Gikomba Garment Market-Fires and Resilience

By Pauline Okeng'a

Kenyans have had special affinity for the affordable second hand garments sold at Gikomba market, which was established in the 1950s in Nairobi.  Retailers open up bales of clothes to sell in their iron roof shelters.  

According to Raworth (2004), second hand clothes are  donated by rich countries. The garments are freely donated to charity organizations, community groups and commercial collection banks, who sell them to commercial merchant in textile recycling plants.

After sorting and grading, they are then packaged in bales.  Major wholesaler/ importers ship the garments from oversees incurring import duty then sell them to medium wholesalers in Kenya who own permanent stalls.

According to textile value chain, Gikomba supports approximately 2 million Kenyans. This population is made up of residents, secondhand clothes traders and many other traders selling different products.

The market is next to few other markets- Muthurwa, Marikiti, Machakos country bus and kamukunji. These consist of approximately 10 bank branches and is also a residential area.

Among all the trading centers within Nairobi Central District, Gikomba experiences recurring fire incidents, which have never been solved since they begun more than a decade ago.

Gikomba market is located at the centre of Nairobi.  The fire incidents have been observed to occur mainly during the night.

A medium wholesaler, Mr. Peter Karanja has been affected by fire incidents four times between 2013 and 2017). In spite of all the misfortunes, he has rebuild his stall after each incident because he hopes that things will improve in the future.

“Though sometimes fire maybe be caused by electric wire or gas explosion, other incidents have been connected to robbery cases. I have seen days when bales have been recovered after a fire incidents. We later realized that thieves flame up the stalls to erase evidence after stealing the products,” said Karanja.

New permanent stores have recently been constructed at the entrance of the market most probably for security reasons. Majority of traders are reluctant in occupying them for the reason that they are smaller in size compared to the iron sheet stalls. They are also expensive because they charge up to ksh.20,000.

“Most of us have worked in these iron sheet stores for years, we prefer remaining here because of the adequate space, besides we don’t want to inconvenience our long time customers,”emphasise Karanja.

Business was unbearable during the lockdown season, seeing wholesalers pay rent yet no goods were allowed into the country.

“In search for ways resolved this issues we had to look for a starting point. That is how  the Mitumba Association of Kenya came to our deliverance,”says Karanja.

The association has been on the forefront in supporting secondhand dealers in Kenya. They campaigned for the return of mitumba into the country during the temporary ban last year, the association also helps the dealers with legal issues.

The Nairobi Metropolitan Service (NMS) and the banks around have equally put in work to improve the appearance of Gikomba market, though their focus remain on the small area mapped in the government records.

The banks in the marketplace are keen to see these businesses flourish by first of all setting up a couple of branches within their reach.

Margret Lugalia a credit officer in one of the many banks in Gikomba says they have been involved in updating the vendors with book -keeping and business management knowledge, by doing this they are confident of positive outcome when granting loans.

” About 97% of these traders pay back their loans on time, if they keep up with this and practice good book-keeping then we are looking at a promising future full of financial freedom for most of the vendors.

The pricing of product may remain constant, but the success story of this businesses lie on how effective the business management strategies are formulated.

It is estimated that the cost of a secondhand garment is as low as five percent the cost of a new garment made in Kenya. This means that local industries are unable to compete with the influx of used clothing (

Local fashion brands have had a difficult time competing with the secondhand market. There have been previous attempts to ban second-hand  import so as to save the local industries but secondhand clothes are of better quality and therefore much preferred by clients.

In addition, the low purchasing power of customers, especially in these times of Covid-19 pandemic, limits their choices to Gikomba second hand market.

Justin Mainge has been trading in the second hand clothes business for more than five years. He observes that the residential houses in Gikomba market are occupied by those with low incomes.  

“The third party homes owned by the Nairobi city council are low budget charging as low as ksh.4,000. They cling to this manageable rent regardless of the frequent fire incidents they experience,” he says.

Those living in the neighborhood engage in job creation activities. They make money by providing food, transporting luggage, shoe shinning and other services that do not require much money to start.

The transport industry along Jogoo road and the neighboring roads are also gaining from this as they shift product and inhabitants of Nairobi Eastlands to and from the centrally located market.

The existing trend in consumer preference for second hand items is clearly reflected in the noticeable increase in secondhand traders in Nairobi ( Rono, 1998).

These increased numbers have also attracted the attention of many other business like timberwoks, metal work ,farm products and other services providers thus creating more opportunities.

In the efforts to make ends meet these traders have  formulated strategies for carrying out business for more productive results.

Most second hand clothes traders specialize in a particular type of clothing to attract their target clientele. Secondly, the traders network with dry cleaners and tailors who would improve the quality and appearance of the garments for customers on their behalf for a fee(Rono1998)

The musical sequence used when new bales are opened is  captivating  so much that it attracts the attention of any passerby.

But not all second hand clothes originate from abroad. Some secondhand clothes are locally made in Kenya by well-known companies, who export them only to be imported as popular “mitumba”. The proliferation of Secondhand clothes is therefore not the only reason for the  poor performance of the local garment industry.

This shows that our country is capable of producing high quality products. Gikomba market must be protected because this is where many eke a living. Let us support both local and second hand industries in order to build the economy of the country.

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