Secondhand clothes are going out of style

In Kenya, it’s mitumba. In Rwanda, chagua. In eastern Zambia, salaula. Most African languages have a word for them: the secondhand clothes that start life draped across the bodies of well-meaning Westerners, and end up for sale in an open-air stall somewhere on the African continent.

The United Nations estimates that 80% of Africans wear secondhand clothes. Oxfam says 70% of clothes donated globally end up in Africa. Clothing and textiles are collected from donors (firms and charities). They are then sorted and bundled and then shipped to Africa. Vendors purchase these items and sell them at a low price to Africans.

At first glance, it’s a win-win. The industry creates many jobs in Africa and provides the market with affordable clothes. And it reduces pressure on landfills in countries such as the United States.

So why are countries such as Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda planning to raise import tariffs and eventually to ban the hand-me-down trade?

Issa Sekitu, of the Kampala City Traders Union, explains. Even though secondhand clothes may be desirable and affordable, “you’re spoiling the economy”.

Inexpensive as they may be, there is a price to be paid for these used garments, and it is usually the domestic textile manufacturers that pay it. They can’t make clothes that are as cheap as the secondhand items, and are being forced out of business. In Ghana, for example, in the 1960s the textile trade once employed 25 000 people and accounted for more than 10% of gross domestic product. By 2014, it accounted for less than 3 000 jobs and had a negligible effect on the economy, according to a report from Ghana’s Takoradi Polytechnic.

Mayambala Wafrika, chairperson of the Worldwide African Congress, said: “Our country Uganda and other African countries should have the ability to produce and manufacture certain things, like clothes, locally.”

But the secondhand industry is not the only threat to countries such as Uganda and Rwanda that have a textile industry. Cheap imports of new clothes from the likes of China probably also undercut local producers.

African consumers worry that locally produced clothes will not be as affordable as the secondhand goods. Traders are concerned that their livelihoods will disappear, and with it their ability to feed their families.

One Ugandan chagua trader is Nunu Mugyenyi. It’s a lucrative business for her, but she’s worried about her future. “If you took away secondhand clothing, what happens to people who can’t afford to buy clothes that make a certain amount of money; what happens to those people who start a business and are making money off of this?”

The ban will not only affect the secondhand clothing industry in Africa. Also worried about their future are the US companies involved in the trade, and it threatens Americans’ jobs. The Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (Smart) estimates that 190 000 jobs in the private and not-for-profit sector will be harmed by the import ban.

Under the banner of Smart, its partners argue that the proposed ban constitutes a “barrier to US trade”, and want African countries that implement it to be excluded from the African Growth and Opportunities Act, a trade agreement that gives African countries preferential access to US markets.

US pressure has already forced Kenya to give up its plan to ban the import of used clothes. In that relationship, it’s clear who wears the secondhand pants.

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