The politics of second-hand clothes: A debate over ‘dignity’

Rwandan traders selling used clothes suffer as the government taxes used imports, but local designers welcome the move.

At least 20 percent of second-hand clothes in Rwanda come from the US [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]
At least 20 percent of second-hand clothes in Rwanda come from the US [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

Kigali, Rwanda – Bayingana Mark is trying on a crisp white shirt at the Biryogo market in Kigali’s Nyariambo district, known for its small-scale traders selling second-hand clothes from all over the world. 

Even when worn over his polo, the button-up shirt is too big, but Mark seems determined to it. He takes it off and tucks it under his arm. Around him, the market is overflowing with clothes. 

Hundreds of shirts and dresses hang from rails, trousers are folded on wooden tables, while hundreds and thousands of other items of clothing are jumbled on cotton sheets on the ground. 

But there are few customers.

Mark, a trader and head of Biryogo market, tells Al Jazeera that the lull is due to a government-imposed tax on imported second-hand clothes last year.

“Since the second-hand clothes tax was implemented in Rwanda, business dried up and most people have lost their jobs here,” 39-year-old Mark says.

“Look at this shirt, yes, it’s second-hand, but its quality,” he says, unfolding his purchase.

Bayingana Mark, a trader in Kigali, says that many have lost their livelihoods since the taxes on used clothes were implemented [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

Second-hand clothing is a multimillion-dollar industry in East Africa. 

While the clothing comes from across the globe, including Europe and China, most originates from the United States.

According to USAID, the industry employs more than 355,000 people in East Africa, supporting the livelihoods of 1.4 million people.

But it is also seen as one of the primary reasons local textile industries collapsed in the 1980s and 1990s.

In a bid to resuscitate local manufacturing, East African governments, including those of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda, agreed in March 2016 to increase tariffs on imported used clothes with the intention of phasing them out by 2019. 

In the 2016/2017 financial year, Rwanda raised the tax on imported used clothes from $0.20 to $2.50 per kilo and to $4 in the next financial year.

This is a political choice which holds the citizen's dignity at its centre. We ultimately make decisions for ourselves and the Rwandan people.

Ladislas Ngendahimana, political analyst in Kigal

Reactions have been mixed. 

Those supportive of the Rwandan government’s bullish ambition to develop local manufacturing see the decision as a boon for their trade.

Traders like Mark and a seller from Murambi in southern Rwanda – who preferred to remain anonymous – say the taxes have made used products unaffordable for most Rwandans.

Around the Biryogo market, an entire network of traders has been affected by the tax. 

Tailors who altered used clothes and wholesalers and distributors who transported goods to smaller towns and villages across the country are now without work. 

According to those who remain, many left to the DRC for Uganda to continue their businesses.

One female tailor who works outside the main Biryogo market, and also asked not to be named, said her clientele had fallen by 60 percent. “We are battling,” she told Al Jazeera.

A question of ‘dignity’

The Rwandan government says the decision to tax used clothes was not just about money. It was also about reclaiming dignity.  

“This is a political choice which holds the citizen’s dignity at its centre,” Ladislas Ngendahimana, a political analyst based in Kigali, says of a “Made in Rwanda” campaign.

“We ultimately make decisions for ourselves and the Rwandan people,” he added.

Clare Akamanzi, CEO of Rwanda Development Board (RDB), says that it is the government’s “belief that our citizens deserve better than becoming the recipients of discarded clothes from the western world. This is about the dignity of our people”. 

Rwanda is attempting to shed the “dependency” and “third world” labels and wants to become a middle-income country by 2020.

But 63 percent of the population still earn less than $1.25 a day.

Some people don't have a choice between dignity and necessity. They are too poor to be able to care much about that.

Bayingana Mark, trader and second-hand clothes market manager

Rwanda’s insistence on maintaining the import tax and banning used clothing by 2019 has also ruffled feathers outside the country. 

At least 20 percent of all used clothes in Rwanda are imported from the US.

The US has repeatedly warned that should the East African community go ahead with implementing import taxes and eventually banning used clothes, they would lose the benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which allows African countries to export certain items to the US without paying duties.

Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya in 2017 separately retreated from the pact to increase import taxes and ban used clothing. But Rwanda refused to join them.

The Rwandan government has reduced tariffs on imported textiles but tailors say it will take some time before cost of production is reduced [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

In July, the Trump administration partially suspended Rwanda from the AGOA, effectively taking away the country’s right to export clothing tax-free to the US. 

In so doing, Rwanda joined a legion of others, including Canada, the European Union and China, in facing off with Trump’s increasingly belligerent trade policies. 

Ahead of the suspension, President Paul Kagame told local media: “Rwanda and other countries in the region that are part of AGOA have to do other things, we have to grow and establish our industries.”

Opportunity for tailors

Mukanyarwi Serafina cuts through a section of Kitenge cloth in her small tailor shop in the town of Nyamagambe in southern Rwanda.

Serafina told Al Jazeera that she understood why traders selling second-hand clothes would be aggrieved by the taxes.

“But they will change what they do. I know some who are now collaborating with tailors to sell new clothes,” Serafina said. 

The 47-year-old tailor said that the move to emphasise new clothes has “opened our eyes and energised our creativity”.

Mukanyarwi Serafina, a tailor in southern Rwanda, says demand for clothing will increase and is looking forward to expanding her skills [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

According to Akamanzi from RDB, the decision to tax used clothing has already helped develop the local textile and shoe industries. Production has increased from $59.5million in 2015 to $70.6 million in 2017.

“It had a policy objective which we see already producing positive results.”

Similarly, tailors around Kigali city are buoyed by the opportunity.

Ngoye Emmanuel, 50, sits in an upper-floor shop in the market. He says it was only a matter of time before everyone got used to the change.

“I am not saying it is not going to be difficult. But I am confident that is an exciting time,” Emmanuel, who tailors clothes for both men and women, tells Al Jazeera. 

Teddy Kaberuka, a political analyst in Kigali, described the move as “a strategic decision” aimed at boosting and creating sustainable economic development. 

“In order to break the chain of economic dependency, each country needs to have a long-term policy which aims at creating wealth for the country,” Kaberuka told Al Jazeera.

Ngoye Emmanuel, a tailor in Kigali, is pleased the government is supporting local creatives [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera] [Al Jazeera]

Back in the Nyarugenge market, Sindambije Jacque perches on a stool surrounded by colourful dresses and fabric and fiddles with his old teal-coloured sewing machine.

“It is a big opportunity for tailors,” the 38-year-old says. “But no one seems to know how to tackle it.

“I think they should have prepared and nurtured tailors. I don’t think there is any benefit for Rwandans at all.”

While Jacque understands the demand for self-respect, he says the economy does not run on “dignity”. 

“My clientele is not going to change. The costs and the prices will remain the same. These are clothes for the elites. Go ask the villagers, what they going through.” 

Can production meet the needs of Rwandans?

The C&H factory in Kigali’s Special Economic Zone is bustling with activity. Hundreds of workers cut fabric, check labels, operate sewing machines, and carefully monitor the “Made in Rwanda” products for quality.

Originally starting out as an export-oriented manufacturing plant, mostly for clients in the US and Europe, this Chinese-owned factory has moved into producing garments for the local market. Since the import tax on used clothing was implemented, orders from the US have decreased.  

But custom inside Rwanda has increased. C&H has opened a second plant to deal with the rising demand. 

“At the moment, we export 80 percent (to the US and Europe) and 20 percent is for the local market. We hope to act like a catalyst for the local manufacturing sector,” Malou Jontilano, marketing director of C&H, tells Al Jazeera.

The Chinese-owned C&H factory has moved into producing garments for the local market [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

The questions surrounding Rwanda’s capacity to mass produce affordable clothing for its population is a legitimate one. 

Designers and tailors say that given that textiles are still imported from China, Turkey or elsewhere across the continent like Senegal, costs are likely to remain high. 

Then there are the not small matters of a skilled labour force, capital investment, dependable electricity supply and technology. 

In countries like South Africa, bans on used clothing have not been able to save the textile and garment industry from being washed away by cheap Chinese imports. 

Uwamahoro Delphine, who launched her fashion label DelphineZ in 2016, says she welcomes the opportunity the tax affords to businesspeople like her, but recognised the difficulties traders would have to endure.

“I understand that they need to feed their families. It is expensive to create clothes … but when it comes to pride, wearing second-hand clothes is not something anyone wants to do,” she says.

C&H factory has been exporting ‘Made in Rwanda’ clothing and now hopes to produce more for the local market [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera] [Al Jazeera]

Delphine’s designs are a mix of traditional and modern clothing for men and women. Her boutique in Nyamirambo is full of shirts, jumpsuits and dresses all stitched in Kitenge cloth. She knows that her clothing isn’t for working class Rwandans and says she can only reduce costs if she can access a larger market.

According to Akamanzi, the government is not unaware of the challenges and is trying to bring down the cost of production. 

She says that government has removed import duties for fabric brought in by clothing manufacturers.

“Furthermore, the government has established funds to support both production and market access; for example, the Export Growth Fund, the Industrial Adjustment Facility and the Business Development Fund,” Akamanzi said. 

Efforts were also being made to partner with local businesses to train workers.

Kaberuka, the political analyst, says that although Rwanda has created a conducive environment, it will take time to pay dividends. 

“For now, we are far from seeing mass production meeting the needs of the population, but since launching the Made in Rwanda campaign, there is a significant increase of local production year by year; more jobs are created for the citizen and the trend will continue,” Kaberuka says.

But it is going to be an uphill task.

Mark, the trader, is clear in that he is not against the Made in Rwanda campaign or the prioritisation of Rwandan goods over used clothes from abroad. For him, it is a matter of choice.

“I believe there should be proper competition between Made in Rwanda and second-hand clothes. Some clothing can be found for less than a dollar which you can’t find with locally made clothes.

“Some people don’t have a choice between dignity and necessity. They are too poor to be able to care much about that. “

Source : Al Jazeera

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