Ban on used clothing requires a holistic approach

A few days ago, a friend shared with me his experience in one of the suburbs of Kigali when he went to buy a sporting gear for his golf practice.

A few days ago, a friend shared with me his experience in one of the suburbs of Kigali when he went to buy a sporting gear for his golf practice.

He narrated how some happy-looking young men approached him with sweet talking and persuasion skills to stop by their stock at the entrance of the market.


When he obliged, they directed him to a pile of second-hand clothes which were in different colour, size and shape.


He noted their rather laid-back colleagues standing by smartly ironed garments of similar designs patiently waiting for any would-be client.


Following his observation at the market, it was clear that many people prefer purchasing second-hand clothes than the new ones. There are also other people who believe that used clothes are imbued with a poetic sense of loss, a given reminder of the body that once inhabited them.

They are viewed as ghosts of the previous owners, still marked and affected by the body that used to wear them. Whatever you may think about second-hand clothes, the current debate in the country and the region is not irrelevant.

Anyone can imagine the reason for this; obviously second-hand clothes are cheaper and affordable.

Our original clothes, on the other hand, cost a bit more and therefore the man on the street would not really afford stocking a number of them for a few Rwandan francs.

This is the same situation elsewhere in the region, and, of course, most of the African countries.

This trend has slowly killed our textile industries and is already in the attention of our policymakers. Early this year, East African Heads of State and Government met in Arusha and directed to promote national textile industries and possibly phasing out importation of second-hand clothes and foot wear.

The ban on second-hand clothes is set to be executed in the next three years as directed by the EAC leaders.
However, is it that the region has not been having the capacity to produce garments and shoes for all this time?

East Africa’s clothing manufacturing sector once employed hundreds of thousands of people in 1970s, but from 1980s and 1990s, local manufacturing have been struggling to compete in the face of international competition, factories closing down and entire textile sector keeping on struggling on its feet.

East African countries then opted to import considerable amounts of second-hand textiles and footwear to satisfy domestic markets. East Africa is said to have imported USD151 million of second -hand clothing last year, most of which was collected by charities and recyclers in Europe and North America.

The intention of the ban and the goal of promoting industrialisation in the east African region is a great idea, but for it to be successful more needs to be done to support the industry.

For example, the region must approach this transition into an industrialised bloc with a higher level of production quality and manufacturing practices. There should be sensitisation of stakeholders on the benefits of discarding used textiles in favour of new and locally manufactured ones.

East Africa must also aim to boost the capacity and develop vibrant industrial policies. A starting point should be promoting garment manufacturing processes which use simple technology, requires little capital to start production and can offer employment to a given number of people.

To attract more investors, reduction of costs faced by manufacturers to ensure that they can produce at a profit needs to be prioritised. Others will include improving infrastructure like for the case of Kigali Special Economic Zone and ensuring cheap and reliable supply of energy. If these are done, then it means the price factor which may make the poor not afford our homemade garments will not be lost.

Made-in-Rwanda campaign is another innovative approach for the whole region. By standing to boost domestic production and stimulate local consumption habits, it leads to growth of our local industries. The region should also design a concept of a similar nature which will increase local market for our own products, not only in textile but also in other ailing sectors.

Ultimately, if all relevant initiatives are put in place, East Africans can produce clothes, footwear and many other finished products for export. Successful nations, such as China and South Korea, did not emerge from poverty by becoming dependent on exports from the West. Instead they protected domestic markets.

The weakness of the textile industry in east Africa has not enabled the region to benefit from potential external export opportunities like AGOA which guarantees duty free access to US market textile products from sub-Saharan Africa, among other potential international markets for African finished products.

In conclusion, improving our domestic garment manufacturing will ultimately boost the regional economy by providing more jobs than the second-hand sector while retaining money that currently goes to other countries to import the same.

It is a step in the right direction but requires thorough preparation to ensure its achievement is sustainable, and not just a passing cloud.

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