East Africa’s textile industry falters on low investments

Sunday July 16 2023
Athi River EPZ in Kenya

Workers at Athi River Export Processing Zone in Kenya. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG


Although East Africa has a massive capacity to produce cotton textiles and apparel given the availability of raw materials and human capital, the region scores relatively low in consumption of local textile products.

Over 70 percent of apparel sold in East Africa is imported second-hand clothes, while apparel companies based in Kenya export a majority of their products, particularly to the US.

Kenya and Ethiopia are the leading exporters of textiles and apparel to the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), but with raw materials sourced outside at the expense of locally produced cotton and yarn.

Read: Agoa jobs in Kenya hit 66,000

According to the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (Kippra), 70 percent of Kenyan apparel companies sell about 80 percent of their products to US markets.

Nairobi’s export processing zones (EPZs) host 21 apparel companies that manufacture garments primarily for export under Agoa.


At the high-level African Union – East African Community and the private sector forum held in Nairobi this week, it was reported that Africa, and especially the East African region, is the least consumer of local textiles.

“The current consumption of all textiles in the US is 39 kilos per capita,” said Jas Bedi, a local manufacturer and vice-chairperson of the East African Business Council, Kenya Chapter, also adding that Africa’s textile industry is highly fragmented and needs better coordination.

The second-highest consumer of Africa’s textiles is Europe with 25kg per person annually, followed by China (16kg) and India (6kg).

US, China dominance

Africa, which ranks among the highest producers of raw materials for textiles and garments including cotton globally, ranks last in consumption of its own textiles, thanks to a thriving second-hand clothing industry dominated by the US and China.

Read: Africa seeks bigger US trade slice for Agoa to make sense

“In Africa, it is only three kilos, out of which two kilos are second-hand,” said Bedi.

In a publication discussing how the potential of the sector has been hit by the undersupply of cotton, Kippra noted that Kenya has become dependent on imports of second-hand clothes.

Between 2017 and 2021, second-hand clothing imports averaged 160,638 tonnes per year in Kenya with 183,830 tonnes shipped in 2021.

“The estimated annual consumption of cotton by the textile mills is estimated at 8,000 metric tonnes (41,200 bales), and the ideal demand to meet national requirements is 26,000 metric tonnes (140,000 bales),” says Kippra.

“These statistics show that the high potential of the textile industry is curtailed by undersupply of cotton raw materials.”

The commissioner of Economic Development, Trade, Tourism, Industry and Minerals at the African Union Commission Albert Muchanga, who chaired the forum, said Africa can produce more cotton and buy more of its own textiles if it can reduce production and transport costs.

“The linkages among African countries are very limited and so it is very difficult for a small-scale businessperson to connect to another part of the continent. It is also very expensive to transport goods and so we need to reduce transport costs,” said Muchanga.

“We need to create a framework where we have factories that produce African designs, and which must be ready and available in shops in Africa and abroad.”

EAC partner states have been unable to protect their apparel sector against cheap second-hand imports even after heads of state resolved, in 2016, to phase out the importation of used clothes and encourage local production.

Read: EAC seeks to boost trade under Agoa

The move was strongly opposed by the US recycling industry.

The EAC has, however, levied duty on textiles under the common external tariff (CET) at 35 percent – the highest band under the bloc.

But a cotton shortage remains. Kenya, for instance, produces 28,000 bales of cotton annually, against a requirement of 140,000 bales. To meet the demand, companies import 80 percent of the raw material from India, China and the rest of East Africa.

Cotton farmers face major constraints including decline in seed cotton production, low quality of cotton seeds and relatively high costs of production.

Furthermore, cotton growing is done by small-scale farmers on land averaging one hectare per farmer and is mostly intercropped with other food crops, according to Kippra.

There are about 40,000 small-scale cotton farmers, compared with 200,000 in the mid-1980s.

“The way forward is local content under the slogan ‘Buy African and Buy East African’. Mitumba is not sustainable. It is what we can manufacture that will sustain us,” said Peter Mathuki, the EAC secretary-general.

The African Development Bank Group (AfDB) has estimated that up to 600 percent of value can be created along the cotton value chain: From cotton production, spinning and twisting into yarn, to weaving and knitting into the fabric, followed by dyeing, printing and designing.

“We should start looking at our cotton fields and add value because, from the cotton seed to cotton shirt, the value addition is 32 times,” Bedi said.

Early this year, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers put forward a proposal that would require local sellers of second-hand clothing to include at least 10 percent of garments produced within the country in their inventory. KAM said the domestic apparel sector could create about 200,000 new jobs by 2030 and save Kenya over $282.9 million annually by halving import of used clothes.

KAM called on the government to develop a framework that reduces import of second-hand clothing and footwear and that enforces the 'Buy Kenya, Build Kenya' (BKBK) initiative.

Read: A stitch in time for Kenya’s apparel sector

In Tanzania, government data shows that second-hand clothes have dominated the clothing market after the collapse of local textile manufacturing. Dar spends about $183 million per year to import second-hand clothes, mostly from China, United Arab Emirates, India, Canada, America, the UK and South Korea.

The government removed import duty on raw materials for fabrics, targeting to attract more investments to boost local production.

According to the Minister for Industry and Trade Ashatu Kijaji, Tanzania has 10 textile factories, with the capacity to produce about 43 million clothing units. Lack of investment and capital base has retarded production.

This number is down from 30 textile mills established from 1965, 24 of which were owned by the government and consuming over 360,000 tonnes of cotton per year. After ownership was passed to private investors from 1990, most of the mills closed down.

Opposition party ACT-Wazalendo chair Zitto Kabwe has faulted Tanzania’s budget for failure to allocate funding to boost cotton cultivation.

"Tanzania’s Cotton to Cloth programme has also been scrapped," Mr Kabwe said.

Additional reporting by Apolianari Tairo