KIGALI, Rwanda — In Kenya, they are called the “clothes of dead white people.” In Mozambique, they are the “clothing of calamity.”
These are nicknames for the unwanted, used clothing from the West and the Far East (China and South Korea), that so often end up in Africa (Malawi included).
Now, a handful of countries in East Africa no longer want the foreign hand-me-downs dumped on them because these countries have embarked on manufacturing their own clothing lines.
In the East African countries, (Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Burundi) have been trying to phase-out imports of second-hand clothing and shoes over the last year. They say the influx of used or second-hand clothing, undermines their efforts to build domestic textile industries. The countries want to impose an outright ban by 2019.
All across Africa, second-hand merchandise is the primary source of clothing — much as it is for cars, planes, hospital equipment, computers, and sometimes sadly, even drugs that have passed their expiration date.
Buses with Japanese lettering are ubiquitous. Planes in Congo have signs in Italian. Aspirin from Europe past its sell-by-date floods markets in Cameroon. Old medical equipment from the Netherlands lies idle in hospitals in South Africa. Ghana has become a dumping ground for huge amounts of electronic waste.
Rwanda, in particular, is seeking to curb the import of second-hand clothes, not only on the grounds of protecting a nascent local industry, but also because it says wearing hand-me-downs compromises the dignity of its people.
But when countries in East Africa raised their import tariffs on used garments last year — to such a high level that they constituted a de facto ban — the backlash was significant.
The Utexrwa textile and clothing manufacturing factory is one of only two clothing manufacturing companies in Rwanda, and the only one producing clothes for the domestic market.
In March, the Office of the United States Trade Representative threatened to remove four of the six East African countries included in the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, a preferential trade deal intended to lift trade and economic growth across sub-Saharan Africa. (Burundi and South Sudan, gripped by upheaval, had already been expelled from the trade deal because their governments were accused of perpetrating a state violence.)
Under the US deal, products like oil, coffee and tea are allowed access to American markets with low tariffs. But the White House has the right to terminate the agreement with a country if it feels that the relationship doesn’t benefit the United States.
The dispute has thrown into relief the perennial debate among countries, especially developing ones, over how to balance protectionism with the risk of damaging their relationship with an interconnected world.
The American response reflects a desire to both protect jobs in the US, and have open access to small but promising markets. The East African nations are trying to replicate the success stories in Asia and even the United States, where infant manufacturing industries were initially protected and nurtured before they were able to compete on the global market.
Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, who has been the most vocal leader about the used-clothing ban among the East African nations, said that the region should go ahead with the ban even if it meant sacrificing some economic growth following the US threats.
“We have to grow and establish our industries,” Mr. Kagame said in June. “This is the choice we find that we have to make. We might suffer consequences. Even when confronted with difficult choices, there is always a way.”
East Africa imported $151 million worth of used clothes and shoes in 2015, mostly from Europe and the United States, where consumers regularly buy new clothes and dispose of old ones, often giving them away to charities. At least 70 percent of donated garments end up in Africa, according to Oxfam, a British charity that accepts and distributes second hand clothes to the poor and exports the rest to developing countries like those in Africa.
In Malawi the influx of second hand clothing, that flooded the country’s economic activities led to frustrating the clothing industry up and down the production line.
“The availability of inexpensive second-hand clothes, led to stores and tailors down-sizing their imports of garments of manufacturing; this has an effect on cloth manufacturers like David Whitehead and Sons; and since DWS was boasting and encouraging cotton growers in the Lower Shire region, it’s down-sizing, was a heavy blow to the cotton growing industry in Malawi. With that of course is the domino effect that impacted the transport sector,” an economist at Chancellor College said.
“Put simply, the cheap, inexpensive second-hand dress or suit, means less or no job for the cotton grower or picker, no loads for the trucker to carry, no cotton to turn into cloth, nothing for the tailor to sew (a second blow to this industry after no uniforms), and less net income to the shop owner.
Second-hand market kills the manufacturing, transport and cotton growing industries. This is on top of wearing used garments. Where is the pride we used to have for new clothes at Christmas?” The economist asked rhetorically.
He said DWS alone used to employ 3,000 wage earners, with a spill-over effect of 3,000 more in the other sectors. The second-hand industry is a job-killer in Africa.
Such is the psychological and economic impact on African countries.