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Azimio presidential candidate Raila Odinga speaks during the launch of his manifesto on June 7, 2022./Azimio TV.

Fifth Estate

Enough with Raila’s Mitumba remark, now read his manifesto

Since the launch of the Azimio Manifesto, the mitumba business has taken the centre stage in the public domain, and I must say I am happy for the mitumba traders who have benefitted from the windfall that came with politicians visiting their stalls. What we must guard against is, cheapening what Azimio supremo, Raila Odinga, said which has been taken out of context. Well, there is no doubt, Azimio is not complaining because of what has emerged as a very illuminating debate on the issue. Given that the exact words of Raila Odinga are out there, Azimio must be enjoying the public conversations because these conversations have not only exonerated their presidential candidate from the Kenya Kwanza negative political public relations but also driven more Kenyans to read and understand the coalitions Inawezekana Agenda. 

The increased number of Kenyans who have gone ahead to check out the manifesto because of the debate are likely to appreciate the wider context within which Azimio has situated the challenges of majority Kenyans and how the coalition intends to address them in a language that departs for those sophisticated manifestoes we have seen in the past. You see, the first five of the ten agenda points – Azimio la Ugatuzi,  Azimio la Jitihada, Azimio la kina Mama, Azimio la Ukulima, Azimio la Viwanda – speak of production and the attendant allocation of resources, an enabling environment to revolutionalise the economy and a robust manufacturing industry. In fact, the document also provides the inherent opportunities and with more devolved funds to the counties these five of the ten Inawezekana Agenda items are essentially decentralized as capture in Azimio la Ugatuzi. The import of this is that there will be wider distribution of capital to tap on the diverse economic opportunities in different counties.

The progression from the productive first five Inawezekana Agenda to the next appears to be well thought and straightforward. You see, the next two speak of the people and the heightens the fact that the gains in the investments in the productive industries in all the 47 counties can only be realised when the government business is the business of the people. Agenda six, Azimio la Wanainchi, which speaks of the business of government being the business of the people should remind all and sundry that the first five pillars will secure the lives and livelihoods of all Kenyans including the two million Kenyans in the mitumba business value chain.

Agenda 7, Azimio la Uwajibikaji appears to be an inbuilt accountability mechanism putting both the government and the people in check. For the people it calls on us to not only be critical of the government – and here we will also have the opportunity to call out the Azimio government if the first five are not achieved – but also to be accountable as good civic citizens and do our part. The bigger picture in Azimio la Uwajibikaji is efficiency and accountability and an institutionalised framework that will secure the economic gains of the economic revolution espoused in the fives five; most importantly for the benefit of the people. To a large extent these first seven key pillars of the Inawezekana Agenda speak of a fairly elaborate process of economic revolution that will automatically phase out a good number the industries that export job opportunities to other countries and not just the 2 million mitumba industry. Granted, this is not going to be a magic bullet kind of thing with a one-time instant effect on our lives. Certainly, an enabling framework that will nurture anchor the establishment and guarantee viability of a vibrant production industry will have to be instituted and progressively the policy framework will need to incorporate a paradigm that will guarantee some competitive edge for locally produced products. Eventually and naturally, the import of goods and services will be a business that will have to contend with competition from locally manufactured goods and services.

Interestingly, most Kenya Kwanza luminaries have narrowed down on mitumba business, and they are running away with it in a fashion that is mocking Kenyans. This has been a consistent way of doing politics by Kenya Kwanza: they use the poor majority for political expediency. You see, the mitumba industry is a big industry and most Kenyans wear mitumba, but you cannot rally people together and ask them to vote for you because they are poor or wear second hand clothes. Good leadership speak provide pathways for getting people out of their plight and deplorable conditions. It does not leverage the plight of the power to win power. Azimio has mapped out an elaborate pathway that will address the fundamental issues in our production and consumption value chain to guarantee the poor majority a dignified life.

No one said that Kenyans have resigned to their fate and would want to remain poor. We all have aspirations and we would want to move to the next level. As university students in Maseno we were super happy with mitumba clothes and Kibuye Market on Sundays sounded like our favourite ritual at the beginning of the semester. But we did this because for almost 80% of university students, being a student and brokenness are synonymous. In fact, my friend Anthony Kibagendi, who is probably the incoming MP for Kitutu Chache South, had seize the opportunity way before campus when as a Maseno School student he got into the business of buying clothes from Kibuye market and selling to his friends back in Kisii during holidays for some good pocket money. This mitumba business got him off to an entrepreneurial culture that has served him well.

Like many Kenyans, back then we aspired and looking good in mitumba clothes was a means to an end. Unfortunately, today the guys we used to troop to Kibuye with are essentially exporting jobs, the same way as guys buying mitumba. We are buying designer stuff or importing mitumba from economies that are growing big and probably hegemonic because we are busy here in Kenya celebrating the thin value chain that the import business is, whether mitumba or third-rate designer-clad imported from elsewhere. 

Granted, not all Kenyans want to be mitumba wearers forever, and yet we resist the very change that would make our aspirations a reality. We need to disabuse this narrative that rallies the poor and vulnerable together; huddles them together for purposes of supporting candidates who seem to be celebrating the plight of the poor for political expediency. First, mutumba undergarments should be phased out of our market as soon as is practically possible. Rwanda and Ghana have succeeded in burning mitumba and Kenya is by far a more progressive country and there is no reason why we can’t start with the low-hanging fruits of undergarments.

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What Kenyans need to appreciate and understand is that even if we were to phase out mitumba, it has to be gradual and might take some time. Therefore, the question we should be asking Baba and Martha Karua and their functionaries is how? And that would mean they will have to get to the granular details of their manifesto. The granular details will definitely speak to a policy framework and environment that be supportive of the entire value chain from cotton farming, the building of the collapsed cotton industry and the supportive industries. Number two, the process will then shift to a policy framework that will make the locally produced clothes competitive. Consequently, if Kenyans in their aspirations to wear new stuff are pushed to quality new products and such products are produced locally, then it would be a win win situation for both businessmen and consumers and naturally agile businessmen in the industry will go for what makes business sense.

To a large extent, therefore, with an enabling policy framework, the same mitumba traders, because they already have the trade infrastructure, will find themselves selling quality original clothes produced in Kenya. That is not rocket science. It is not an issue of killing mitumba, it is a question of building our manufacturing industry and helping more people to have more disposable income through economic revolution. With more disposable income and economic security the question of whether these people will stick to mitumba or not, will be a function of market forces and quality preferences.

You see, enhancing the textile industry has the potential of providing more jobs than the current mitumba industry, yet the single story out there is that we will kill an industry. No, we will build a bigger industry because a thriving local industry will have a wider value chain from farmers, factory workers, traders, the supporting industries, and this has wider economic boom that spurs consumption and growth of more industries. 

The mitumba import business on the other had has a fairly thin value chain that benefits a few cartels and traders in Kenya. The cartels will probably suffer, but the real traders will be smiling. The journey to stop the export of jobs and pumping money to other economies has to start at some point if Kenya is to advance and provide social-economic security to Kenyans.

The author is a PhD Candidate in Media Studies and Political communication.

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