Trump’s “trade war” includes punishing Africans for refusing second-hand American clothes

American hand-me-downs.
American hand-me-downs.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
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Africa’s textile industry may be caught in the crosshairs of US president Donald Trump’s global trade war.

In reaction to Rwanda raising tariffs on used clothing and footwear from the US, the Trump administration says it will suspend duty-free privileges on eligible Rwandan clothing—a benefit of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)— within 60 days. US Trade Representative’s office says a suspension rather than a termination of the benefits will “allow for continued engagement with the aim of restoring market access.”

Other East African countries, including Tanzania and Uganda, have been spared a similar fate as, according to the trade office, both countries have “committed not to phase in a ban” for second-hand products. Last year, Kenya also backtracked on the 2016 decision from the East Africa community nations to ban used clothing by 2019.

The move is an extension of Trump’s “America First” stance seen in the ongoing tariff battle between the US and China. But the Trump administration is being lobbied by the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, which says a ban will lead to the loss of 40,000 US jobs and negatively impact the environment with pounds of textile waste ending up in landfills.

For its part, Rwanda says the withdrawal of its AGOA benefits are “at the discretion of the United States” and has given no indication of reversing the tariff hike on used clothes from the US. The looming threat of a withdrawal of AGOA benefits is fueling pending conversations about the second-hand clothing trade.

Locally, Rwanda’s policy choice is winning some support even among businesses that could be affected if it becomes tougher to export to the US.

Linda Mukangonga, the founder of Haute Baso, a Rwandan fashion house which exports some of its handmade apparel and accessories, backs the decision. While exports to the US accounts for just 2% of Haute Baso’s annual revenue, Mukangonga says closing the door on second-hand clothes from the US will push business owners to focus more on local markets. “I think it really forces us as a country to produce our own and wear our own,” she said from Kigali. “It’s a great business opportunity.”

While Paul Kagame’s government is positioning the issue as a matter of principle and “dignity,” the decision also embodies an element of political savvy and pragmatism. Compared with a larger, more diversified economy like Kenya, Rwanda’s benefits from AGOA are relatively small exporting $43.7 million worth of goods under AGOA to the US last year in contrast to Kenya’s almost $600 million. The Chinese investment in the country’s industries could also boost the East African nation’s self-reliance over the coming years, employing more people and producing clothes for the region and beyond.

This is also certain to enhance Kagame’s profile as an African leader standing up for Rwanda and the continent in face of what will be seen as an attempted intimidatory move by the American government, especially with Trump as the face of US policy.

Sleeping giants

Before decades of bad policy, political instability, inadequate infrastructure, inaction in the face of global competition and the dependency on commodities undermined local factories, several African countries were home to vibrant textile sectors that employed millions of people. But as local textile industries collapsed, second-hand clothing imports have plugged some of the gaps that were created. Africa’s status as a destination for inferior or sub-standard items extends beyond clothing as damaged electronic gadgets, toxic waste, bad fuelsfake foodstuff and second-hand cars have also found their way to the continent.

The demise of the textile industry in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a prominent example. Its popular kanga prints, a cherished cultural heritage, formed the bedrock of a thriving textile industry which served a local market. But between 1990 and 1996, textile production dropped by 83% (link in French) mainly due to political chaos and a brewing civil war. By the turn of the millennium, a lack of investment in the sector and the destruction of local cotton farms saw the industry wither.

There’s a revitalization of local industries in parts of the continent though, as nations like Ethiopia look to become important centers for apparel sourcing. In Senegal, over $425 million has been invested to resurrect the country’s largest textile factory which shuttered operations over 15 years ago. The debate around second-hand clothing also underscores the rise of manufacturing on the continent (Africa’s annual apparel exports are estimated at $2.5 billion) and the continent’s ambition to become the world’s next factory. Crucially, there are also active discussions over the ecological and ethical repercussions of taking in piles of used clothing, including underwear.

Second-hand items, first-hand impact

In looking to protect local industries which remain unable to fully cater to local demand, African nations must take the economic impact of the second-hand clothes market into consideration. In sprawling markets like Kampala’s Owino, Nairobi’s Gikomba, Lagos’ Katangowa and Dar es Salaam’s Karume, merchants make a living from selling bales of used clothing and are dependent on it for income. There’s also the market which they serve: mainly low-income families and part of the middle class for whom new clothing remains an out-of-reach expense.

An official ban on second-hand clothing could also encourage smuggling thus evading taxation and tariffs—a source of government revenue—and creating unfair competition. It would also incur job losses as, according to the USAid’s East Africa trade and investment hub, a blanket injunction on second-hand garment trade in East Africa could lead to the potential loss of 219,000 out of 335,000 jobs, besides jeopardizing the $230 million income that further supports an estimated 1.4 million people.

Beyond shutting out second-hand imports, local industries will still likely struggle against cheap imports from Asia, and specifically China. Political issues aside, the decline of DR Congo’s once-booming textile industry has been attributed to the influx of cheaper Chinese imitations. Even Rwanda, whose people spend $100 million a year importing clothes, has turned to China to establish its textile industry and expand the country’s almost non-existent manufacturing sector.

Threading through

Observers say “smart protectionism” is the way to go, with governments imposing an incremental ban that could soften the shock effect to both traders and consumers, and help boost local manufacturing in the long run. Policymakers need to focus on improving infrastructure, upgrading electricity supply and cutting tariffs for local factories to gain a competitive edge.

Until then, the used clothing industry “can exist alongside a thriving fashion industry,” says Sunny Dolat, the stylist and designer behind the book Not African Enough about Kenyan fashion. Over the last few years, Dolat says recycled clothing has served to revitalize Kenya’s fashion sector. These include designers like Kepha Maina deconstructing hand-me-downs to create new pieces or the re-purposing of fabrics like with the bag company Suave. A sudden complete ban, Dolat says, could result in “a crisis.”

As other countries buckle under pressure, Rwanda for now seems determined to lead the way. “It’s a hard decision to change,” Mukangonga tells Quartz. “But if there’s one country that can do it, then it’s definitely Rwanda.”