'Where is our future?': Uganda declares war on second-hand clothes

Wednesday December 06 2023

Sellers offering second-hand clothes wait for costumers at a market in Kampala, Uganda on October 7, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


For nearly three decades, the chaotic, overcrowded Owino secondhand market in Uganda's capital has been the cornerstone of Hadija Nakimuli's life, helping the widowed shopkeeper build a house and raise 12 children.

But a potential government ban on the sale of used clothing threatens to sever this crucial lifeline for Nakimuli and tens of thousands of vendors like her.

"Where is our future if they stop secondhand clothes?" the 62-year-old asked, rummaging through her stash of underwear, dresses, shoes and bags.

Established in 1971, the sprawling market employs some 80,000 people, 70 percent of them women, according to Kampala city authorities.

Read: EA bloc in new push to keep out 'mitumba' imports

"Other than students, my clients include ministers (and) members of parliament who call me to deliver clothes to their air-conditioned offices," said Joseph Barimugaya, whose stall stocks menswear.


"This trade should not be tampered with. Everyone benefits, including the government, which gets taxes," the father of four told AFP.

Every day, hundreds of customers squeeze through the narrow alleys separating the makeshift wooden stalls, eager to grab a bargain.


Vendors display second-hand clothes to a buyer inside a market in Kampala, Uganda on October 7, 2023. PHOTO | AFP

Here, a secondhand Pierre Cardin blazer goes for Ush40,000 ($11), a fraction of the price of a new one.

"As a teacher I earn less than Ush500,000. If I am to buy a new garment it means I would spend all my salary on clothing," Robert Twimukye, 27, told AFP while shopping at Owino on a Saturday afternoon.

He is not alone.

Although there are no official figures available, the Uganda Dealers in Used Clothings and Shoes Association estimates that 16 million people -- one in three Ugandans -- wear used clothing.

'Clothes from dead people'

"Everyone is into secondhand clothes. Only few people in Uganda can afford new clothes," said Allan Zavuga, retail manager of Think Twice, which employs 30 staff across three branches in the country.

Read: East Africa wrestles with proposals to ban imports of used clothes

"Banning it in Uganda is doing a disservice to the population and also the country at large," he said, pointing out the environmental cost of producing new clothing instead of reusing items.

East Africa imports about an eighth of the world's used clothing, providing jobs for some 355,000 people who earn $230 million a year, according to a 2017 study by the US government's aid agency, USAid.

But the sector has also been a longstanding sore point for governments in Africa, who say the cast-offs harm the domestic textile industry.

"These clothes are from the dead in a foreign country. When a white (person) dies, the clothes are sent to Africa," President Yoweri Museveni said in August this year. 

"I have declared war on second-hand clothes to promote African wear," he said.

In an interview with AFP, Uganda's State Minister for Trade David Bahati, said it was a question of "dignity". 

If the proposed ban goes ahead, "we will be able to replace these second-hand clothes", he added.


A woman selling second-hand clothes arranges several items at her stall while waiting for costumers in Owino, Kampala's largest second-hand clothes market, on October 7, 2023. PHOTO | AFP

"It cannot be done in one day, but we can do it in a gradual manner," Bahati said.

The government is examining the issue with a view to potentially implementing the ban in January.

"The government is ready to give investors incentives... such as tax holidays to ensure we process our cotton into new garments to cover the market demands."

Read: Manufacturers propose higher taxes on imports

Trade row

Uganda has been here before.

In 2016, Museveni sought to ban used clothing as part of an East African initiative to develop domestic industries but faced significant opposition by the Kampala City Traders Association.

Diplomatic considerations also played a part.

Initially, the East African Community (EAC) put up a united front.

But the alliance cracked after Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda balked at the prospect of retaliatory loss of duty-free access to US markets.

In the end, Rwanda decided to go it alone and imposed steep taxes on used clothing in 2016, leading to a sharp drop in imports and an increase in the smuggling of secondhand goods to meet demand.

Two years later, the US suspended duty-free benefits for apparel from Rwanda in a tit-for-tat move.

Read: Rwanda pays ultimate price for rejecting mitumba

At Owino, geopolitics is far from the minds of shoppers and sellers alike.

"Who did the government consult (before deciding) to ban secondhand?" second-generation shopkeeper Harriet Musoke Kyambadde asked, her voice trembling with indignation.

"Banning this business will be sending me into abject poverty," the mother of three told AFP, throwing her hands in the air.