The tale of the travelling sneaker: From Western Rejects to Nairobi’s Mtumba Hustle

Gabriella Santini
PhD Anthropology

I met Esther, a bit by chance, as I was exploring Nairobi’s streets after a Kiswahili class. Esther is a 24-year-old Kenyan entrepreneur. She owns three shops at Adam’s Arcade—an outdoor market just north of Kibera, in Nairobi. 

Esther moved to Nairobi a few years ago from a small town in Western Kenya to search for work. She began working as a live-in housekeeper, but the work was tiring for the wage she received. One day, her employer asked her if she wanted to help out in their store as they were short on staff; they owned a second-hand baby clothes shop in Adam’s Arcade. Esther agreed to help and quickly discovered the business of mtumba (meaning second-hand in Kiswahili). She realized that there were promising profits to be made from the mtumba hustle. If she had her own mtumba business, she could be her own boss and have more freedom. She could have her own apartment and make enough money to support her family back home. So, she worked as a maid and as a shop attendant, saving as much money as she could. Over time, she learned the skills necessary to run her own mtumba shoe shop. Within a year, Esther quit her job and acquired enough capital to open her own stall at Adam’s Arcade. Things were going well, so she opened two more second-hand shoe shops on the same street.

I ran into Esther that day, drawn in by the aesthetic of her shop: Converse, Puma’s, Nike’s… of all shapes and colors, nicely displayed along the walls. I approached her stall, entertaining the idea of buying a pair for myself. I noticed that most shoes were in mint condition—I wondered if they were real or knockoffs. Esther, who was cleaning a pair of shoes in a bucket of water, reassured me that they were real. I then began to learn about the world of mtumba

Esther and I quickly became friends. I began visiting her every day after my language classes. Spending time with her presented a good opportunity to practice speaking Kiswahili. But as someone who had worked in a Canadian charity shop for many years, I took a personal interest in her business and the world of mtumba. My intrigue for the origin of these shoes grew each time I visited Esther. “Where do these shoes come from? How do they get to your shop?”

She told me that she gets her shoes from Gikomba market near the Central Business District (CBD)—Nairobi’s busy city center. Appreciating my curiosity in the hustle, Esther invited me to join her next mtumba expedition to Gikomba. 

Mtumba bales unloaded at Gikomba market.

“Come with me tomorrow,” she told me. “I will go at 5 am and then you can see how I get my shoes.”

I met her at Gikomba early the following morning. The market was already crowded and lively. People gather early to get their hands on the best merchandise. Gikomba is the largest open-air market in Kenya. Most products sold in the market are repurposed items imported from North America and Europe, and most recently, China. Items are sorted and packed in big bales before being shipped to Mombasa by boat. 

 Gikomba sprawls into various sections, each focusing on specific items—from shoes to shirts to purses and housewares. The aisles were cramped with buyers and sellers; people jostled for space. I fell a few times, awkwardly disrupting the flow. Trades happen quickly. It’s dark inside the shoe market and people are pushing and shoving from all sides. Buyers don’t always have the time and space to inspect the items they’re purchasing. Sometimes you buy a defective shoe that you can’t resell. 

Esther knew most shoe sellers at Gikomba as she visits the market three to four times a week to restock her store. Buyers like Esther build relationships of trust with Gikomba sellers, and over time can secure better prices on items or receive small services. Esther leaves a large backpack with one of the sellers so she can carry her newly acquired shoes back to Adam’s Arcade after a long morning of trading. And when her hands are full of newly purchased shoes, she’ll leave them with a vendor so she can continue to shop empty handed. 

“Aren’t you worried that the traders will re-sell the shoes you left with them?” I asked her. “Of course not, why would they do that?” she replied. “We buy their shoes, and they want us to come back.”

While the world of mtumba is competitive and hectic, it fosters genuine camaraderie. Building mutual support networks are essential for defusing tensions and keeping spirits high. Mtumba is the lifeblood of many Kenyan households. It is a growing industry and generates sizable revenues for both the state and individuals.1 Kenya is one of the largest importers of second-hand clothing in sub-saharan Africa.2 In 2019, the country imported some 185,000 tonnes of used clothes.3 It is estimated that 70 per cent of clothes donated in Europe end up in Africa.4 The distribution of unsold used clothing to African countries is praised by some to reduce waste along with carbon emissions.5

Buyers and sellers trading in Gikomba’s shoe section.

However, not everyone agrees that cheap clothing imports have a positive impact. Opponents argue that mtumba imports are harming the local textile industry, which has been in decline since the 1980s with the neoliberalization of markets. Local clothing manufacturers cannot compete with the prices of mtumba. In March 2016, members of the East African Community (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda) announced a plan to ban imports of second-hand clothes by 2019.6 The Office of the US Trade Representative pressured the EAC to back out of the plan if they want to continue benefiting from their Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Only Rwanda went ahead with the ban. 

William Ruto, Kenya’s newly elected president, has supported the mtumba industry for some time. In 2015, when a large fire razed stalls in Gikomba, Ruto visited the scene to reassure traders that their stalls would be rebuilt. Since then, Ruto has taken a strong stance to defend mtumba entrepreneurs. In fact, his electoral campaign embraced Kenya as a “hustler nation.” Ruto, a man from humble beginnings, presented himself against Kenyan “dynasties”—families such as Kenyatta’s who have had political and economic power in the country for generations.  As such, he campaigned for a “bottom-up” approach to economic growth and vowed to adress the 40 per cent youth unemployment rate.7

Inversely, Raila Odinga, Ruto’s opponent in the 2022 elections, pledged to end mtumba imports. For many, banning imports of second-hand clothing is about pride for locally made products and recovering from the relationship of dependency on the Western world.8

When I asked Esther about her thoughts on the ban, she told me that it would hurt many entrepreneurs, especially the young ones who have invested their savings to open their new business. Esther is very happy being her own boss—returning to employed work does not sound like an appealing outcome. What is more, if second-hand clothes are cut off, most people will not be able to afford locally made clothing. Mtumba offers good quality clothing at price that is more attainable than new clothes. At Adam’s Arcade, a pair of used Converse goes for 1000 to 1500 KES (£7-11), while a pair of jeans can go for 500 to 1000 KES (£3-7) and a t-shirt for 100 to 200 KES (£.70-1.50). Facing financial constraints, the average Kenyan household does not prioritise spending on clothing and footwear.9 The average Kenyan spends 4,150 KES (£30) on apparel per year10—this forces many Kenyans to opt for mtumba.

While the ban would help recover the lost jobs in the textile industry, it would devastate those who make a living from mtumba. Approximately two million Kenyans work in the mtumba market.11 In a country where unemployment is rising, starting one’s own business—or helping out a friend with theirs—is a means to make a living in a precarious economic system. Mtumba epitomizes life in the ruins of capitalism.12 It is a chaotic ecosystem, founded on imports of unwanted stuff, that enables creative skill mastery, as well new forms of sociality and practices of care.

1 Gakweli, Mwakaneno. (2021). Kenya Imported 185,000 Tonnes of Second-hand Clothing in 2019. The Kenyan Wall Street, March 12 2021. 
2 ibid.
3 ibid.
4 Kubani, Jacqueline. (2015). How second-hand clothing donations are creating a dilemma for Kenya This article is more than 7 year. The Guardian, July 6 2015.
5 Oxfam. Oxfam Annual Report & Accounts 2018/19, p.6.
6 BBC. (2016). Why East Africa wants to ban second-hand clothes. March 2 2016.
7 BBC. (2021). Kenya’s Deputy President Ruto campaigns for ‘Hustler Nation’. August 26 2021.
8 Essa, Azad. (2018). The politics of second-hand clothes: A debate over ‘dignity’. Aljazeera, October 5 2018.
9 Gakweli
10 Boddu, Radhika, and Kshipra Gadey. (2021). Kenya’s Import of Seconhand Clothing And Accessories Between 2016-2020: An Overview Of Mitumba Market In Kenya. Textile Value Chain, March 26 2021.
11 Boddu and Gadey
12 Tsing, Anna. (2015). The mushroom at the end of the world: on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

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