Mitumba and More

The streets of Dar are your shopping centre. Any traffic light will feature machinga selling peanuts, pirated DVDs and buckets of bottled drinks. A corner near where I stay features hats/ caps and inflatable beach toys on the regular and sometimes features cute bunnies. Very logical combination.

Wandering salesmen of mitumba are similarly ubiquitous, with loads of hangers carrying a specialized clothing type, perhaps men’s office trousers, or dresses appropriate for Sunday church. These definitely cost more to take into account the time of the sorter to pick out nicer items, the labour as they go around town, and of course, well-earned profit.

Also retailing choice mitumba finds, are small duka-esque shops and established boutique types. This shop I soon hope to visit advertises new stock through her blog, referencing current trends and says she commits to having reasonable prices. ANNE KIWIA’s gorgeously situated boutique in Mbezi Beach features very well made and designed up-cycled garments, though these do tend to be a bit more up-market in price. She’s also got quite the collection of vintage shoes and bags!

Second hand isn’t all there is of course. Every street or neighbourhood has plenty of skilled tailors able to replicate an item from a picture or duplicate something you really love. On the high end, we haven’t even started on emerging and established Tanzanian designers like those at Swahili Fashion Week, Maridadi’s charity fashion show, the Ocean Art Community’s inaugural culture shift fashion show and on this summary list by blogger Missie Popular.

Criticisms of the Industry

Tanzanian fashion and textiles is a growing industry, though far from being mature. The prevalence of cheap mitumba imports certainly is among the several challenges to the development of domestic industries which have tremendous potential: Tanzania is a cotton growing region, attracts a lot of investment and has a labour surplus.According to the Cotton Board, Tanzania is among the top 5 producers of organic cotton worldwide, cotton on the whole brings in 13% of the country’s foreign exchange while giving employment to 2 million, mostly in rural areas.

The argument over infant industry protection is not unique to Tanzania. In June 2012, Kenya’s Ministries of Trade, Industry and business interests were at odds with the Ministry of Finance over the reduction of import taxes on mitumba to support the mitumba trade, which the former argued would in turn greatly hurt domestic textile and garment industries, and set them even farther back on their path to recovery.

In Tanzania (and Kenya), textiles were the top export industry in the 70’s but never regained their strength after the collapse in the 90’s that saw many mills and factories completely shut down. While the production industries were on the decline, mitumba seriously took off during the 90’s, and shows no sign of slowing.[1] Even kitenge and kanga cloth, seen on women from the city to the farms and held very close to Tanzanian identity, is mostly imported. Kenyan and Nigerian cloth is instead best regarded. 

That said, mitumba does provide affordable, quality clothing options and has low barriers to entry for budding entrepreneurs. Arguably, it brings a more empowering form of employment and self-employment than what could be found in an industrial textile production system. Certainly competing with cheap second-hands and having few markets to retail domestically made textiles is a challenge for Tanzania’s textile industry, but you can be certain that mitumba is an industry itself that provides incomes stretching from the ports and markets of Dar to rural villages.

[1] The import of used textiles has increased by 2.5 times from 2005 – 2011 to over $85, 176, 000 worth of trade though much of this seems to be re-exported to other countries based on used textile export figures.

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