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Economy & Labor , World

East Africa’s second-hand clothes markets – a major source of work for women – are under threat

by Allan OlingoKabona Esiara May 29, 2024

This story was co-reported with Nation and co-published with Foreign Policy

At Kampala’s sprawling Owino market, Millicent Mukwezi opens up a bundle of second-hand clothes while her assistant keeps an eye on the buyers eagerly rifling through in search of bargains. 

Mukwezi buys the clothing from a trader in the Ugandan capital who imports them from the United States and takes them to the market to sell. She favors U.S. clothing because the quality is reliable. The prices are good too – a second-hand Adidas sweatshirt sells for 60,000 Ugandan shillings ($16), a fraction of what a new one would cost. 

“My customers return because of the quality we offer,” says Mukwezi. “Here, you can get designer clothes and brands at very reasonable prices.”

Every day, hundreds of shoppers squeeze through the narrow lanes that separate makeshift wooden stalls, eager to grab a bargain. The sprawling Owino market is one of the largest in East Africa, providing livelihoods to an estimated 100,000 people, 70 percent of them women.

Owino is just one of the many markets for secondhand clothing—known locally as mitumba—that exist across East Africa. It’s a trade that allows wealthier, mostly Western countries to export discarded clothing that might otherwise end up in landfills and provides livelihoods for millions of women in the region. The Mitumba Consortium Association of Kenya, a trade body, estimates that 4.9 million people in East Africa make their living from the trade, most of them women.

But the industry faces multiple threats. Some European countries are seeking to restrict exports of used clothes amid claims they are simply exporting an environmental headache to poorer parts of the world because anything that can’t be resold ends up in landfills. Mukwezi confirms this, saying she prefers clothing shipments from the United States because she can sell everything. When she gets shipments from China, she said, “you find you can’t sell half of it. You either have to find a way to dispose of it or give it away—and that’s not good business.”

She may find herself having to source from other countries soon though. The Owino traders all complained that the cost of U.S. consignments has risen since January, when Washington ended a preferential trade agreement over Uganda’s widely criticized crackdown on homosexuality. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) aims to boost sub-Saharan African nations’ economies by providing duty-free access to the U.S. market and requires that those countries allow unrestricted access for U.S. imports. Economists say the Ugandan government used the country’s removal from AGOA to increase tariffs on used clothing imports—a charge the government denied when contacted. But the Uganda Dealers in Used Clothing and Shoes Association, a trade body, said rates had gone up by 3 cents a kilo in January, an increase that was driving some out of business. “We are seeing most of our members drop off,” said Lydia Ndagire, the association’s vice chair.

Francis Walugembe, an economist at the Kampala-based public policy research firm Atlas Consultants, said the apparent move to increase taxes “was retaliatory,” adding that “its timing, coupled with statements against the sector by state officials immediately after the U.S. announced its intended action on AGOA, shows a coordinated effort.”

Julie Nabwire, a supplier of used clothes, poses in her shop in Kampala, Uganda in April 2024. (Esther Mbambazi for The Fuller Project).

Uganda is not the only country in the region to see secondhand clothing imports from the United States—the world’s largest exporter of used clothing, with sales of more than $950 million in 2022—as damaging to local garment manufacturing. In 2015, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda pushed for a ban on secondhand clothes through the East African Community, a trade bloc. Kenya rowed back after Washington threatened to respond by removing the country from AGOA, which would have hit its clothing exports. Uganda and Tanzania subsequently followed suit under pressure from the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, a powerful lobby that represents 130 traders in the United States and Canada. Only Rwanda went ahead with a ban—a move that left thousands of women in the secondhand clothing sector jobless, according to the Rwandan Small-Scale Traders’ Association.

For Fred Muhumuza, a development economist based in Kampala, AGOA has become more about politics than trade. Last year, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni again said he would issue a ban on imports of used clothing, though the threat was not carried out.

“Small-scale traders are a pawn in the trade wars between African governments and Washington,” Muhumuza said. “We have seen a tit-for-tat between governments on policy issues, but sadly, it is these small traders who suffer losses or must adapt to punitive policy changes that make their livelihoods harder.”

U.S. officials in Washington and Kampala did not respond to requests for comment.

On the supply side, there are also challenges ahead. France, Denmark, and Sweden proposed this year that the European Union restrict exports of used clothes, arguing that the bloc needs to do more to recycle them at home rather than exporting the problem of disposing them to African countries. “Africa must no longer be the dustbin of fast-fashion,” France’s environment ministry told Reuters.

Traders sift through used clothes for sale at Owino market in Kampala, Uganda in April 2024. (Esther Mbambazi for The Fuller Project).

Teresia Wairimu, the chairperson of the Mitumba Consortium Association of Kenya, warned that such a move would hurt millions of Kenyan women who depend on the trade. Kenya imported $202 million worth of used clothes in 2021 more than any other African country, according to data tracked by the United Nations.

Back in Kampala, the used-clothes sellers may not always follow the diplomatic wranglings that are impacting their lives. But they are clear on one thing: The clothes they buy have suddenly gotten more expensive, and that’s hitting their profits hard.

Susan Wamambiri, whose name has been changed at her request, is selling off the last of the secondhand clothing she and her partners bought from the United States before prices shot up. Her frustration audible, the 37-year-old accuses Uganda’s government of trying to put used-clothes sellers like her out of business.

“From January, we’ve had to pay taxes more per kilo, which is unfair,” she said. “Our association says this is the state’s way of retaliating against what the U.S. has done over homosexuality laws. They are trying to put us out of business in favor of new clothes. Where are we supposed to make a living?”

Betty Ndagire contributed additional reporting.

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