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For decades, international aid agencies have sought donations of secondhand clothing from the global North for use in the global South.
The donations, which aimed to help alleviate poverty and create jobs, have created a booming but problematic industry valued at $1.84 billion in 2021, up 28% from the previous year. More than 40% of the world’s used clothing exports come from three countries—China (17%), the US(16%), and the UK (8%).
Africa is the primary destination for this mass of used clothes, as well as a host of other potentially useless items like damaged electronics, toxic waste, fake foodstuffs (e.g. plastic rice) and more. In Ghana alone, an estimated 15 million garments arrive from Europe and North America each week, an influx known locally as “dead white man’s clothes.”
The secondhand clothing trade has become a major source of employment and tax revenues in many African countries. But it’s also seriously undermining local industry, stifling domestic development, and harming the environment.
African countries rich in the raw materials necessary to produce clothes and other goods are exporting these materials to other markets, which then produce clothes too expensive for Africans to buy. This bitter irony prompted Ugandan fashion designer Bobby Kolade to co-create a podcast in which he asks: “Is secondhand clothing the aid it promised to be? Or is it a new frontier of colonialism and control in Africa?”
Kolade is part of a group of fashion industry insiders in Africa exploring better ways of working and tapping into traditional approaches to try and make Africa’s creative economy more sustainable. His brand, Buzigahill, uses secondhand clothing as a raw material, aiming to develop local industry focused on “redesigning and redistributing the clothes to the Global North where they were originally discarded before being shipped to Uganda.”
💡 The opportunity: Local fashion brands in Africa could help solve the problem of fashion waste and make Africa’s creative economy more sustainable. With an abundance of raw materials—like cotton from Uganda, silk from Madagascar, and wool from South Africa—African countries could move towards domestic processing, and away from export.
🤔 The challenge: In many countries, declines in local industry and a lack of political will to reduce dependence on the secondhand clothing trade, coupled with technological and bureaucratic hurdles for African clothing brands and designers to reach global markets, means several small businesses and startups struggle to get off the ground.
🌍 The roadmap: Many educational institutions in Africa lack the modern technologies and resources to equip students with the skills to innovate, experiment and keep up with the competition in the global clothing industry. Investments into educational programs and the elimination of barriers including payment gateways and online shop compatibility could pave the way for more successful creative startups on the continent.
💰 The stakeholders: Aiduke Clothing Research is a non-profit previously known as Fashion Council Uganda, which Kolade founded to promote local products, set up production facilities, and enable local brands to access global markets. African governments also have a stake in the game, with some countries governments implementing secondhand clothing import bans in an effort to strengthen their local textile industries.
70%: The fraction of clothing donated globally that ends up in Africa.
85%: The fraction of cotton used in Uganda in the mid-1970s that was produced in the country
5%: The amount of cotton that is consumed locally in Uganda today
$8.2 million: The Kenyan government’s monthly revenue from the secondhand clothing sector. Kenya is the leading importer of secondhand clothing in sub-Saharan Africa followed by Ghana, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Angola.
HQ: Kampala, Uganda
Founder: Bobby Kolade
Latest valuation: Undisclosed
Bobby Kolade was born in Sudan to a German father and a Nigerian mother, and grew up in Uganda before moving to Berlin to study fashion design at the Weissensee Academy of Art.
“When I was studying, there was a clear vision. I wanted to go to Paris, I wanted to work in luxury,” Kolade said. He started an eponymous clothing brand in Berlin that ran for three years. But “with time, the capacity to look back…everything was calling me back to Uganda. So I spent a good year just researching and trying to understand how I could marry my life in Germany and my previous life in Uganda. That was the moment I discovered Ugandan cotton,” he said.
Upon returning to Kampala, Kolade quickly realized it wasn’t possible to set up a local brand using sustainably grown Ugandan cotton.
Uganda, like many other African markets, was once home to a vibrant local textile industry. Today, the industry is a shadow of its former self.
Introduced as a cash crop by the British Colonial Government, Uganda’s cotton industry continued to grow post-independence in 1962, reaching its peak period in the mid-1970s when the vast majority of cotton was being harvested, processed, and sold locally. But weak policies, political instability, inadequate infrastructure, and poor economic management destabilized the industry to such an extent that, by the mid-1980s, it had collapsed.
“We can’t even imagine what it could have been like back in the 60s and early 70s,” says Kolade. “It’s just unfathomable for us. Our generation knows nothing apart from secondhand clothes.”
Determined to understand what went wrong, and eager to find solutions to respond to the crisis in Uganda’s local fashion industry, Kolade set out on a number of ventures. The Vintage or Violence podcast, which he co-created with filmmaker Nikissi Serumaga, explores the history of Uganda’s textile industry from a uniquely East African perspective, as well as the implications of the secondhand clothing trade on Kampala’s socioeconomic landscape today. Kolade also set up a non-profit called Aiduke Clothing Research to promote local products and enable local brands to access global markets.
In 2021, Kolade began working behind the scenes on Buzigahill, a brand named after a mountain near Kampala that is home to many of the city’s creatives, which makes unique upcycled garments from used clothing imports. By creating local jobs, albeit on a small scale for now, and treating the used clothing as raw material to be processed locally, Buzigahill is on a mission to reignite Uganda’s textile industry and bring it back to its peak levels of the 1970s.
The brand currently employs 10 people in Uganda, including Kolade, but aims to create 1,000 jobs in the local textile industry in Uganda.
Following the success of their first two drops in April and August 2022 respectively, Buzigahill has just released a third collection as part of the Return to Sender series, which features colorful, patchwork hoodies, dresses made from various t-shirts, and hybrid pants made from denim and polyester tracksuits. The third drop also features embroidered bedsheets by South Sudanese women at Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northwestern Uganda, and is the company’s first artisanal collaboration.
Buzigahill founder Bobby Kolade dreams of returning Uganda’s textile industry to its glory days by celebrating clothes made from local materials. Here are some excerpts from his conversation with Quartz Africa:
👩🏽💼 On doing business in Africa
“We rely on social media, especially Instagram, to reach our clients. It’s extremely difficult because Instagram doesn’t allow for Instagram shopping in Uganda. And there’s so many difficulties with payment gateways…just getting people to pay for products on the website has been a huge challenge. So we constantly have to find workarounds to something that’s so straightforward in the Global North. I also don’t feel like our governments are particularly interested in small businesses or startups. There is a stench of colonial residue in terms of the way things are set up. It’s not encouraging for any young designer to set up their business officially—it’s intimidating, it’s costly, it’s not friendly. What the systems are looking for are big businesses. And big businesses, mostly, are associated with extraction, and extraction is colonial.”
💪 On the potential of Uganda’s youth
“One of my friends once said to me, during lockdown: ‘Nothing works, but everything is possible.’ And that’s kind of the motto in this country. That’s how we operate because the opportunity is everywhere. We have so many beautiful moments here within our studio and with the team. Seeing a tailor come in to work with us who’s studied for several years…and seeing this person grow with the vision within a space of three to six months…It’s very inspiring. You begin to understand the potential that we have as one of the world’s most youthful countries.”
📢 On the future of the brand
“I don’t think it makes sense for Buzigahill to thrive if the whole industry isn’t thriving…I won’t stop until we’ve created 1,000 jobs. I also just really want to see more people wearing locally -made clothes and consuming our own goods.”
In June, The Or Foundation, a US and Ghana-based not-for-profit organization at the intersection of environmental justice, education, and fashion development, and Shein, a Chinese online fashion retailer, announced their agreement to support waste management efforts in communities deeply impacted by textile waste. SheinHEIN’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) Fund is valued at £50 million ($53 million) over the next five years and will help advance ecological and social sustainability strategies focused on waste within the global secondhand clothing trade. But while the deal is a step in the right direction, Shein’s pledge doesn’t do anything to tackle the root of the problem: reducing fashion waste in the first place.
🎵 This brief was produced while listening to “Nkulunkulu” by Kamo Mphela (South Africa)
Have a highly motivated rest of your week,
—Maxine Betteridge-Moes, Quartz Africa contributor in London
In 2016, East Africa Community nations pledged to ban imports of used clothing by 2019 in an effort to boost local textile industries. Only Rwanda followed through on the ban in 2018, with Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda abandoning the joint decision in order to avoid the suspension of their duty-free export privileges to the US—a key benefit of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). But Rwanda’s move appears to be a smart one, with its local textile and garment sector recording unprecedented growth of 83% between 2018 and 2020.