When I first arrived at the little town of Iringa, I often heard long-time expats speak glowingly of the “cheap clothing market” just outside the main part of the town.
“Whenever we have a Christmas or Halloween or Fourth of July party, there is this place where we can find stalls selling perfect costumes for dressing up. They somehow always have the right things for every occasion.”
I, of course, initially remained quite skeptical of what they are describing. In a place where the vast majority of people can barely scrap together enough cash to not go hungry, how can they possibly spending limited funds on non-essential fashion items?
I had to check the place out.
Next to the usual arrays of vegetable stalls in the town’s main market area, sections are devoted to colorful clothes. Some are hanging while some are in big piles on spread-out sheets on the ground. The clothes are almost exclusively foreign in nature, easily identified with their Hangul lettering, Chinese characters, European logos, and even American flags.
Indeed, as the enthused expats have chosen to notice, many of the secondhand clothes from all over the world are, to the people who tossed them away, non-essential in nature. The “special” T-shirts for the Halloween party, for instance, will certainly be trashed during the party and will not be suitable for daily wear.
Yet despite the dubious origins of these clothing, most show little sign of wear-and-tear, no doubt due to careful selection, cleaning, and ironing. At the equivalent of couple of US dollars per shirt, they make for an affordable supply for locals.
The phenomenon is not particularly unique to Iringa. Across towns and villages in Tanzania and other African countries, such secondhand clothing sellers are often quite noticeably ubiquitous in any market.
The popularity of such second-hand clothing among locals is evident by just looking at what people wear on the streets. From the well-known jerseys of Arsenal and Manchester United, to the completely unknown uniforms of random high schools and supermarkets in faraway lands, the locals seem not at all deterred by the strange exotic nature of the foreign garments. If anything, they are rather proud of their ability to pay such a little price for such sturdy clothing.
To go a step further, it actually seems like many people here have a higher preference for such foreign secondhand clothing, not primarily due to low cost, but high quality. The mentality goes, “If these things have been used by somebody else for a long time, endured the long journey all the way to Africa, and yet appears to be so new, they must still be usable for a long time."
With this mindset, spending more money on brand-new clothes with no guarantee of long-term use simply makes no sense. The fact that someone else used it becomes equated with a sense of warranty.
So far, the resulting high demand for secondhand clothing seems to be satisfactorily met by supply. Donating used clothing, to a certain extent, is a culture in many parts of more developed world. From the Salvation Army in the US to the street-corner donation boxes in Taiwan, there are plenty of opportunities for secondhand clothing to be obtained, with minimal cost. Given how many pieces of clothes can fit into a transcontinental container ship or a truck, the logistic cost per piece of clothing can be very effectively suppressed to not burden the final price consumers face.
Taking a step back, the fact that people in the developed world have so much extra clothing to donate can be attributed to the fact that producing and purchasing a new piece of clothing has become so inexpensive. If an individual can conveniently find new substitutes in bewildering varieties, why bother hanging on to old clothing? The cost of repairing worn clothing becomes comparatively expensive, and the opportunity cost of keeping the uninteresting stuff in one’s closet becomes comparative massive.
The low-cost of making and selling new articles of clothing speaks volumes about the economy of scale made available with modern mass manufacturing. Even in Africa, where new pieces of clothing may still be out of reach for most from a cost perspective, without low-cost availability of the same in developed markets, there cannot possibly be this much secondhand clothing shipped out here to rural Africa.
Yet, one particular party suffers as these ultra-cheap pieces of secondhand clothing flood the open-air markets of rural Africa from across the world at the benefit of the local consumers. That is the African textiles industry. History speaks of the once flourishing factories in northern Nigeria or Ghana and newly established ones in Ethiopia, but there is heavy doubt that African-produced clothing can find a local mass market. For a local customer base that is used to high quality foreign secondhand products, will they be willing to devote little purchasing abilities to untested African ones?
To make matters worse, it may be difficult for African-produced clothing to compete in price with foreign imports. There is no denying the dismal state of the African infrastructure. Nowhere is this reality more damaging than the sheer cost of industrial production. Higher electricity and transport costs can easily offset any advantage Africa has in abundance of cheap unskilled labor. This is not even taking into account the systemic political corruption or socialist policy-inspired red tape that would derail the most well-structured business plan.
In any discussions about Africa’s so-called “de-industrialization," it is easy for people (especially sensationalizing politicians) to place the blame on either the dark past of colonial economic arrangements or “neo-colonizing" foreign powers like China. But making foreigners the scapegoats for lack of industrial development on this continent ignores the fundamental fact that governs the market: locals purchase the highest quality products for the cheapest price. The unfortunate truth is that African industrialists have not found the way to capture the hearts of African consumers.
Nowhere is this unfortunate truth more visible than looking at all the foreign secondhand clothing adorning the bodies of rural Africans. Certainly people will prefer clothing that has visual meanings for them, rather than some foreign alphabets they cannot even read. But their personal sense of economic nationalism must be suppressed if there are no good local alternatives. Cheap foreign imports like secondhand clothing are, without a doubt, a factor that continues to retard African industrialization, but reversing dominance of foreign imports will require a bit more efforts than simply denouncing their inevitable presence.
Edited by Olivia Yang
The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original piece was published on the author’s blog here: Foreign Secondhand Clothing And African De-industrialization