KIGALI, Rwanda: In Kenya, they are called the “clothes of dead white people.” In Mozambique, they are the “clothing of calamity.”
They are nicknames for the unwanted, used clothing from the West that so often ends up in Africa.
Now, a handful of countries in East Africa no longer want the foreign hand-me-downs dumped on them because they’re trying to manufacture their own clothes.
But they say they’re being punished for it — by the United States.
In East Africa, 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, saying the influx of old items undermines their efforts to build domestic textile industries. The countries want to impose an outright ban by 2019.
Across Africa, second-hand merchandise is the primary source of clothing — much as it is for cars, planes, hospital equipment, computers and sometimes 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.
Tailoring students at a factory for Utexrwa, which makes army uniforms, in Kigali, Rwanda.. Photo: New York Times News Service
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 thedignity 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.
In March, the Office of the US 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 state violence.)
Under the deal, products like oil, coffee and tea are allowed access to US markets withlow 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.
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.
“We have to grow and establish our industries,” 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 (Dh555 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 per cent of donated garments end up in Africa, according to Oxfam, a British charity that also sells used, donated clothes to the continent.
The Utexrwa factory. East Africa has been trying to phase out imports of second-hand clothing and shoes over the last year. Photo: New York Times News Service
The US threat, officials in the region say, is an example of a Western nation bullying countries that are trying to move beyond what the continent is typically known for: exporting raw materials, not finished products.
For countries like Rwanda, a small landlocked statewith few natural resources to extract and export, building local manufacturing is vital for development, officials contend.
“Politically and morally it is wrong,” Mukhisa Kituyi, the secretary-general of the UN. Conference on Trade and Development and Kenya’s former trade minister, said of the US threat to remove countries from the trade deal. “The leadership of Rwanda and East Africa is right and should not lose sight of the bigger picture they have in mind.”
The trade relationship between the United States and East Africa should be founded on mutual respect, he added, “and should not go down the way of 19th-century England when it started a war with China over opium,” he said of Britain’s determination to pry open Chinese markets to sell drugs.
East Africa could export garments worth up to $3 billion annually within a decade, according to McKinsey, the consultancy.
Behind the US response to the East African ban is a group of 40 used clothing exporters, known as the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association. It says that 40,000 US jobs, like sorting and packing clothes, are at risk. Clothing thrown away by Americans, the association says, will end up in landfills in the United States and damage the environment if not sold abroad.
The organisation, which describes the East African tariffs as “taking advantage of US generosity,” lobbied for the US response. It did so on the grounds that the East African countries were contravening rules that require them to show they are “making progress” toward eliminating trade barriers to US goods and investment.
“It’s hard to argue that the US should continue to give preferential access to its market if the country is taking steps that harms US companies,” said Grant Harris, who served as the principal adviser to former President Barack Obama on issues related to Africa.
While African economies were being pushed by institutions like the International Monetary Fund to open up trade, the West protected its textile industries by restricting imports of yarns and fabrics from developing countries.
“Removing barriers to trade made it easier to import and export things but made African economies more vulnerable to imports, and manufacturing industries in particular became uncompetitive,” said Andrew Brooks, author of “Clothing Poverty: The Hidden World of Fast Fashion and Second-hand Clothes.”
The current dispute over the trade deal, he said, exposed “the underbelly of globalisation.”
Kenya, for example, had half a million workers in the garment industry a few decades ago. That number has shrunk to 20,000 today, and production is geared toward exporting clothes often too expensive for the local market. In Ghana, jobs in textiles plunged by 80 per cent between 1975 and 2000. Many people in Zambia, which produced clothes locally 30 years ago, can now only afford to buy imported second-hand clothes.
Although many support government efforts to build national textile industries, they say that the ban on used clothing should be done incrementally.
In Rwanda, where the per capita gross domestic product is $700, many people oppose the ban, saying it has thrown thousands out of jobs distributing and selling second-hand clothes and has hurt the nation’s youth in particular.
Since Rwandan import tariffs on used garments have been raised 12 times, clothes sellers in Kigali have watched their revenues plummet. The government decision was premature, they said, put in place before the country was able to produce clothes that are affordable. And though the ban excludes imports of second-hand clothing, it hasn’t stopped the influx of more expensive new clothing from China.
Peter Singiranumwe, 26, relied on selling used clothing to help pay for his rent and studies in telecommunications and engineering. “Now I’ll have to stop because I don’t make enough money anymore,” he said. “It’s impossible.”
And the question remains whether Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda are ready to build a textile industry of their own.
Vital ingredients for that to happen are still missing, and cutting off imports of used clothing alone isunlikely to fix the problem, some in the industry say. Energy and transportation costs in Rwandaare amongthe highest in Africa, there is a dearth of skilled workers in tailoring and light manufacturing, and imports of high-quality materials like fabric and yarn are prohibitively expensive.
There’s also the question of the size and purchasing power of the local consumer market. “Do we have a ready market here to which we can feed ‘Made In Rwanda’ clothes to the population?” asked Johannes Otieno, the manager of Utexrwa, which makes uniforms for the army, the police and hospitals.
Otieno said he opposes the East African ban on second-hand clothing, questioning what Rwanda would do if the United States ejected it from the trade deal.
“A country cannot survive alone,” he said. “We depend on America for a lot of things. We’re not stable enough to say, ‘We don’t need you anymore.’”
— New York Times News Service