Ban on Second-Hand Clothing Threatens Livelihoods in Uganda

Despite the chaotic surroundings, Hadija Nakimuli always finds her way through the bustling alleys of Owino Market in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. For almost 30 years, she has been selling second-hand clothing there.

However, a possible ban on the importation of used clothes by authorities could jeopardize the livelihoods of Hadija Nakimuli and tens of thousands of other vendors.

President Yoweri Museveni recently “declared war” on second-hand clothing primarily imported from the United States and Europe, stating the intention to “promote African clothing.”

“Where is our future if they stop second-hand clothes?” wonders 62-year-old Hadija Nakimuli, a mother of twelve, as she sifts through her colorful stock of underwear, dresses, shoes, and bags.

Owino Market, a sprawling market established in 1971, engages around 80,000 people, with 70% being women, according to Kampala authorities.

“Besides students, my clients include ministers and parliamentarians who call me to deliver clothes to their air-conditioned offices,” explains Joseph Barimugaya.

“This trade should not be disrupted. Everyone benefits, including the government, which collects taxes,” asserts the father of four.

Every day, hundreds of customers navigate the narrow paths between makeshift wooden stalls, seeking good deals.

“As a teacher, I earn less than 500,000 Ugandan shillings (about 120 euros). If I have to buy new clothes, it means spending my entire salary,” notes 27-year-old Robert Twimukye, shopping at Owino.

And he is not alone.

Although official figures are not available, according to estimates from the Ugandan Association of Resellers of Second-hand Clothes and Shoes, about 16 million people, or one in three Ugandans, buy second-hand clothes.

– Clothes from “Deceased Persons” –

“Everyone loves second-hand clothes. Only a small number of people in Uganda can afford new clothes,” argues Allan Zavuga, director of the Think Twice chain, employing 30 people in three branches across the country.

Banning the importation of second-hand clothes “does not serve the population and the country as a whole,” he continues, citing the environmental cost of new clothing production.

East Africa imports over 12% of the world’s exported second-hand clothes, creating jobs for around 355,000 people who earn $230 million annually, according to a 2017 study by the U.S. government’s humanitarian agency, USAID.

However, the importation of second-hand clothes is often criticized by governments on the African continent, denouncing its negative impact on the local textile industry.

“These clothes come from deceased individuals in a foreign country. When a white person dies, the clothes are (…) sent to Africa,” President Yoweri Museveni asserted in August.

Ugandan Minister of Trade David Bahati maintains in an interview with AFP that this is a matter of “dignity.”

If the ban materializes – the government will review it in January – “we can replace these second-hand clothes,” he asserts, acknowledging that it will take time: “It cannot be done overnight, but we can do it gradually.”

Kampala authorities are willing to offer “incentives” to investors, defends David Bahati, “such as tax exemptions.”

– “Abject Poverty” –

This is not the first time authorities have proposed this ban.

In 2016, President Museveni, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1986, had previously attempted to ban imported second-hand clothes as part of a regional initiative, but it faced strong opposition from the Kampala Traders Association.

It also faced diplomatic pressures.

Initially united, the East African Community regional bloc fractured after Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda hesitated due to the prospect of American retaliation.

Only Rwanda went ahead with the initiative, imposing taxes in 2016 on second-hand clothes, leading to a decrease in imports. In retaliation, the United States suspended trade benefits for Kigali.

In the alleys of Owino Market, traders fear losing their only means of livelihood in a country where 30% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

“Who did the government consult (before deciding) to ban second-hand clothes?” wonders a trembling-voiced Harriet Musoke Kyambadde, a trader and mother of three. If the ban is enforced, “it will plunge me into abject poverty.”

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