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You find them clustered in the vivid, bustling and dust-filled markets at the centre of each town, and even dotted along residential streets. Indeed, some of items I saw hanging there could very easily have previously been worn by people in the UK, and I found myself thinking of the journey these clothes had taken to become mitumba.
The markets seemed very popular, an integral part of everyday life — but I had also read that there was growing interest on the part of African governments to ban imports of second-hand clothing and shoes.
On the face of it, mitumba is a win-win. It provides an outlet for discarded clothing from the West, enabling it to be reused rather than recycled or downcycled; and it offers access to cheap clothing for people who need it. However, there is an apparent tension here between environmental good clothing reuse and an economic harm, with cheap second-hand imports accused of hampering the growth of domestic clothing manufacturing — hence governmental interest in a ban.
Photo used by permission. Each player in this global supply chain stands to be affected in a different way by a potential ban: What would a ban mean for all of these competing interests, and is it a sensible approach?
A joint communique from the Heads of State requested the council of ministers to study the possibilities for the promotion of domestic textile industries and the prevention of imports of used clothes.
The response from the Council of Ministers came in a policy report with a number of recommendations, including a proposal for a 3-year plan to phase out of used clothing imports.
What has been implemented since has not yet amounted to a ban but there has been an increase in the Common External Tariff CET rate for worn clothing.
It has risen from USD 0. Recycling businesses have also been keen to highlight the environmental benefits of sending items for re-use.
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Restrictive clothing In reality, in the short-term clothes recycling businesses may respond to the tariffs by flexing their prices downward, although this can only go so far before it becomes economically unviable. There is little indication that this has been necessary to date: Better still, could it incentivise a move away from disposable fashionthereby reducing the need to find second-hand markets at all.
It is estimated that two-thirds of the population buy used clothing, as a means for low-income households to accessing good quality clothes at a cheap price. If the removal of the second-hand clothing supply led to an increase in prices, it would impact a large proportion of consumers.
Furthermore, the complex redistribution supply chains within the EAC, whereby used clothes trickle down from importers to local markets and consumers, sustains a great many jobs.
Estimates for Kenya alone suggest that used clothing sustainsdirect and 27, indirect jobs within a working age population of some 27 million.
Can domestic industries replace cheap second-hand imports? Photo used by permission. Given that the EAC countries rank amongst the lowest GDP per capita in the world, these are reasonable goals; developing countries have generally struggled to move beyond primary industries and establish their own much-needed manufacturing base to extract more of the value of their resources.
But will the phasing out of second-hand clothing imports be effective in delivering development?
The situation is complex, affecting numerous players across the supply chain in ways that are difficult to predict: Of course, even if the mitumba trade is greatly diminished by bans or tariffs not all of the mitumba jobs will disappear. The majority of employment is in the sale of used clothes at local markets, and similar roles are likely to exist, whether people are buying used or new clothing.
The big question is whether the EAC measures will in fact stimulate the domestic textiles industry. China has increasing influence in the region, and is a potential source of cheap, brand new clothing.
Of course, this could be addressed by expanding the restrictions to apply to new and used clothing equally — but that might carry greater risks of trade retaliation.
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