Second Hand Clothes Impacting the Growth of Africa’s Emerging Fashion Industry

Are second hand clothes from the West, a multi-million dollar enterprise, slowing the growth of Africa’s nascent fashion industry? Recent UN figures show that an estimated 80 percent of Africans wear these hand-me-downs.

In mixed bales in Dar es Salaam, a clever consumer can buy vintage clothing by the kilogram for under two US dollars. The practice is so common that it is called, in the local parlance, “mitumba.”

"As much as we like mitumba, they have severe effects to our home country economy,” the blogger Mosongo writes. “My granddad used to give me stories about the industry he worked for when he was a young man, people who worked in textiles back then were so treasured in Tanzania and part of our good economy was much contributed by the textiles industries. Each day, workers decrease, my granddad says back then there were about 80,000 Tanzanians working in textile companies, but it has now dropped to almost (none).”

So familiar are these cast offs on the continent that in Zambia they are nicknamed “salaula.” Many names, but in all cases a continental problem. In open air markets in Kampala, Kigali, or Dar es Salaam cheap imports are regularly outselling the handmade and unique fashion of African designers.

It is not just gently used Western clothing finding its way to sub-Saharan African market stalls. Increasingly, Japan and other Asian countries are getting into the mix, further complicating matters for African designers caught at the ground level of a global style revolution. The fledgling African fashion industry now competes against inexpensive second hand clothing, even the devastating threat of cheap Chinese fashion designs as well as international designers.

According to Oxfam, at least 70 percent of donated garments end up in Africa.

“There are many designers based in Africa,” Stephen Manzini, founder of Soweto Fashion Week, tells Africa Strictly Business. “However, growth is slow.” Adiat Disu, president of Adirée and director of Africa Fashion Week in New York City further notes that “there are quite a few designers operating directly out of Africa. At least 50 to 75 percent of our designers who showcase in New York’s Africa Fashion Week come from Africa. Equally important are the many designers based in the UK and U.S. who outsource to Africa, work with African designers, tailors, and seamstresses back home.”

Photo from South African Fashion Week

Photo from South African Fashion Week

What is to be done?

East Africa is fighting back, however belatedly. In 2016, the East African Community (EAC), an intergovernmental organization composed of six countries in the African Great Lakes region in eastern Africa, proposed banning all imported used clothing and shoes by 2019.

Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda and one of the most outspoken of east African leaders on the subject of what is now being called “cast offs,” plans an outright ban on second-hand clothing from the West in two years.

Of course this is being met with resistance from the Trump administration, which ran in 2016 on an “America First” platform, highlighting the importance of trade agreements. The US Trade Representative says that they are in violation as signatories to the 2000 AGOA trade act, where the six East African countries get duty-free access to American markets. U.S. Trade Representative said in May the east African unilateral trade action “imposed significant hardship” on the U.S. used-clothing industry.

What does this mean?

A flurry of dubious statistics have been offered up in argument. The US Trade Representative argues – rather disingenuously, to be frank – that 40,000 US jobs would be at risk by east Africa’s protectionist stance. Further, according to the US Trade Representative, U.S-AGOA imports from Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda totaled $43 million in 2016, up from $33 million in 2015. U.S. exports to Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda were $281 million in 2016, up from $257 million in 2015. Finally, the East African region purchased $100 million of used clothes and shoes, mostly from Europe and the United States in 2001, and in 2015 $151 million worth. In fine, it is an American interests to keep things as they are.

Some object, however. Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development said that the trade relationship between the United States and East Africa should be founded on mutual respect, adding, “(and it) should not go down the way of 19th century England when it started a war with China over opium.”

The question arises: How do East African countries balance protectionism – the spirit of the present age -- with the risk of important economic relationships with an interconnected world?

There are no easy answers. Both sides – the United States and the East African Community will have to hammer out very specific import/export goals, and that is not a guarantee at all. Secondly, those goals will have to be monitored and enforced over the course of years before a new spirit of economic goodwill and cooperation can be re-introduced. The east African nations were right to protect their interests – young designers – even at the risk of deeply damaging an established sector of the economy which employs thousands. If the gamble of Kagame and the EAC pays off in the long term, and this writer suspects it will, rising African designers will employ many more than the vintage clothes game does at present. And the designers and the economies that emerge will demand far greater respect from the West – and the world.

But a lot has to happen before this becomes a reality.

Cover Photo: