Africa is the world’s biggest destination for second-hand clothes, receiving over 70% of global clothes donations. The streets of almost every town are filled with colourful piles of used clothes. In Uganda, four out of every five items of clothing bought are second-hand. How do these used clothes reach African countries, and are they a good thing?
THE JOURNEY OF SECOND-HAND CLOTHES
In places such as the USA and Europe, people who outgrow their clothes often donate them to charity for free. These charities sell the used clothing to companies, who sort the clothes according to their type and quality.
The ordered clothes are then made into large packages. In fact, second-hand clothes are called mitumba in Kiswahili, which literally means “bundles”. These bundles of clothes are placed onto ships which sail to African ports such as Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. There they are bought by local traders, who sell the clothes at market stalls to make an income.
This process became widespread in the 1980s, when many African governments made it easier for people to purchase foreign items. This was done because of political pressure from abroad.
THE ECONOMIC IMPACT OF SECOND-HAND CLOTHES
Second-hand clothes donations have had a mixed impact on African economies. These used clothes are often a lot cheaper than locally-made clothes, resulting in many clothes factory workers losing their jobs. For instance, in Ghana the number of people employed to make clothes declined dramatically by 80% between 1975 and 2000.
However, it’s not all bad. Many Africans now earn a living from trading and selling second-hand clothes – in 2016, 160,000 people were employed in selling used clothes in Kenya alone. Additionally, the low price of second-hand clothes means that they are affordable for poorer families.
THE WAY FORWARD
Some African governments such as Rwanda want to ban the purchase of second-hand clothes from abroad. This would protect local clothes businesses and possibly lead to more jobs in the long-term.
However, the policy would also result in hundreds of thousands of second-hand clothes sellers losing their jobs. Banning clothes from other countries might also damage relations with them. For example, the USA in response has introduced a tax on Rwandan clothes.
Perhaps the best way forward is for African governments to encourage investment in their local clothes industries. Countries such as Ethiopia and Senegal have already taken significant steps in this direction, and this will hopefully result in the best of both worlds.