Mitumba debate shows up our threadbare economies

Wednesday June 28 2017

Residents of Kisumu town, Kenya, buy second hand clothes at a market. PHOTO | FILE |

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

I am big time for free trade, and think the recent moves in East Africa to ban or slap high tariffs on secondhand clothes (mitumba), are ill timed.

Still, it is ridiculous that the US threatened to kick East African Community countries off the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) over mitumba.

Kenya, the EAC country that exports to the US goods worth about $552 million a year, was sufficiently spooked and quickly resolved the stand-off. The rest of the EAC, according to reports, exports $230 million’s worth combined. But even that is big money, especially for individual companies, so expect them too to buckle under.

The beef here is not that America is wrong, but again, that we should be having a scuffle over mitumba at all. In 2017, we should be having trade fights over more high-value products.

As it happened, a few days ago Nigeria’s Science and Technology Minister, Dr Christopher Ogbonnaya Onu, (yes, he has a PhD in chemical engineering) announced with some pomp that Nigeria will start producing its own pencils in 2018. Seriously!

One tweet contrasted it with the launch of Dubai’s autonomous transportation strategy, in which the city said that by 2030, some 25 per cent of all trips in Dubai will be via driverless vehicles.


This fight over mitumba is part of the parochialism and small-mindedness that has beset the US in recent times, and brought Donald Trump to power. And on East Africa’s part, the muddle-headed attempt to protect uncompetitive local textile manufacturers, and the discomfort the political leadership feel at seeing most of their citizens clothing themselves in mitumba.

People with money have the choice not to buy mitumba. Those that do, do so because the fashion and quality sellers of new clothing offer them are crap.

Once there are very many people with money, and they form a critical market for designer clothes, they will not buy mitumba. The best anti-mitumba policy, therefore, is growing the economy.

In sports like Formula One, they have a qualifying process to determine the starting order. Teams take it very seriously, because – given that the cars drive at speeds of over 300 kilometres per hour – qualifying at the front, means you are less likely to get entangled with the clutch of cars in the mad fast dash at the early corners at the start of the race.

What the Nigeria tweeter was saying is that if making pencils is your big future, you are not trying to qualify at the front for a Formula One race like Dubai.

Likewise squabbling over mitumba, is fighting for a starting place at the back of the grid. It’s not impossible, but very hard to win from there.

It also explains why, for example, right now Kenya and Tanzania are feuding over the import of flour. Spats between the two countries over milk are common.
Kenya and Uganda had a dust-off over sugar, and more recently maize.

I look forward to the day when we shall argue over access even for basic products like lawnmowers, solar panels, electric kettles, flasks, and carpets made in East Africa. It will be the sign that we have finally arrived. For now, give us a break over mitumba.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3