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Kenyans gather at a rally for opposition candidate Raila Odinga, some in American T-shirts.
Photo: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

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East Africa Doesn’t Want Your Hand-Me-Downs

Can citizens afford new, locally made clothes? And how will Chinese factories change the landscape?

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In 2015, shareholders of manufacturing corporations from across the East African Community (EAC) — including Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, and Tanzania — met for a summit in Uganda to discuss “a new dawn in the history of manufacturing in [the] East Africa region.” During the summit, resolutions were made, including one stipulating that the EAC would develop a policy to support the development of sectors such as textiles and apparels, “which are crucial for employment creation, poverty reduction, and advancement in technological capability.”

A year later, a handful of countries in the EAC proposed banning imported used clothing in an effort to boost the development of local textile and clothing manufacturing. In Rwanda, the Ministry of Trade and Industry developed a new strategy for “Made in Rwanda,” a campaign it had started in 2014 to boost local economy by celebrating Rwandan designers and products.

Linda Mukangoga, co-founder of Haute Baso, a clothing and design shop in Kigali, Rwanda, is excited about what the future holds for Rwandan designers. “Made in Rwanda,” she says, “means being able to create clothing and services in collaboration with Rwandans for both local and international consumers.”

Although efforts to stimulate East African domestic markets might appear to some to be a promising sign of the EAC’s dedication to growth, the United States and international trade communities are calling for a stop to the used clothing ban, firmly placing themselves in a battle with East African countries for domination over trade and manufacturing rights.

To understand the complexities of the situation, one must have at least a cursory knowledge of the modern history of the clothing industry and the used clothing trade in both colonial and post-colonial Africa.

Before the 19th century, most Europeans and Americans owned just a few well-made articles of clothing. The Industrial Revolution, however, led to the production of ready-to-wear garments and mass production of textiles, driving down both the prices and the quality of clothing.

Cheap, disposable clothing forever changed fashion, and like most other budding global industries, textile sectors had their winners and losers. The wealthiest nations were responsible for not only the meteoric rise of their own local manufacturing, but the phenomenal fall of local manufacturing in the colonies they controlled.

During precolonial and colonial times, colonist regimes exploited the sub-Saharan people by stripping them of their natural resources and exporting raw materials back to Europe and the New World. At the same time, sub-Saharan Africa’s markets were flooded with cheap European-made products that cost less than African products, prompting Africans to form a dependency on imports, and eventually causing local economies to collapse as European and North American markets flourished.

African independence in the 1960s ushered in a time of economic revitalization. Thousands of people in East Africa were employed in the clothing and shoe industrial sectors, contributing to the growth of their economies, social services, and infrastructure.

In 1982, this all changed when the international debt crisis started in Latin America. African governments, responding to a collapse in prices of commodities such as textiles, were severely affected. Since the crisis exploded, global banks have declined lending to many African nations. These same countries have seen their multilateral debt increase, and it’s this trade deficit that countries such as Rwanda want to resolve by stimulating and growing local markets.

It might seem like a no-brainer for sub-Saharan Africa to grow their economies, but the US and other wealthy countries stand to lose billions of dollars over the next decade if the used clothing ban goes through (East Africa imported $151 million worth of clothing just in 2015, mostly from the US and Europe).

Due to the Internet and social media, international fashion cycles begin and end at an increasingly dizzying pace. “Fast fashion” is designed to go out of style after the first wear, and Americans, in a quest to be trendy, throw away 16.22 million tons of textiles per year — or roughly 70 pounds per person.

Most castoff textiles end up in landfills, some are combusted to produce energy, and about 2.6 million tons are recycled or donated to charity. Giving to other people and charities makes most people feel happy and healthy, so donors might be horrified to learn that only 10 to 20 percent of their total clothing donations are sold by charities in thrift shops. The rest is sorted by product—clothing, rags, fibers—and then packed into large bales and exported for profit to countries such as Russia, Pakistan, India, and many nations on the African continent. In other words, most of our clothing donations won’t ever go to people in need, and in fact, they stymie local clothing manufacturing and negatively impact economic growth in low-income countries.

To make matters worse, in 2005, a massive removal of international trade restrictions led to a near-collapse of local textile manufacturing in sub-Saharan Africa, and a whopping 70 percent of textiles exported internationally by wealthy nations end up in the EAC. The proposed used clothing ban is the EAC’s way of saying “Enough is enough.”

What would the ban mean for countries such as the United States? Jackie King, executive director of the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), a trade association made up of members from around the world, says that industrywide, “there are at least 40,000 US jobs within the private sector and another 150,000 jobs in the not-for-profit sector that stand to be negatively impacted by the import ban.”

Refugees from South Sudan conduct a choir practice in a makeshift church in the Adjumani Settlement, Uganda, some wearing shirts with English on them.
Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

It’s difficult, however, to believe the issues surrounding the outcry against the ban are just about jobs. Used clothing is big business for wealthy nations. In 2016, the US was the leading exporter of used clothing worldwide, with a value of over $575 million in exports. If the ban were to go through, King believes that “hundreds of companies in the United States and thousands of companies abroad would be affected.”

To complicate matters, Rwanda and other countries in the EAC are members of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a US trade act that offers incentives for African countries in exchange for building free markets and elimination of barriers to US trade and investment. The proposed used clothing ban is seen by many people in the US and wealthy nations to be a move out of a protectionist playbook that would serve only their own interests, and in 2017, the Office of the US Trade Representative threatened to withdraw Rwanda’s, Tanzania’s, and Uganda’s memberships from AGOA (Burundi and South Sudan had already been withdrawn because their governments were accused of state-sanctioned violence).

In June of last year, Kenya, bowing to pressure from the US, ducked out of the proposed used clothing ban. The rest of the EAC, however, is holding strong, with Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame particularly bullish in his response to the threat: “As far as I am concerned, making the choice is simple, we might suffer consequences… Rwanda and other countries in the region that are part of AGOA have to do other things, we have to grow and establish our industries.”

King believes that “only a small proportion of [East African] countries’ populations can afford to buy new clothing. For so many in these countries who are existing on the equivalent of $1 to $2 or less per day, secondhand clothing and shoes provide their only meaningful access to quality apparel. By banning the import of used clothing, they are forcing their poor population to buy expensive new clothing which they cannot afford.”

Mukangoga disagrees: “There is a mindset that new clothes are unaffordable, but that is changing as more companies are producing [clothes] to address different audiences. We as Made in Rwanda are putting [forth an] effort to show how accessible it is to buy local from designers who are a part of CollectiveRw or at events such as the Made in Rwanda Expo, which is organized by a private sector federation in collaboration with the government to showcase [local] innovations and products to the public.”

Moreover, Mukangoga adds that “there is deliberate effort by the Ministry of Trade to change the mindset of consumers toward locally made products” and make new clothing not only more affordable, but the chain of local production more sustainable.

Further complicating things is China’s influence influence in Africa. “A US clothing ban,” suggests King, “favors imports of cheap Chinese clothing, which will annihilate African textile manufacturing, causing generational repercussions and depression.”

This isn’t exactly the whole story, but it is perhaps the one that bothers the US the most. In an effort to decrease its reliance on the West, and also because China’s involvement in Africa — despite being controversial — has led to poverty reduction and growth, many sub-Saharan countries are welcoming Chinese manufacturers with open arms. Numerous clothing companies that previously had their operations in China are now moving to Africa. Even the Huajian Group, a Chinese shoe manufacturer that produces Ivanka Trump’s shoe line, has been considering moving its operations to Ethiopia.

As Chinese manufacturers set up shop in Rwanda, some of them are holding management courses for Rwandans and teaching locals how to sew, cut material, and inspect production lines. When asked for her thoughts about Chinese manufacturing, Mukangoga had not responded by press time. President Kagame, however, who was re-elected for a controversial third term in 2017 with 99 percent of the vote, has a close bilateral relationship with President Xi, and he is welcoming Chinese involvement with Rwanda.

Currently, China isn’t even on the list of the top 10 worldwide exporters of used clothing, but in 2009, the country surpassed the US and became Africa’s largest trading partner. In 2012, China’s trade with Africa hit $198.5 billion, almost double the United States’s $99.8 billion.

Donald Trump, in efforts to be more protectionist, has threatened China with penalties and tariffs, and his administration is in the midst of determining whether to adopt these actions.

“We are now awaiting a final determination from the US government [about AGOA eligibility standards],” says King, “and it is our hope that a resolution can be reached with all the EAC member countries to benefit our industry as well as the people of the EAC.”

Meanwhile, back in Rwanda, Mukangoga believes that it’s only natural for any economy to want to invest in and promote local industry. “It enables us to be a part of a global value chain while satisfying our own needs,” she says. “The rationale is to increase exports and reduce import surplus. The more Rwanda and East Africa retails locally produced clothing [both] internally and [also] externally, the more of a balance in trade we’re likely to achieve.”

Perhaps this is what this this is really about — not just a matter of free trade or who gets to control local and international manufacturing, but also a question of balance, fairness, and equity. It’s hard to dispute that colonialism retarded development of the African continent.

Centuries after colonial regimes stripped their natural resources and destroyed their local economies by flooding markets with cheap international products, countries like Rwanda are trying to get equal footing in the market by gaining autonomy over their own manufacturing.

“Made in Rwanda,” says Mukangoga, means “a lot more than just producing fashionable clothing. It is the opportunity to create employment within our communities and continuously add value and upgrade existing skills.”

At the end of the day, isn’t this the same thing that supporters of the Made in America label want? A chance to succeed and to stand on one’s own feet? This is much bigger than a used clothing ban, and it’s greater than just a matter of money. It’s a matter of the US being in the middle of an imperialist competition with China, a matter of this same superpower trying to issue diktats against certain countries within the EAC, and, most importantly, a matter of dignity and success for proud African countries forced to grapple with postcolonial legacies.


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