Foreign trash turning Kenya into plastic dumpsite

Vendors and customers in the mitumba business. PHOTO/Courtesy.
Vendors and customers in the mitumba business. PHOTO/Courtesy.

Discarded synthetic apparel still finds its way into imported mitumba bales despite stringent restrictions on plastic waste exports


Five East African Community (EAC) nations—Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda—announced a concerted plan in 2016 to outlaw the importation of second-hand garments, commonly known as mitumba.

However, only Rwanda has fully implemented that plan as of this writing.

When mitumba clothing was quickly banned in Rwanda, it was said that the country didn’t gain much from the contract because it only earns an average of $43 million annually, compared to $600 million for nations like Kenya, according to the BBC.

Yet this did not come on a silver spoon either, as President Paul Kagame fought tooth and nail to resist the pressure coming from the United States, which at the time was led by President Donald Trump.

At the time, it was predicted that the EAC’s prohibition on used clothing may lose 40,000 American jobs and $124 million (KSh15.6 billion) in exports.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a United States Trade Act enacted on May 2000, which offers eligible sub-Saharan African countries duty-free access to over 1,800 products in the US market.

Rwanda did not meet the requirements, which led to short-term volatility in the import sector and rapid non-compliance.

Goods from certain sub-Saharan African nations are eligible for duty-free treatment under AGOA.

For sale. Though cheap and affordable, they cannot be recycled and the material used is mainly plastic, destructive to the environment. PHOTO/Courtesy.
For sale. Though cheap and affordable, they cannot be recycled and the material used is mainly plastic, which is destructive to the environment. PHOTO/Courtesy.

Looking at Rwanda now, that is where all of East Africa could have been. The nation’s discipline and cleanliness have contributed to its strong rise in international trade collaborations.

Yet all is not lost, as Kenyans on the opposing side continue to advocate for the outlawing of second-hand clothing, a topic that has generated considerable controversy over the years.

Its inception in Kenya

When it was first introduced in Kenya in the 1980s, it was viewed as a way to save and restore dignity to third-world nations that couldn’t afford to provide proper clothing for all of their citizens, with available clothes being too costly.

However, at the time, the fashion industry wasn’t as fast-paced or significantly driven by the need to generate annual billions of dollars.

Kenya bought 185,000 tonnes of used clothing in 2019, or over 8,000 containers, with China serving as the country’s main supplier. India, Pakistan and Korea are also on the list from which Kenya imports apparel.

A chain of beneficiaries

According to a report on the textile value chain, although mitumba and textile are two distinct commodities, Kenya earned roughly one billion dollars each year from sales of mitumba as of 2016, and the rates are currently valued at an approximately eight billion dollars annually.

Bales of used clothing in an export packaging. Hidden trash and unrecyclable polythene in such bales has made Kenya a dumpsite of out-lawed plastics. PHOTO/Courtesy.
Bales of used clothing in export packaging. Imports of hidden trash and unrecyclable polythene in such bales have made Kenya a dumpsite of outlawed plastics. PHOTO/Courtesy.

The mitumba business directly employs almost two million Kenyans, with up to 24 million others depending on it for their livelihoods.

Importers, wholesalers, retailers, sub-retailers (hawkers or street vendors), and down-cyclers are just a few of the important players involved in Kenya’s growing second-hand clothes business (such as mop makers and furniture upholstery makers).

Clearing and forwarding agents, transporters, go-downs (large warehouses, frequently found in an industrial park or designated warehouse zone of a city), and warehouse owners, as well as middlemen, porters, and value-addition workers like tailors, cobblers, and finishers, are examples of supporting actors (such as laundry and ironing).

This is a huge increase in circulation and revenue generation as compared to when the business started.

What went wrong?

According to findings from studies by the Changing Markets Foundation, with fieldwork carried out by Wildlight and Clean Up Kenya organizations, discarded synthetic apparel still finds its way into imported mitumba bales despite stringent restrictions on plastic waste exports.

The analysis reveals the covert export of plastic garbage to the Global South, which is being fueled by an increase in the manufacturing of low-cost synthetic clothes by Global North businesses.

Notwithstanding international prohibitions on the export of plastic garbage, a great majority of old clothing exported to Kenya is toxic waste synthetic apparel, having disastrous effects on the environment and communities.

While the environment, waterbodies and rivers are being significantly affected by this waste, including the death of aquatic life, animals such as cows have been found to consume the plastics, leading to health complications.

Studies estimate that approximately 300 million pieces of damaged or unsaleable clothes made of synthetic or plastic fibers from Europe and North America have been imported to Kenya annually in recent years.

These garments are then disposed of in landfills, burned, or buried, exacerbating plastic pollution.

A hill of pieces of unusable clothing in a dumpsite in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. Millions of such pieces of trash from European and North American countries find their way into Kenya annually, according to research. PHOTO/Courtesy.
A hill of pieces of unusable clothing in a dumpsite on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. According to research, millions of such pieces of trash from European and North American countries find their way into Kenya annually. PHOTO/Courtesy.

As production rises and a significant portion of the clothing is made with cheap synthetic fiber and polyester that is non-biodegradable, we weren’t prepared for the pure dumping of more mitumba clothing in our nation, creating another dumpsite nightmare.

Environmentally detrimental

Secondhand garbage, unlike other waste products, cannot be recycled. Since Kenya outlawed single-use polythene bags, this situation has only worsened as the public has become aware of tons of clothing at the main dumpsite.

Its rapid fashion’s structural core is 69% synthetic. It is now well-acknowledged that most African nations, including Kenya, are the last destination of the world’s unwanted fashion.

Some African countries like Tunisia have banned the resale of used goods.

“A large proportion of clothing donated to charity by well-meaning people ends up this way. Why? Because the backbone of the fast-fashion industry is plastic, and plastic clothing is essentially junk,” said Betterman Musasia, founder and patron of Clean Up Kenya, which advocates for sustainable public sanitation.

The Cabinet Secretary for Investments, Trade and Industry, Moses Kuria, declared that the Kenya Kwanza administration would abandon used clothing if a substitute could be found in the regional textile sector.

“Our people are only wearing mitumba clothes that are coming from outside the country… We are going to go to primary production so that our people who are importing mitumba can have good products to sell here,” he said.

Speaking last year in an interview with one of the media outlets, the CS further clarified, “I don’t need to ban mitumba, and I will not ban it. But I will make mitumba less competitive. I will give people better options, and that is what I said. I will make sure that people are able to buy clothes made in Kenya at cheaper prices.”

The apparel industry is one of the main sources of revenue for the government, yet the imports now contain a significant amount of plastic, out-lawed in Kenya. It pumps 7% of income into Kenya’s net export earnings.

Does this indicate that the government is either in favor of the arrangement or that it is simply unwilling to let it go and face the wrath that Rwanda underwent to become the cleanest country in Africa?

Moses Kuria, Cabinet Secretary, Investments, Trade and Industry. PHOTO/Courtesy.
Moses Kuria, Cabinet Secretary, Investments, Trade and Industry. PHOTO/Courtesy.

The CEO of the East African Business Council (EABC), Mr. John Kalisa, has been against measures to support local industry while allowing imports, arguing that no local industry can prosper while importing its products.

He cited industrialized nations like Singapore and South Korea as examples of countries that have prospered recently after completely banning imports.

This suggests that the local textile sector in Kenya will not at all prosper if the government, through the CS for trade and investment, continues to permit the importation of used clothing.

Redeeming better practices

Unlike its Mitumba counterpart, the Kenyan textile industry currently employs an average of 50,000 people.

Investments in this sector can increase exports and revitalize them, hence lowering the amount of clothing that must be imported.

George Harding-Rolls, the Campaign Manager for the Changing Markets Foundation, warns of the possible global risks if the situation is not urgently handled by the fashion industry.

He warns that what is currently happening in Kenya is only the beginning, if a reformation in this sector is not urgently effected.

YOU CAN ALSO READ: Resistive traders risk arrest as NEMA buttresses plastic bags ban

Rolls emphasizes that reforming the secondhand clothing market is the best course of action rather than out-rightly banning it.

He argues that the industry requires boundaries and regulations such as thorough, stringent recycling and reuse targets while also reorienting fashion toward higher-quality, sustainable fabrics.

YOU CAN ALSO READ:How man turns plastics into toys to conserve environment

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Ms. Loise is a Communication Specialist with a bachelor's degree in Publishing and Media Science from Moi University, Kenya. She is a dedicated web developer and a climate change and environment writer. She also owns diverse skills in social media marketing. Her contact:


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