Are Cheap Recycled Clothes From Western Countries Hurting African Manufacturing?

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Cheap secondhand clothes imported wholesale from the West are highly popular in Rwanda and other African countries, but this thriving market — known locally as “chaguwa” — is blamed for hurting the country’s textile industry, according to an AFP report in TVCNews.

You wouldn’t know it at Chinese-owned C&H Garments, one of the busiest factories in Rwanda’s economic zone, NewTimes reported. Business is booming at C&H.

Founded by Candy Ma and Helen Hai, the factory’s garments are mainly exported to countries such as Belgium. Products started hitting the U.S. market in April.

Factories like these are expected to play a huge role in supplying the local market as the government of Rwanda strengthens domestic production through controlling secondhand clothes imports, New Times reported.

“People think that old clothes (secondhand) are cheap,” said Saidi Hitimana, human resources manager at the C&H factory. “They are not. We shall have cheaper ones.”

Effective July 1, Rwanda raised taxes up to almost 2000 percent on imports of secondhand clothes and shoes. The imports come mainly from Europe and North America, and the move will help local manufacturers, Rwandan authorities said.

Charities like Goodwill in the U.S. sell or give away the used clothes donated to them by U.S. citizens. A lot of the clothes get sold, packed in bales and sent overseas in container ships. The U.S. exports over 1 billion pounds of used clothing each year and a lot of it winds up in used clothing markets in sub-Saharan Africa, NPR reported.

In February, five heads of state in the East African Community — Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda — agreed to ban imports of secondhand clothes by 2019, saying they hurt the textile manufacturing industries of developing countries.

Ending the secondhand clothing trade is not just about the textile industry, but the economy of East Africa, said Rwandan Economy Minister Claver Gatete.

The secondhand clothing trade is neither a productive nor a dignified industry, Galete said. “It’s just not even acceptable according to our dignity. We would prefer new clothes coming from outside that can also compete with what is produced here.”

The new Rwandan tax hike on used clothes will be good for business in a sector hit hard by cheap competition, said Patel Ritesh, director of Utexrwa, a manufacturer of textiles finished garments in Rwanda, AFP reported, according to The Guardian.

But ordinary Rwandans dislike the measure, fearing the local industry will be unable to meet demand, and the prices of new imported clothing will rise. The government’s solution is not popular, TVCNews reported.

Before the new tariffs went into effect, import duty for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of shoes and clothing was $0.20. Effective July 1, the new tariffs increased to $2.50 for clothes and $5 for shoes — almost a 2000 percent increase — according to Drocelle Mukashyaka, a manager in the Rwandan Receipts Agency.

The secondhand clothing imports have “completely killed the textile industry” in developing countries, said Rwandan Trade Minister Francois Kanimba.

On a tour of the Chinese-owned C&H Garments factory in Rwanda, manager Hitimana pointed to clothes on a rack designed for the Rwandan market. “See for yourself,” he said. “Shirts like this cost 900 Rwandan francs ($1.20) and the school uniform could be as cheap as 800 Rwandan francs ($1.07). Even in the imported secondhand (market) you will find most clothes going for as high as 3000 Rwandan francs ($4). Which one is cheaper then?”