buying second-hand clothing is NOT smart – importing it even less so…

Second-hand shoes on sale in Kampala, February 2018 (Photo by Simon Kaheru)

LAST week I read an article in Kenya’s Business Daily that suggested that the United States was once again conducting a review to determine whether some countries – including Uganda – should continue being allowed to export finished goods over there under a special quota system.

The Africa Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) is an affirmative action programme that, very, VERY sadly, few of us in Uganda have understood or taken to either heart or pocket.

It should have enriched many Ugandans at different levels from the city, through the towns and right into the villages.

But it hasn’t.

We are to blame, most of us, for not paying attention to what’s important and focusing instead on various types of nonsense; and others for not ‘sensitising’ us enough to what the excitement around AGOA meant.

But there are other groups at fault here – and even if the story broke some time last year we don’t appear to have comprehended it well enough. Kudos to Speaker of Parliament, Rt. Hon. Rebecca Kadaga, for bringing it up with the US Ambassador when they met over some issue a couple of weeks ago.

The US Ambassador diplomatically said the US would continue to “support” Uganda but that we might have “some textile funding withheld”.

Luckily for us, this withholding of funding is not a concern the government is focusing on. See, AGOA (Africa Growth Opportunities Act) is supposed to increase the number of items or goods we export to the US – not to give us any charity.

Now, the situation around textiles is amusingly annoying – but the noises being made in our government circles indicate that there will be no backing down to economic bullies based in other countries.

It came to a head in the middle of last year when a major public hearing was called to determine whether or not Uganda should be allowed to continue exporting to the US under AGOA.

Blame that on some US-based organisation called ‘Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association’ (SMART) that puts together clothes recycling companies there. We can only refer to them using capital letters, so that nobody mistakes them for the lower-case version of the word.

This SMART, headed by one Jackie King, complained that countries like Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda should be struck off the AGOA list because we are restricting mivumba/mitumba/second hand clothing imports from the rest of the world.

Luckily, their petition wasn’t immediately successful, even though Kenya backed down – presumably on the advice of their Washington Lobbyist, Paul Ryberg, lawyer with the firm, Ryberg and Smith, L.L.C. and also President of a US-based non-governmental organisation called African Coalition for Trade (ACT) which represents Kenya and Tanzania but NOT Uganda.

He knows a lot, and figured that Kenyan companies registered $394 million in textile sales under AGOA in 2016. The US Trade Representative office, though, says Uganda only exported US$51million worth of goods to them in 2016 – coffee, tea & spice ($25m), ‘special other’ ($9m), glue & enzymes ($7m), grain, seeds & fruit ($4m), and fish/seafood ($2m).

Maybe our textile exports are that ‘special other’, but if so then that US$9m does not warrant the panic caused by SMART – those are nine houses in Kololo…so would it be smart to NOT tax second-hand clothing in order to build a textile industry here?

SMART, in their petition, claims they recover and process ‘pre-consumer’ by-products from the textile industry and ‘post-consumer’ secondhand textiles – clothes and shoes.

“The items that can be reused as apparel are exported, typically to least developed and developing countries such as those in East Africa, where demand for affordable, quality clothing is especially high…” SMART said.

The same high demand, one would presume, that would support a locally-grown textile industry here that would enable Ugandans to wear brand new clothes made by fellow Ugandans, rather than second-hand, grubby hand-me-downs that other people have sweated and probably died wearing.

It was disturbing to read their arguments, and the flimsiness of their claims that we were imposing “barriers to US trade and investment”.

The “barriers” they referred to were the EAC decision to increase tariffs on imported second-hand clothing in order to encourage more local manufacturing within the region – obviously a sensible move that encourages investment in the EAC rather than elsewhere!

SMART, on the other hand, capitalised on: “while recycled fiber is a useful by-product of the clothing recycling trade, it is the resale of good, usable clothing that renders the overall industry profitable.”

WE want that profitability here, not anywhere else!

And, surprisingly, “through these activities, for-profit textile recyclers create meaningful employment for tens of thousands of people who drive local economies and generate much-needed tax revenue across the United States…” meaning that we East Africans need to buy second hand clothing to keep some Americans in employment.

Mind you, US AGOA imports from Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda totaled US$43m in 2016 (official US government numbers), while their exports to the three countries totaled US$281m in 2016…

But SMART says that second-hand underwear et al, “make vital contributions to environmental goals through the recycling of nearly four billion pounds of clothing and other textile waste that otherwise would go to a landfill each year…”, meaning that it should go to landfills HERE instead!

SMART expressed “significant concerns” about our ban because “EAC ministers claim that a ban was needed to boost their domestic textile industries” but it would have “a significant toll on the secondhand clothing industry in the United States…”

Nanti OUR domestic industry surely can’t be the focus when THEIR second-hand clothing business will suffer! Which reminds me – Kenya’s lobbyist, Paul Ryberg, mentioned at some point that the second hand clothing SMART exports is NOT manufactured in the United States…there is a possibility that WE make the clothing, send it there, and then they send it back!

SMART even complains about the need for a register of used clothing importers mbu “such a register will likely be used to intimidate any importer who dares to continue importing our goods”.

This from an organisation in a country where we all fill out forms to go visit…

And the arguments go on and on including the complaint that a ban “in order to protect and develop one’s own industry conflicts with the statutory requirement that AGOA beneficiaries work toward developing market-based economies…” The SMART guys need to study more economics….

…as well as some decency and common sense. SMART argued, before the Committee in the US listening to this, that we Africans were “supporting Chinese attempts to dominate” our market and “promoting cheap new clothing from China whose goods compete poorly with better quality used clothing from the US…” I mean…! – yet the same US imported new clothes from China worth US$27billion in 2017 alone. I mean…!

Mind you, in 2016 we are reported to have spent US$888million (about Ushs3TRILLION) importing textiles – new and old – from other countries.

That figure came out during one of the President’s speeches, where he was urging us to spend more of this money on our own textiles and clothing here in Uganda.

The SMART people don’t want that – only smart people do. Choose where you belong, as you go out to buy your next item of clothing. Are you going to be really smart OR that antithesis in capital letters?

2 thoughts on “buying second-hand clothing is NOT smart – importing it even less so…

  1. The person who was supposed to pursue AGOA to a successful conclusion did not. Simon, I am in the UK now, and the clothes I am buying are tagged, Made in China, Bangladesh, Pakistan!!..I have not seen any from Uganda..maybe I should first go to the USA..


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