Kenya’s presidential candidate, Raila Odinga recently proposed to phase out imports of second hand clothing in his Manifesto. The proposal has divided opinion in East Africa and there is a debate over whether the time has come to ban the trading of second hand clothes the region.
Since 2016, the East African Community (EAC) has pushed its member nations to support the region's local textile industry. Only Rwanda has so far carried out the idea, imposing high import fees on second-hand clothes to discourage their importation.
Kenya is one of the top importers of second-hand clothes in sub-Saharan Africa. According to research by the Kenya’s Institute of Economic Affairs, used clothes imports increased steadily between 2015 and 2019, driven by demand for their use and re-export to other nations.
However, there are worries about the quality of second-hand clothing reaching local markets in East Africa. The West and Asian countries have been accused of dumping clothing trash in Africa. Second hand clothing traders in Kenya have acknowledged that certain imports have turned into useless pieces that end up in landfills.
Impact on the Local Textile Industry
The local textile industry is also being negatively impacted by the influx of used clothing. If Africa continues to import second-hand clothing, it will never catch up with the rest of the world. Major exporters of used clothes, including China, the US, Canada, and Europe, profit most from the trade at the expense of regional producers and companies.
Policymakers and analysts have stated that no nation has undergone an industrial transformation without first protecting its domestic industry. Industrialized countries, such as the Asian Tigers (Singapore and South Korea), protect their domestic industry. When African governments permit used clothes, they are hurting the indigenous industries.
Additionally, those who want the ban to be imposed claim that since the introduction of second-hand clothing in Kenya, cotton production has decreased from a potential of 200,000 tonnes per year to just 7,000 tonnes annually. To fill the 20,000 tonnes annual export shortfall, the country buys at least 11,000 tonnes of cotton from its neighbors.
Those who oppose the ban contend that the second-hand clothing trade makes a significant contribution to the economy. According to a research paper published in April this year by the Mitumba Association of Kenya under the title Global Production Networks of the Second-Hand Clothing Industry, the trading of second-hand clothes has greatly benefited Kenya.
According to Ms. Wairimu, the head of the association, the research demonstrates the critical role that second hand clothes, also known as mitumba plays in creating employment possibilities, encouraging ecologically friendly consumption, and bringing in money for governments.
The business sector and other regional stakeholders argue that used clothing imports should be phased out gradually to focus on the expansion of the local textile and garment industries. If a complete ban were to be implemented, the region would currently be unable to provide for all of the clothing needs of its populace.
In 2016, Rwanda estimated that the banning of used clothing imports was going to create 25,655 additional jobs by 2019. However, only eleven textile-producing businesses and seven shoe-making businesses are currently listed in the country and cannot meet the growing demand. Even the biggest clothing manufacturer barely employs 1,500 people in Rwanda.
Similar issues are also present in other African nations. For instance, the sale of used clothing was outlawed in Zimbabwe in 2015, albeit the restriction was lifted two years later. The escalating demand was beyond the capacity of the local textile industry. At the same time, Zimbabwe dealt with the problem of black market. Nigeria and South Africa share similar experiences.