Across Africa, in crowded markets and in sidewalk pop-up shops, heaps of secondhand clothes from Ralph Lauren polo shirts to Tommy Hilfiger jeans to Burberry scarves are getting another chance to help someone feel confident and fashionable. In fact, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria are among the biggest markets for reselling clothing donated to charities and thrift stores in Europe and the United States.
Every year Kenya imports 100,000 tons of secondhand clothes, which creates tens of thousands of jobs as well as provides quality clothing to many Kenyans who likely earn less in a month that what many Americans pay for one new pair of jeans. Until the 1980’s, high tariffs protected garment and other businesses, but in the late 80s and early 90s, liberalization policies backed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund took hold in Kenya lowering tariffs and forcing many of the local garment industries to shut down.
For a period of time cheap new clothes from China were introduced, but complaints of poor quality led importers to turn to secondhand clothing instead.
How does it work? When clothing is donated to charities and thrift stores in the United States, workers sift through the donated items generally keeping only a small fraction of the donations—often only a fourth. Then, they can sell the balance to exporters for up to 90 cents per kilogram. The clothing is wrapped in 45kg bales and packed into 40 foot containers which can hold about 550 bales which equates to about 25 tons of clothes.
The used clothes are then shipped halfway around the world through various African ports before arriving at their final destination. This secondhand clothing trade amounts to a multi-million dollar global business for exporters and importers. Customs agents collect duties at each port, and city officials charge shops selling the clothing.