East African Countries Propose Ban on Import of Used Clothing from Western Nations

REUTERS PHOTOGRAPHER / REUTERS Kenyans pick through secondhand clothes at the vast Gikomba street market.

Kenyans pick through secondhand clothes at the vast Gikomba street market.

Clearing your closet of last season’s gently worn clothes and donating them to an aid group probably makes you feel pretty good. After all, you may be helping someone in need and breathing life into items that might otherwise decompose in a landfill.

But a number of countries in East Africa are fed up with the onslaught of secondhand items they receive from Western nonprofits and wholesalers, and want to ban such imports altogether.

In 2014, a handful of East African countries imported more than $300 million worth of secondhand clothing from the United States and other wealthy countries. The used items have created a robust market in East Africa and thereby a decent amount of jobs. But experts say the vast amount of these imports have devastated local clothing industries and led the region to rely far too heavily on the West.

In March, the East African Community, which is made up of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda, proposed banning all imported used clothing and shoes by 2019. The goal is to stop relying on imports from rich nations, boost local manufacturing and create new jobs.

However, the law is unlikely to pass. There is resistance from the U.S., which unloads hordes of secondhand clothes all over the world, and from sellers in East Africa whose livelihood depends on these shipments, as well as from experts who think an outright ban won’t be enough for these countries to restore production at home.

Proponents of the ban say it has the potential to help empower East African economies.

“[T]he region … is ready to transition itself into an industrial bloc through a higher level of production quality and manufacturing practices,” Betty Maina, Kenya’s principal secretary in the Ministry of EAC, told newspaper The East African.

There is also hope that a ban will instill a new sense of pride in the region’s people, since “no one goes around proudly showing off” someone else’s discards, noted Joseph Rwagatare, a columnist for The New Times, a Rwanda-based news outlet.

Once these discarded clothes hit East African shores, they sell for extremely low prices: For example, a pair of used jeans can be as little as $1.50 in the Gikomba Market, East Africa’s biggest secondhand clothing market, located in Nairobi, Kenya.

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