It’s about our dignity’: vintage clothing ban in Rwanda sparks US trade dispute
A busy street in Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer
In a dim corner of Biryogo market in Kigali, Rutayisire Ibrahim watches as two traders slap playing cards on to a wooden stool outside his tiny shop, which is crowded with neatly folded stacks of trousers and bunches of colourful ties. The garments are hand-me-downs from men living thousands of miles away.
In the absence of customers, the game has attracted an audience of stallholders.
“You see all of these guys,” Ibrahim says, nodding to the crowd. “They have nothing else to do. The customers have stopped coming.”
Several of the stalls in the market have been permanently padlocked, he says, and one section of Biryogo lies abandoned. It’s been nearly 24 hours since Ibrahim’s last sale – a pair of trousers for the equivalent of $2 (£1.50).
Last year, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi announced their intention to phase out imports of secondhand clothing and shoes from western countries by 2019.
But the decision in Rwanda has divided people and left the tiny landlocked country in a trade dispute with the US.
Across Africa, daily shipments of recycled clothing, sent largely from the US, UK and Canada, fuel a multimillion-dollar informal industry that employs thousands of local retailers who turn a profit reselling the items.
Sub-Saharan Africa imports the largest share of used clothing donations. And last year the East African Community (EAC) imported secondhand clothing worth $151m (£115m), according to UN data.
Rwanda has made huge economic progress in the past 25 years. But officials argue that the ubiquity of recycled apparel – known as chagua – has stifled the growth of its nascent textile industry and has dented national pride.
“The objective is to see many more companies produce clothes here in Rwanda,” says Telesphore Mugwiza, an official at Rwanda’s ministry of trade and industry.
“It is also about protecting our people in terms of hygiene. If Rwanda produces its own clothes, our people won’t have to wear T-shirts or jeans used by someone else. People need to shift to [this] kind of mindset.”
Rwanda has moved aggressively to eliminate secondhand clothing, raising the import tariffs on used garments to more than 20 times the previous rate in an attempt to choke the supply and encourage traders to sell local products.
“People will shift from secondhand to new clothes. What will change is just the type of product but not the business,” says Mugwiza.
But traders whose livelihood depends on the castoffs say the higher taxes have already devastated their businesses and new garments are unaffordable.
“To do business in new clothes is very expensive – too expensive for me,” says Ibrahim, whose income provides for a family of six. “But I don’t make enough money selling used clothes any more. It’s complicated now. I don’t know what I will do.”
‘If this ban stays it could set a precedent’
The US has also expressed its dismay.
Earlier this year, the Office of the US Trade Representative threatened to withdraw Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda’s membership of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), a programme designed to promote economic and political development in sub-Saharan Africa.
Under the agreement, countries that meet certain human rights and labour standards are offered duty-free access to US markets on thousands of exports including oil, produce and apparel.
Eliminating barriers to US trade and investment is one of the conditions for membership to Agoa. The White House, which under Trump has championed an American First trade policy, has the authority to repeal a country’s eligibility status if the relationship is no longer favourable to the US.
Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, was bullish in his response to the threat. “As far as I am concerned, making the choice is simple,” he told reporters in June. “We might suffer consequences. Even when confronted with difficult choices there is always a way.”
Officials in the region who support the secondhand clothing ban have accused the US of wielding the trade deal as a cudgel.
“Politically, the [East African Community] and the United States have had a long and fruitful trading relationship. Compared with this, secondhand clothing imports is a very insignificant issue,” says Daniel Owoko, the chief of staff to the secretary general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
“It is wrong to jeopardise good relations between EAC and the US over it.
“Morally, EAC consumers shouldn’t be punished for their changing tastes and growing middle class.”
But the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (Smart), a US-based trade organization that represents dozens of used clothing exporters, said the ban “imposed significant hardship” on the US used clothing industry in violation of Agoa eligibility rules.
The association lobbied for the US to review the countries’ eligibility, arguing that the ban imperils 40,000 US jobs.
“We are very concerned if this ban stays that could set a precedent for some of these other countries to say, ‘OK, they’ve banned secondhand clothes – maybe we should ban [them] too,'” says Jackie King, the executive director of Smart.
“It’s not bullying,” she adds. “It’s just getting them to abide by the terms of the agreement.”
Under pressure from the US, Kenya dropped its support for the ban. The country has a high dependency on Agoa – in 2015 east Africa’s biggest economy exported clothing worth $380m (£280m), the vast majority of which went to the US.
A decision on whether the countries will be removed from the trade agreement is expected in the coming weeks.
Struggling to compete
Until the 1980s, east Africa’s garment industries prospered, producing clothing and shoes for both domestic and foreign markets. But trade liberalisation policies, spearheaded by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, opened African economies to cheap new imports, especially from Asian countries. Local factories struggled to compete, and over time, many closed.
The used clothes ban is the latest attempt to revive a flagging industry. But experts and industry leaders say the policy alone is not enough to grow domestic business and increase local demand.
“The biggest problem is that we don’t have the buying capacity,” says Ritesh Patel, the finance manager of Utexrwa, Rwanda’s only major textile manufacturing company. “People don’t have enough money to purchase the new things.”
Without also controlling the influx of new clothing from countries like China, Patel says, there is little incentive to buy local textiles or apparel. And while foreign garments are still expensive, they are markedly less so than “Made in Rwanda” clothes.
On a weekday afternoon, fashion designer Sonia Mugabo tidies her bright atelier, in a middle-class neighbourhood of Kigali. The showroom is curated from the latest collection of her eponymous Rwandan label, a mix of feminine shapes and bold patterns.
At 27, Mugabo is a pioneer of Rwanda’s fashion industry and among the young Rwandans eager to create a new, more optimistic narrative for their country.
“It’s not just about wearing nice clothes and fashion,” says Mugabo, who supports the ban on secondhand clothing. “It’s about our dignity. We should be proud to say, ‘Look, I’m not wearing anything from abroad.'”
Mugabo believes ridding the markets of used garments will help change people’s mindset that locally made garments are of poorer quality than new and used foreign imports.
The government has launched a national “Made in Rwanda” campaign to mobilise support for local entrepreneurs, artists and craftsmen as well as encourage companies to improve production quality and standards. TV and radio advertisements urge Rwandans to shop locally and last year Kigali hosted an inaugural Made in Rwanda expo.
Mugabo is encouraged by the campaign but concedes that Rwandan demand is not high enough to sustain her business. To produce her line, she travels to Dubai and India in search of materials and relies on a handful of skilled tailors to make the clothing. Her designs are expensive to create, and Mugabo admits, unaffordable for many Rwandans.
“I’d love to satisfy the Rwandan market but I’d only satisfy 2% because my costs are quite high,” she said. “Right now I need to find places where people can afford my clothes.”
Since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has grown its economy with remarkable speed, transforming the densely populated nation with few natural resources into a frontier for business. The country has initiated a series of reforms to attract foreign investors, offering a friendly business environment and significant tax incentives. Officials boast that it takes just 24 hours to start a company in Rwanda.
This approach helped lure Chinese manufacturer C&H Garments, which has opened a sprawling, blue glass-panelled factory in the outskirts of Kigali.