Rwanda is the first African casualty of Trump’s trade wars

The US is pushing against higher tariffs on its used clothes exports.
The US is pushing against higher tariffs on its used clothes exports.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
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Donald Trump’s trade war has finally landed in Africa.

The US president has made good on threats to remove Rwanda’s privilege to export duty-free clothing to the United States. The move is a consequence of the east African nation’s decision to raise tariffs on used clothing and footwear imports from the US.

The suspension will not apply to Rwanda’s other duty-free benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) but will affect 3% of its total exports to the United States, according to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. Rwanda exported $43.7 million worth of goods under AGOA last year. In other words this new rule would only have affected $1.3 million worth of goods if it’d been applied last year.

The small east African country is looking to become a more significant exporter of clothes by welcoming Chinese manufacturers to open factories locally.

Used clothing imports are a hot button subject in several African countries as governments juggle between rhetoric about protecting fledgling local industries and rejecting second-hand clothes, including underwear, for their citizens. However, it’s not a straightforward issue as used clothing imports and trade create thousands of jobs, generate tax revenue and cater to the needs of low-income families for whom locally produced clothing is can sometimes be beyond reach.

For its part, the Trump administration is pushing back against such moves in line with the president’s “America First” trade policy, especially as it is lobbied by the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association which claims a ban cost around 40,000 American jobs.  So far, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have all walked back on similar proposals to increase duties on used clothing and shoes from the United States.

Rwanda has shown no sign of backtracking. Instead, in response to the duty-free suspension, the country’s development board says it will help affected businesses “transition to new markets.”