In an office in the Bugologbi industrial area in Kampala sits Gareson Opala. He is sales and marketing head of Phenix Logistics, one of the few clothes factories that still are in full activity in this East African country, which once had a lively and profitable textile sector. For him second-hand clothes from Norway and Europe constitute a huge problem.
“That Western countries send second-hand clothes for humanitarian purposes is OK, but the problem here is that second-hand has become big business. Even the upper classes buy second-hand, and we can not compete with regard to price,” he says.
In the 1960s, right after Uganda became independent, the textile industry was a very important part of the country’s economy. More than 500,000 Ugandans were employed in the cotton and textile sector, and the country earned more than US$100 million yearly on cotton export alone. When Idi Amin came into power in the seventies, the economy went downhill. The cotton production decreased drastically, and the textile industry followed suit.
In the 1980s, as a result of the World Bank and IMF’s (OK?) structural adjustment programmes, the country opened up for the import of second-hand clothes. At that time there was a great need for these clothes. The problem is that the West’s used blouses and trousers have taken over the whole market, Opala believes.
“The second-hand clothes were meant to fill a vacuum, but they have taken over completely. The local market is important for us, but we have no possibility of competing with cheap clothes from USA and Europe. That is why we are struggling to develop and make the sector viable again,” he explains.
He is backed up by Godfrey Ssali of Uganda Manufacturers’ Association (UMA): “The enormous influx of second-hand clothes from North America and Europe has killed off all creativity and investment willingness in the textile business,” he writes in an e-mail. It is much cheaper and simpler to import, supply and distribute second-hand clothes than to own or buy land, cultivate several thousand decares of cotton, pay farmers good prices, and transport cotton, Ssali observes.
Uganda’s textile industry is not the only one that is struggling. Zimbabwe and South Africa have also experienced a strong decrease and loss of thousands of industrial workplaces. Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Togo, Ivory Coast and Ghana have also been hit. To be sure, dumping of second-hand clothes is not the only reason Africa’s textile industry is struggling. An unstable power supply for the industry and expensive raw materials are also great challenges. Cheap imports from Asia constitute another big problem.
“We have to contend with competition from large amounts of cheap clothes from Asia,” Gareson Opala of Phenix Logistics in Kampala recounts. “Today we are surviving because we produce clothes for export, among other things for the American AGOA programme [an aid program that is to give African textile products access to the markets in the USA].”
Opala recognises that second-hand clothes provide work for many people in Uganda. He nevertheless hopes that the import of second-hand clothes will decrease. “We need industrial processing and innovation to speed up development in Uganda. So long as we just consume and import second-hand clothes and goods from the West, that will never happen, and we shall never escape poverty. Moreover, jobs in the informal sector are insecure,” he believes.
“The road from success to failure is short when you are working without social security arrangements. The Owino clothes market in the centre of Kampala has been struck by several large fires during the past few years – the last one as late as the summer of 2011. Thousands of sellers lost their goods in that fire,” he recounts.
Phasing out Second-Hand
Ugandan authorities have during the past few years made political moves to support the national textile industry. The National Textile Policy of 2009 suggests a 5-year phasing-out strategy with the goal of completely stopping second-hand clothes import to the country in 2015. Gareson Opala may therefore have his way.
International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF) has also pointed out that several African markets – among others, those of Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana – have started to approach a saturation point with regard to the need for more second-hand clothes and that the import during the past few years has started to level off.
There is therefore much to indicate that Norway and the West will have to find other ways to handle their textile refuse in the future. What will Norwegians do with their 20,000 tonnes of used blouses and trousers then?
Invest in Quality Rather than Quantity
To stop recycling is not an alternative, according to Ingun Grimstad Klepp, a researcher at the Norway’s National Institute for Consumer Research.
“It is good that clothes are recycled, no matter whether it is here or in Africa,” she says and adds, “The problem is that we buy and consume and exchange clothes at a pace that is environmentally untenable. We fill our closets with cheap clothes that we don’t need,” she believes.
Klepp would like to see Norwegians to a greater extent use their increased purchasing power on quality rather than quantity.
“People must get better at buying clothes that last longer. The social lifetime is more important than the technical lifetime. If you buy a garment you really need and want, you also take better care of it and it lasts longer,” she explains.