Second-Hand Clothing Big Business in Africa

WI Web Staff | 4/23/2013, 9 p.m.
The second-hand clothing industry in parts of Africa is big business.
Courtesy Photo

The second-hand clothing industry in parts of Africa is big business.

In fact, many charities receive substantial revenue from the sale of these clothes. Why buy a t-shirt for $10 when you can buy one for 32 cents?

These trends should come as no surprise to Americans because consignment shops and thrift stores are plentiful. However, the difference is that in many parts of Africa second-hand clothing is the primary means of buying clothes and is, therefore, inadvertently stifling the growth of local African economies. Sadly, charities are playing a role in killing this growth.

For example, CNN just ran a story about how Americans sending over old clothes is killing Africa's economy:

In the beginning, it appears to be a win-win situation for everyone involved; Western charities receive much-needed revenue, African buyers with weak purchasing power get low-priced, well-made clothing, and merchants find eager customers for their merchandise.

But some experts say that the mass influx of cheap hand-me-downs from the West could have a much more negative impact.

"The long-term effect is that countries such as Malawi or Mozambique or Zambia can't really establish or protect their own clothing industries if they are importing second-hand goods," says Andrew Brooks, lecturer at King's College London and co-author of a study called "Unravelling the Relationships between Used-Clothing Imports and the Decline of African Clothing Industries."

This makes sense.

At first glance, second-hand clothes are meeting immediate and legitimate needs but, in the long-run, when charities are involved at this level it does not help African economies become sustainable.

Brooks rightly observes, "Your T-shirt may be quite cheap for someone to buy, but it would be better if that person could buy a locally manufactured T-shirt, so the money stays within the economy and that helps generate jobs."

According to the CNN story, designer Sylvia Owori, who's been in business in Kampala, Uganda for more than a decade says it's hard to compete second-hand market.

"Probably 90 percent of the clothing people are buying in the whole country are second-hand clothes," says Owori. "It's a multimillion dollar industry — so, as a small fish, how are you going to start to compete with that?"

The competition question is a good one.

So to try to address this many African countries are banning second-hand clothing companies from operating in their countries to eliminate the competition.

Unfortunately, bans will not work either to help African economies develop but will only create a larger black market for these items. After all, people need affordable clothes.

(Source: Anthony Bradley, The Aquila Report)