hand Clothing, SHC). Owning a business meant that she was a respected businesswoman in our village, through hard work and persistence she joined a women’s collective that helped her business grow. She was able to take me to her stall when I was little.
My mother took great personal risks at first, illegally crossing over the border into Uganda to source clothes. She is my hero, the effort that she went to for us, so we could get some education was incredible. I don’t remember her ever having a day off.
Specializing in children’s clothes, she had a central market stall. I remember very well the place she was selling her clothes for the first time because an incident occurred that meant she nearly lost all her clothes.
My friends and I loved Mitumba because you could find well-designed clothes with beautiful logos and illustrations. We wanted stylish clothes that would make us look smart and flashy. To stay confident and look cool you could spend a whole day looking for clothes that matched. The problem was finding clothes that matched. Sure, you had a nice t-shirt but the problem was, maybe your t-shirt is grey, blue or yellow you just couldn’t find a nice trouser to match it. I still recall the first trouser I bought, it was close to new and I was very happy to own it!
Our village market was limited. Most of the clothes had already been selected and reselected over and over. Nothing looked close to new. Our clothes were always very faded. They had good fabric but they looked very old. The first time I traveled with my brother to Mombasa, I was so excited to see such a big town. I knew that second hand clothing came from the Port. My whole life was going to change once I went to a big market selling clothes. Confused at first but I wasn’t disappointed, my brother knew his way around the Kongowea, the huge market.
Now I’m in Nairobi it’s a whole other experience, Gikomba is the world’s largest second market.. This is where everyone who deals in second hand clothing across Kenya comes to buy stock. First, the clothes are sorted and packaged here according to their size and gender. For example clothes come from Europe or America, after being graded, fumigated and put into bails labels are written on them, such as LTS (Ladies T-shirt). Mitumba is graded into class: First camera, Second camera and Third camera.
When the venders go to the market to get the first camera it’s usually when the bail are opened in front of them and they get to choose which kind of clothe they can take. Most of the leading stores in Nairobi like Mr. Price send their employees to the market to get trendy wears then resell them like they are new.
A first class T-shirt might go for $20 whereas a third class might go for $1. We also have big names like Gucci, Polo, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger. These labels make the clothes very expensive. Cheap, poor quality clothes are coming from Asia, which are much less competitive in the market compared to second hand clothing.
Kenya is flooded with young entrepreneurs who only need small capital to start a Mitumba business thus making it a good source of employment because you don’t need to be very educated to manage your stall. My elder brother’s wife is selling second hand clothing and its adding value to their daily source of income. Many families in Kenya depend so much on Mitumba industry and it’s hard to revive the textile industry in Kenya. The large factories will only employ a few people whereas Mitumba employs the whole nation.
Kisumu Cotton Mills, Allied Industry Limited, Heritage Woolen Mills, Rivertex Textiles are among the cotton companies that closed because they couldn’t compete with the second hand clothing.
One day I would love to own my own textile company that meets both the quality I desire and is also local. Until then, I have saved a few shillings and I think it’s time I go to the market with nothing in mind to buy but I will go the shirt section, trouser section. If I find a good label and a good design, that’s kind to my pocket my thirst for clothing will have been quenched.