Used Clothing From the West Gains Popularity in East Africa; Uganda’s Leader Proposes Ban

Uganda’s capital, Owino Market, has traditionally served as a go-to destination for people from various economic backgrounds seeking affordable, yet well-crafted, secondhand clothing. This trend underscores the perception that Western fashion is considered superior to locally produced clothing.

Amidst the hustle and bustle, people fill the congested footpaths, weaving their way through the sprawling open market in Uganda’s capital. Their primary objective: searching for secondhand clothing, meticulously sifting through undergarments for items that appear nearly new or trying on shoes, despite the jostling and crowd.

The Owino Market in downtown Kampala has long served as a go-to hub, catering to individuals of various economic backgrounds in search of affordable, well-crafted used clothes. This trend underscores the common perception that Western fashion supersedes locally made attire. These garments have been discarded by Europeans and Americans, making their way to African countries through intermediaries. It’s a multimillion-dollar industry, with a 2017 U.S. Agency for International Development study revealing that around two-thirds of the population in seven East African countries have “purchased at least a portion of their clothes from the secondhand clothing market.”

Despite their popularity, secondhand clothes are encountering growing resistance. In August, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a semi-authoritarian leader in power since 1986, announced a ban on used clothing imports, citing concerns that the items were coming “from dead people.” However, trade authorities have yet to enforce the president’s order, which would require legal backing, such as an executive order.

Other African governments are also taking measures to halt these imports, arguing that the secondhand clothing business amounts to dumping and undermines the growth of local textile industries. The East African Community trade bloc, comprising Burundi, Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, recommended banning used apparel imports as early as 2016. Nevertheless, member states have not enforced the ban at the same pace due to pressure from Washington. In Uganda, the president’s directive has instilled panic among traders, as a potential ban, if executed, could spell disaster for those selling secondhand clothes in numerous open-air markets, roadside stalls, and even mall stores where such clothing is marketed as new.

The allure of these clothes lies in their affordability, and prices drop further as traders make room for new shipments. For instance, a pair of denim jeans can sell for as little as 20 cents, and a cashmere scarf may cost even less.

At one of Uganda’s Green Shops, a retail chain specializing in used clothing, apparel reseller Glen Kalungi browsed for items likely to appeal to his customers, such as vintage pants for men and comfortable tops for women. The market is always teeming with shoppers, but business remains unpredictable. Traders must anticipate customer preferences to stay ahead of the competition.

Tadeo Walusimbi, a veteran used-clothes trader of six years, emphasized that a government ban would be untenable. Some days are more profitable than others, and the uncertainty of such a ban looms ominously.

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