Used or surplus clothing from Western countries often ends up in Africa. Whether that’s good remains open to question.
Midday in Gikomba, the biggest market in Nairobi, Kenya. One trader urges shoppers to buy his vintage trousers. Others sell t-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, most with Western fashion brand labels. Some clothes have the names of American colleges emblazoned on the front.
Kenya is one of Africa’s biggest importers of secondhand clothing, in 2019 importing some 185,000 tonnes. These clothes — called mitumba in Kenya after the Swahili word for “bundles” — form the bulk of Kenyans’ fashion choices: an estimated 91.5 per cent of households buy secondhand clothing priced at Ksh 1000 (around $9) and below.
Commentators remain divided as to whether this is an encouraging sign of a circular economy at work or a problematic barrier in the way of economic survival of African countries’ own textile industries.
The mitumba industry is an important source of revenue for the Kenyan government: taxes raised from this sector amount to Ksh 12 billion ($107 million) a year. In every African country where secondhand clothes are imported, they bear different names. In Zambia, they are called salaula — selected by rummaging. In Ghana, they are called obroni wawu — dead white men’s clothes.
In wealthy Western countries, the average individual doesn’t wear clothes for long. It is estimated that a typical American throws away approximately 37 kilograms of clothing a year. Rather than discard clothes, Westerners are encouraged to donate them to charities. However, according to charity Oxfam, an estimated 70 per cent of clothes donated in Europe end up in Africa in 2015.