When you hear textiles, what comes to mind? I am guessing fabric, fashion, style? Well, like I recently learnt, there is way more to it.

The textile industry in Kenya is a multi-million dollar industry. With majority of Kenyan youth being in informal employment, a large chunk of them are involved in the sale of second-hand clothes aka mitumba. Among other main exports like tea, coffee, fruits and vegetables, flowers and macadamia, cotton growing in Kenya is currently only at 8% of the demand in the country.

In this article, I will dissect the 3 segments of the textile industry, the process of raw material from farm to factory, and the opportunities that are yet to be tapped.

The textile industry entails 3 main segments

1. Textile mills
2. Textile product mills
3. Apparel manufacturing

These three segments include establishments that process fiber into fabric, and fabric into clothing and other textile products. The establishments in the textile industry produce a variety of goods. Some of these goods are sold to the consumer, others are sold as inputs to the manufacture of other products.

Textile mills provide the raw material to make apparel/clothing and textile products.

Textile product mills convert raw textiles into finished product, other than apparel. Such products include carpets, rugs, towels, curtains, and sheets.

Apparel manufacturing transforms fabrics produced by textile manufacturers into clothing and accessories. Now, dear reader, this segment involves the most labour. The employment potential covers the cotton farmer, the textile mills laborers and the workers in the factories working on production, packaging, transportation, etc.

In Kenya, cotton has been grown as a cash crop over the years, although supply does not meet demand. Cotton crop trials in Kwale county have shown that 1 acre of land can produce 800-1000kg of cotton balls. After harvesting in the cotton farms, the cotton is exported to Bangladesh or Australia for spinning, then comes back to Kenya as fabric.

The fabric is then taken to EPZ zones, designated factories that promote export oriented investments. These fabrics are then made into apparel, ready for export all over the world. The USA and Canada are the top export apparel markets for Kenya. Brands like Tom Hilfiger and Polo make their products here, then sell abroad.

So far it sounds like a profitable and robust process, right? Well, the flipside is that the goods produced here are exported to foreign countries, but later come back as second-hand clothes. Most Kenyans, some even in the middle class, cannot afford new clothes made in Kenya. It is for this reason that the mitumba business has grown, thanks to the massive ready market here.

Other than lack of awareness, poor supply capacities and inability to reach international market are some of the major hurdles crippling the textile industry in Kenya.

Since 2000, Kenya has been a significant beneficiary under AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) and is one of the leading apparel exporters to the US in sub-Saharan Africa. Under AGOA, the textile industry has been termed as the biggest beneficiary, as it is now easier to exploit local markets duty free to the US, until the end of the 2025 stipulated period of the Act. The main purpose of AGOA is to assist sub-Saharan Africa economies and to improve economic relations between the United States and the region. With this in mind, Kenya is still at an advantage in exploiting these benefits as the US is a major export destination.

Filling up spaces in manufacturing and spinning the cotton locally will go a long way in covering the extra resources used in exporting and spinning outside the country. With the country’s exports now at Ksh. 60 Billion annually only at 8%, this means that Kenya is sitting on a Ksh. 7.5 trillion industry.

What if the raw material could be manufactured here? This means more employment opportunities. A surplus of these products would translate to better local pricing. And this would ultimately fulfill the goal of Buy Kenya Build Kenya.

In conclusion, the textile industry is a sleeping giant. If we could exploit the available resources, have better seed for raw materials like cotton and localize manufacture, then we will be on our way to growing our economy to unthinkable levels.