New mitumba markets give Gikomba a run for its money

At the Luthuli Avenue-Mfangano Street junction in downtown Nairobi, dozens of matatus that ply the city centre-Gikomba route line up for passengers.

Atop one matatu is a signboard showing the fare to Gikomba market. A passenger boards and then alights almost immediately, to the displeasure of the conductor. “Hii gari ni kuenda inaenda saa hii” (this vehicle is almost leaving now), he pleads with her.

John Karanja has been working as a matatu conductor for almost a decade, with five of those years spent ferrying people to and from Gikomba.

He reminisces that when he joined the business, he didn’t have to scramble for passengers.

“From very early in the morning to late in the evening we were busy and we didn’t even have to use signage, because people knew where to find us and our charges. Most of these people were going to Gikomba to shop for mitumba clothes, bags and shoes,” he says.

For decades, many people have cited Gikomba, a market that dates back to the 1950s, as the best shopping ground for second-hand clothes.

A man selling mitumba at Nairobi’s Gikomba Market./Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

As sellers open doors to their warehouses or display their wares as early as 5am, buyers are already shoving their way to get there. The earlier you get there, the more “camera” clothes you take home.

“The good old Gikomba!” Esther Moraa, 42, looks back on the days she used to make trips to the market to shop.

“For about two years, I had a routine. I would go there every Sunday to buy clothes for myself, an expectant friend or even to window-shop,” she offers.

Members of the public at Gikomba market on October 30, 2020./Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

“I switched jobs and moved from Nairobi. In 2019, I decided to make a visit to the market and I remember leaving for home empty-handed. The clothes were expensive and most of them were not appealing, so I prefer to shop in town on my way home in the evenings from the hawkers.”

Besides hawkers, nowadays, there are shops that sell mitumba clothes right in the middle of the city and are spread across almost every estate in Nairobi, towns and rural areas.

For the past 23 years, Josphat Kangea has sold second-hand clothes and accessories in his small makeshift wooden shop at City Stadium.

The market has grown to become a popular destination for people looking for mitumba clothes and household items.

Mr Kangea says a majority of Kenyans have an insatiable appetite for second-hand clothes, helping the rapid growth of the mitumba business.

“I started by selling women’s clothes and later switched to shoes. I would go to Gikomba and choose what I wanted and come back to my shop and sell. That is how I have been surviving as a mitumba trader,” he says.

He started his business after noticing that some people wanted to buy second-hand clothes without the inconvenience of travelling to Gikomba.

Bales at Gikomba market./File

“Apart from Gikomba being congested, the competition is also stiff,” he says.

“First of all, I did not want the pressure of having to open a bale, and even though there is an option to buy single items from other traders in the market, I would be competing with people who have travelled from other counties, sometimes even with individuals from neighbouring countries.”

He shares that people prefer buying from smaller markets rather than going to Gikomba because of the chaotic nature of the market – people shouting, others pulling carts, all on narrow paths. The market has different sections and if you don’t know how to manoeuvre through them, it is easy to get lost.

Mr Kangea says another reason Gikomba has lost its glory is the proliferation of middlemen and brokers, who control prices and how things run.

“There are brokers in the market who act as the link between us and the bale sellers. For example, 50 bales of second-hand clothes can be opened at the same time at the market,” he says.

“The shoes you see here in my stall, I did not get directly from the seller. The brokers are the ones who pick them out for us. So it is difficult for an individual buyer to get such a shoe and if they are lucky, the price will be way higher than my buying price.”

Other markets giving Gikomba a run for its money are Toi and Mtindwa. Mtindwa, in Eastlands, is one of the biggest markets for second-hand items in the city and is home to hundreds of traders.

Jerusha Mose is one of them and has been a trader here for the past five years. Children’s clothes are usually fast sellers in the market and are priced from as low as Sh50 a piece.

Mtindwa connects Buruburu to Umoja estates and the roads receive heavy human traffic.

Besides these markets, there are new entrants that sell clothing items in a more organised manner and at prices most shoppers would consider affordable. For instance, in-store pick up outlet Think Twice sells clothes from as low as Sh100.

“When we got into the market, we knew that many people did not like the experience of scavenging for clothes, sometimes under sweltering heat or rain. That is why all our clothes, shoes, accessories and other second-hand items are neatly arranged,” the seller offers.

Think Twice, a brand that promotes sustainable fashion by selling vintage wear and second-hand clothing, is a subsidiary of Humana Second Hand Fundraising projects, under a Lithuanian public establishment that owns and manages second-hand clothing stores and sorting centres.

“We currently have 26 branches spread in many towns in Nairobi and other towns like Thika, Kajiado, Kitengela, Rongai, Meru and Nakuru,” offers Joseph Ndung’u, manager at Think Twice Thika.

He adds that while customer numbers differ from one store to another, all outlets record good human traffic daily.

Rise of online businesses

Advances in technology and the rise of delivery businesses have prompted many sellers to tap into the murky waters of online shopping.

In the comfort of your home, you can now shop for whatever item you need, even from sellers in the far-flung areas. Second-hand clothes have found a new home on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.

In these spaces, models pose with ironed clothes and the transformation shifts not just on the clothes but also the language. Sellers and buyers give second-hand clothes fashionable terms like “thrifted” or “pre-loved”.

Mercy Nekesa owns an online thrift shop called MercGinna.

Her Instagram page posts pictures of chic dresses and other trendy outfits.

“I started the business out of necessity. After graduating with a degree in accounting from Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University, I could not get a formal job, so I decided to start selling second-hand clothes because I knew that I could never go wrong with it as these clothes are in high demand,” she says.

“With my savings of Sh12,000, I bought a bale of T-shirts. I opened a page on Instagram and started posting. The response has been overwhelming.”

Her page has grown to attract more than 30,000 followers. Besides the capital, her other only investment was a good smartphone, which she uses to take pictures of the items.

“Now that we are in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are still working from home and spending substantial time making online purchases. My clients cut across different age demographics and locations,” she offers.

A Nation Newsplex review of social media found about 43 mitumba Facebook groups created by Kenyans. Over 1.1 million users have subscribed to these groups. One of them, Mitumba Chap Chap, run by Grace Wambeere, who sells mitumba bales, had 368,000 members as of September 2021.

Kenya is one of the largest importers of second-hand clothes in sub-Saharan Africa, bringing in items for domestic use and for exports to other countries, says the Mitumba Consortium Association of Kenya.

A March 2021 report by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA Kenya) shows that import volumes rose from 111,000 tonnes in 2015 to 185,000 tonnes in 2019. This is equivalent to 8,000 containers, reflecting the high demand for the goods in Kenya.

IEA Kenya observes that 91.5 percent of households buy second-hand clothes worth Sh1,000 and below and only 8.5 percent are willing to spend more.

Most of Ms Mose’s buyers do not spend more than Sh500 on one item, a reflection of how low-income earners have to stretch their money so they can afford various items.

Why people prefer mitumba clothes

“People like second-hand clothes because most of them are sold at cheap prices. With Sh1,000 a mother can afford to buy different outfits for their children,” she offers.

Bernice Muiruri, an administrator, says that she likes mitumba clothes because they are unique. “When you buy a second-hand dress, you are almost certain that you will not walk into the office and one of your colleagues is wearing the same dress. There are only a few instances that I have chanced upon someone wearing a similar dress,” she offers.

When we posted this question in a WhatsApp group, other reasons shared included durability, high-quality fabrics, trendy pieces and many options to choose from. On prices, one member responded, “Riddle me, where else can I get a Zara dress for less than Sh500?”

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