Second-hand shoe business thrives in Kenya

Some customers are so poor, they pay for one shoe, then save up to buy the mate.

Day and night, hundreds of Kenyans are on their feet, walking along this country's narrow, unpaved roadsides and paths - stumbling along and ruining their shoes.

Few here have cars, and the buses and matatus (or mini- buses) rarely go where most needed - not into the distant villages or city slums, where a majority of the population lives, and not to the agricultural fields or the wealthier neighborhoods, where a majority work.

The miles take their toll on the pedestrians' shoes, but with 56 percent of Kenyans living in poverty, surviving on 30 shillings (39 cents) a day, few have money to buy new footwear.

And so a booming second-hand shoe trade - known as matumba - has sprung up - a godsend to the poor, but a threat to Kenyan footwear manufacturers.

One recent day Stanley Mathu was getting his red flip-flops glued back together at a makeshift shoe repair behind a slum butchery.

A cook by trade, Mr. Mathu has been out of work for more than seven months and spends his days walking around Nairobi looking for a job. "I wear my shoes out, and then I come here, pay 20 shillings, and fix them up for another month," says Mathu, adding that he owns two other pairs - restitched sneakers, and a pair of black loafers "from Italy," which he saves for special occasions.

Mathu remembers when the second-hand shoe trade started - because that's when he got the loafers. And that's when his wife began what he calls "the collection." "She spends all her pocket money on shoes," he says. "She has about seven pairs. It's no quarrel between us. I understand women."

The matumba trade in Kenya began in 1993 when President Daniel arap Moi gave a few hand- picked and well-connected businessmen the go-ahead to import used clothing and shoes from Europe. Today, almost everyone here buys second-hand. Containers packed with used merchandise are brought by boat to Mombassa nightly.

Convoys take the wares around the country, and ultimately the new arrivals show up in market stalls.

Mike Selemani and his sister Restituta run a little shoe business in the Kenyatta Golf Course slum. Squeezed in between the mango-and-onion stall and their main competitor Robert Mumo's shoe stall, they hawk their wares atop a meter-long wood plank on stilts. They have a sneakers, children's shoes, women's fashions, and a small men's section.

The table is filled mostly with one of each pair: Customers, Restituta says, usually pick out the pair they want, put down a deposit, and then save up to buy the mate.

Prices, she says "are all negotiable," however, typically, a ladies' or children's shoe will go for 500 to 600 shillings ($6.33-$7.59), and men's can cost up to 1,500 shillings ($18.98). After paying the rent to the "table owner," calculating expenses to and from the market to buy the shoes, and the price they have paid for them there, the Selemanis are making up to 6,000 shillings ($70.95) a month. Business, says Mike "is good and getting better all the time."

But the brisk second-hand trade isn't good news to the country's lone shoe manufacturer. Bata - a Canadian-based company operating in East Africa since 1940 - employs 1,300 people today, half of what it was employing the year before the matumba trade opened up. Bata makes most of its shoes in Kenya, selling them for four and five times the price of the second- hands, and losing customers.

Many at Bata say second-hand vendors have an unfair advantage because matumba importers get around paying many of the import taxes. "All we want is a level

playing field," says Tony Carnecky, Bata's managing director, from company headquarters in Limuru, some 50 kilometers outside of Nairobi. "We are good corporate citizens. We pay all taxes, including the VAT in full. We do not undervalue our merchandise, and we conform to the necessary health and environment and quality standards. I'm not at all sure others do."

But that matters little to the customers crowding the used-shoe stalls.

The second-hand offerings are cleaned, shined, polished and generally in good shape. "I really don't know why they look so good," says Mike. "Maybe those Europeans only walked on carpets." There are last year's pink sandals from Nine West, flashy Reebok aerobic sneakers, and Old Navy loafers looking brand new. It is not unusual for white, wealthier Kenyans to stop by to pick up a bargain.

Some of the shoes are, in fact, new - donated by big foreign shoe companies getting rid of last year's stock or by churches and aid groups hoping to do a good deed.

"We have agents working for us overseas who go around collecting matumba and paying small sums to the charities," says one manager at the main Nairobi shoe depot who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"I don't know if those Europeans know their donations are going to a businessman …, but it is legitimate anyway."

The competition from matumba has forced the Bata firm to change its focus.

Now, instead of concentrating on its signature Safari boots or its sturdy school shoes, Bata is focusing on the basic, cheap, rubber flip flop. "It's our No. 1 seller," Mr. Carnecky says with a sigh.

"We had to change direction so as to stay in the game."

Carnecky says that sales and production in leather and canvas footwear have dropped by more than 30 percent. While acknowledging that Kenya's overall economic downturn is part of the reason for falling profits, Carnecky says: "Matumba is killing the industry, and in the worst case scenario, there will be no local manufacturing in Africa at all."

Most of the 10,000 residents of Limuru are supported directly or indirectly by the Bata factory, which sits on 100 hectares of land and includes living quarters for 45 percent of the employees, a mess hall, sports area, social club, free kindergarten, and health clinic.

The average salary for a worker is 8,000 shillings ($101) a month, and of the 15 senior managers, 10 are Africans.

Says Carnecky: "People in this country are pleased that they can afford shoes - but at the end of the day, when all the manufacturers shut down and people lose their jobs - they won't even have the little money to buy that flip-flop."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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