By  on June 7, 2005

NAIROBI, Kenya — Gikomba is a vast market in the center of Nairobi where customers may buy live chickens, used kitchen appliances and almost anything in between — including used clothes.

Secondhand clothing is sold in the heart of the market. These are the charity castoffs initially donated to organizations such as the Salvation Army and Oxfam and intended for some of the world's poorest countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria. The items, which may be resold, have made their way to Gikomba, creating problems for Kenya's industry, which has suffered since global apparel and textile quotas ended on Jan. 1.

The challenges facing the Kenyan industry seem insurmountable. Once a star of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, the U.S. preferential-trade program intended to boost Africa's nascent textile industry, the elimination of quotas and China's emerging dominance have dealt the industry a severe blow. In 2003, there were 35 garment firms in the Kenya Export Processing Zone employing more than 36,000 people and exporting $1.3 million worth of apparel.

With no new orders from overseas customers, 5,000 jobs have been lost this year and the losses continue at a rate of 2,000 jobs a month. According to a memorandum from apparel manufacturers to Minister of Trade & Industry Mukhisa Kituyi: "The sector is concerned that five companies have already shut down, including Kenap, the first firm in Kenya to be accredited under AGOA. Many smaller factories are reportedly lying idle or operating at 50 percent or less capacity."

The clothes at Gikomba are sorted according to type — denim, shirts, ties, underwear, jackets. The garments, known as mitumba, are compressed tightly into bales. Mitumba means bale in Swahili.

The bales each contain 60 to 100 pieces of clothing, depending on the item, weighing 20 to 50 kilograms, or 44 to 110 pounds. They are then sold to wholesalers and vendors, who display them haphazardly in their stalls — crumpled, unironed and unwashed.

"Everybody buys mitumba," said Nick Musili, a limousine driver at one of Nairobi's top hotels, The Stanley. "Look at the people walking in the street and you will see that everyone is wearing at least one piece of mitumba."

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