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Western charity undermines African textiles

A flood of second-hand clothing from the West is undermining textiles produced in Africa. The Bambara people of central Mali practise the craft of Bogolanfini – printing textiles with mud. This girl carries strips of cotton woven by village craftspeople.

Christien Jaspars / Panos/ http://www.panos.co.uk

Ugandan manufacturers want their Government to put controls on the importation of all second-hand clothing (commonly known as mivumba). They argue that the imported clothing – much of it donated to leading charities in the US and Europe before finding its way to Africa – is hampering the growth of the local textile industry. Joyce Rwakasisi, the Textile Development Agency co-ordinator, says the sector cannot develop when mivumba take up 85 per cent of the market.

But while the Uganda National Bureau of Standards is to ban the importation of second-hand nightwear, stockings, bras and undergarments – primarily on health grounds – it will allow the continued importation of other second-hand clothes.

Uganda’s textile sector used to employ 500,000 people and earn $100 million in annual exports, but has virtually been brought to its knees by the imports. The country isn’t alone. Neil Kearney, General Secretary of the International Textile Garment and Leather Workers Federation points out that in Zimbabwe some 20,000 textile and clothing jobs have disappeared directly or indirectly due to imported used clothing from the West. South Africa has lost 20,000 and Senegal 7,000 jobs, while Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana have been hard hit too. ‘In fact, hardly a nation in Africa has escaped the attention of the importers. In some cases, European charities specializing in the second-hand clothing trade, export and retail the goods themselves,’ Kearney said.

But in finding a solution to this problem, not all support a ban on mivumba imports. Member of Parliament Jacob Oulanyah says: ‘For Government to phase out second-hand clothes, it must have a deliberate policy for a substitute, which is not there at the moment.’ The New Vision, a state-run daily, comments that new bras are expensive and banning imports of used bras may condemn some women not to wear them at all. Yet others say that it is culturally demeaning for Ugandans to wear second-hand undergarments. Authorities say all second-hand clothes will be screened at entry points to make sure they are disease-free. ‘This is not to stop the used textile imports but to have clear guidelines in order to protect Ugandans. There are some products like undergarments and socks that should not be allowed for health reasons. Some diseases like candida can be contracted through such undergarments,’ says Inspection Officer Stella Apolot.

The Uganda National Bureau of Standards reportedly set health standards earlier this year in close consultation with the American Embassy (the US is the biggest exporter of second-hand clothes to Uganda). ‘This standard will also promote transparency in the market,’ says Apolot. ‘Traders have been complaining about being cheated when they open bales and find clothes that cannot be sold.’

New Internationalist issue 373 magazine cover This article is from the November 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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