In March this year, the East African Community (EAC) proposed a ban on all imported used clothing by 2019 in an attempt to revitalize local apparel industry and bolster local economies. The argument that protectionism will lead to East African industrialization has been used since at least 2004, conveniently ignoring the fact that textile factories are in trouble in the region because of corruption, insecure property rights and overall bad governance.
The anti-second hand clothing (SHC) protectionist argument has also been bolstered by the loaded language used to describe the SHC industry in Africa. Anti-trade activists speak of the “sale of Western cast-offs” and claim that all used clothing that gets to Africa is “low-grade stuff no one else wants.” This language associates the industry with shame, arguing that it perpetuates the legacy of colonialism. Yet, this language fails to acknowledge how the industry bolsters entrepreneurship. Georgetown University Professor Pietra Rivoli describes how the mitumba (used clothing) foster entrepreneurship in Tanzania:
“A drive through the large mitumba markets in Dar Es Salaam shows a level of economic activity unmatched anywhere else in the city and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who are very clearly working. The traders, importers, sorters, and launderers who people the mitumba trade show an astonishing variety of skills, and the tailors, in particular, are a marvel of the employment created by mitumba. Not only do the tailors adapt Americans’ clothing to African figures, they create blouses and shirts to match “new” suits, and they turn curtains into dresses, socks into bathmats, and skirts into tablecloths and tablecloths into skirts.”
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