The Finish of Secondhand Garments in East Africa

At Kampala’s sprawling Owino market, Millicent Mukwezi opens up a bundle of secondhand garments whereas her assistant retains an eye fixed on the consumers eagerly rifling via seeking bargains.

At Kampala’s sprawling Owino market, Millicent Mukwezi opens up a bundle of secondhand garments whereas her assistant retains an eye fixed on the consumers eagerly rifling via seeking bargains.

Mukwezi buys the clothes from a dealer within the Ugandan capital who imports them from the US and takes them to the market to promote. She favors U.S. clothes as a result of the standard is dependable. The costs are good, too—a secondhand Adidas sweatshirt sells for 60,000 Ugandan shillings (about $16), a fraction of what a brand new one would price.

“My clients return due to the standard we provide,” Mukwezi mentioned. “Right here, you may get designer garments and types at very cheap costs.”

Daily, a whole bunch of buyers squeeze via the slender lanes that separate makeshift wood stalls, desperate to seize a cut price. The sprawling Owino market is without doubt one of the largest in East Africa, offering livelihoods to an estimated 100,000 folks, 70 p.c of them girls.

Owino is simply one of many many markets for secondhand clothes—recognized regionally as mitumba—that exist throughout East Africa. It’s a commerce that permits wealthier, largely Western international locations to export discarded clothes which may in any other case find yourself in landfills and supplies livelihoods for tens of millions of girls within the area. The Mitumba Consortium Affiliation of Kenya, a commerce physique, estimates that 4.9 million folks in East Africa make their dwelling from the commerce, most of them girls.

However the trade faces a number of threats. Some European international locations are in search of to limit exports of used garments amid claims they’re merely exporting an environmental headache to poorer components of the world as a result of something that may’t be resold results in landfills. Mukwezi confirms this, saying she prefers clothes shipments from the US as a result of she will be able to promote the whole lot. When she will get shipments from China, she mentioned, “you discover you possibly can’t promote half of it. You both must discover a strategy to eliminate it or give it away—and that’s not good enterprise.”

She could discover herself having to supply from different international locations quickly although. The Owino merchants all complained that the price of U.S. consignments has risen since January, when Washington ended a preferential commerce settlement over Uganda’s extensively criticized crackdown on homosexuality. The African Progress and Alternative Act (AGOA) goals to spice up sub-Saharan African nations’ economies by offering duty-free entry to the U.S. market and requires that these international locations enable unrestricted entry for U.S. imports. Economists say the Ugandan authorities used the nation’s elimination from AGOA to extend tariffs on used clothes imports—a cost the federal government denied when contacted. However the Uganda Sellers in Used Clothes and Sneakers Affiliation, a commerce physique, mentioned charges had gone up by 3 cents a kilo in January, a rise that was driving some out of enterprise. “We’re seeing most of our members drop off,” mentioned Lydia Ndagire, the affiliation’s vice chair.

Francis Walugembe, an economist on the Kampala-based public coverage analysis agency Atlas Consultants, mentioned the obvious transfer to extend taxes “was retaliatory,” including that “its timing, coupled with statements towards the sector by state officers instantly after the U.S. introduced its meant motion on AGOA, exhibits a coordinated effort.”

A woman wearing a sleeveless patterned shirt
A girl carrying a sleeveless patterned shirt

Julie Nabwire, a provider of used garments, sits on bales of clothes at her store in downtown Kampala on April 24.

Uganda will not be the one nation within the area to see secondhand clothes imports from the US—the world’s largest exporter of used clothes, with gross sales of greater than $950 million in 2022—as damaging to native garment manufacturing. In 2015, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda pushed for a ban on secondhand garments via the East African Group, a commerce bloc. Kenya rowed again after Washington threatened to reply by eradicating the nation from AGOA, which might have hit its clothes exports. Uganda and Tanzania subsequently adopted swimsuit below stress from the Secondary Supplies and Recycled Textiles Affiliation, a strong foyer that represents 130 merchants in the US and Canada. Solely Rwanda went forward with a ban—a transfer that left 1000’s of girls within the secondhand clothes sector jobless, in line with the Rwandan Small-Scale Merchants’ Affiliation.

For Fred Muhumuza, a improvement economist primarily based in Kampala, AGOA has develop into extra about politics than commerce. Final 12 months, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni once more mentioned he would challenge a ban on imports of used clothes, although the menace was not carried out.

“Small-scale merchants are a pawn within the commerce wars between African governments and Washington,” Muhumuza mentioned. “We have now seen a tit-for-tat between governments on coverage points, however sadly, it’s these small merchants who are suffering losses or should adapt to punitive coverage modifications that make their livelihoods more durable.”

U.S. officers in Washington and Kampala didn’t reply to requests for remark.

On the availability aspect, there are additionally challenges forward. France, Denmark, and Sweden proposed this 12 months that the European Union limit exports of used garments, arguing that the bloc must do extra to recycle them at dwelling moderately than exporting the issue of disposing them to African international locations. “Africa should not be the dustbin of fast-fashion,” France’s surroundings ministry advised Reuters.

Hanging clothes and piles of used clothing line a tarp-covered stall in a market as people walk through the site.
Hanging garments and piles of used clothes line a tarp-covered stall in a market as folks stroll via the location.

Merchants sift via used garments on the Owino market in Kampala on April 24.

Teresia Wairimu, the chairperson of the Mitumba Consortium Affiliation of Kenya, warned that such a transfer would harm tens of millions of Kenyan girls who depend upon the commerce. Kenya imported $202 million price of used garments in 2021 greater than every other African nation, in line with information tracked by the United Nations.

Again in Kampala, the used-clothes sellers could not all the time comply with the diplomatic wranglings which are impacting their lives. However they’re clear on one factor: The garments they purchase have all of a sudden gotten costlier, and that’s hitting their income arduous.

Susan Wamambiri, whose title has been modified at her request, is promoting off the final of the secondhand clothes she and her companions purchased from the US earlier than costs shot up. Her frustration audible, the 37-year-old accuses Uganda’s authorities of making an attempt to place used-clothes sellers like her out of enterprise.

“From January, we’ve needed to pay taxes extra per kilo, which is unfair,” she mentioned. “Our affiliation says that is the state’s approach of retaliating towards what the U.S. has executed over homosexuality legal guidelines. They’re making an attempt to place us out of enterprise in favor of latest garments. The place are we imagined to make a dwelling?”

Betty Ndagire contributed extra reporting.

This story was reported with help from Nation Media Group.

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