Clothing Production and Used Clothes Trade in Africa
February 2012 – While Europe underwent a radical political and economical renewal during the 19th century thanks to Enlightenment and industrial revolution, Africa, under the yoke of colonialism, remained in its role as a raw material supplier. Many African countries were unable to make significant economic progress after gaining their independence and continued to suffer, among others, from exploitation by corrupt autocratic governments. As Africa has always been only a minor production location, it struggles to keep up with global economy. This also applies to the sector of textile production.
The Handicap of Colonialism
The manufacture of yarns, fabrics and clothing (for example from local cotton) has a long tradition in African countries south of the Sahara. Arab travel accounts from the 9th century testify to this. This textile production (cloths) came under strain during the colonial period.
The colonial powers saw Africa as a source of raw materials that had to be exploited. The lucrative industrial processing of African gold, gems, metal ores, petroleum, ivory, cocoa, cotton, etc. took place in Europe. Africa had to re-import the final products. The ensuing developmental deficits remain even today.
Agriculture was characterized by growing food for self-supply and mono-cultural farming of tropical fruits and vegetables for the European market.
Conquerors and slave traders brought European clothes and hence the European style of clothing to Africa in exchange for slaves. The latter were shipped to America and used as a means of payment for goods like sugar and rum, which were brought back to Europe.
The Steeplechase of African Countries to Economic independence
Since 1958 the African colonies have gradually gained their independence. They tried to overcome the dependence on raw material exports (highly fluctuating prices!) through an industrialization based on local resources. The reasons for the widespread failure were
- missing domestic entrepreneurship, far too few qualified employees, insufficient productivity and innovation, poor capacity utilization, inadequate infrastructure (roads, railroads), and unreliable supply of water, electricity and telecommunications.
- political turmoil including (civil) wars, corruption and greed for profit of autocratic political elites (in conjunction with international corporations), experiments with socialist planned economy (which lost the support of the Eastern bloc at the end of the 1980s).
- preference of huge industrial complexes (capital-intensive, large capacity) by national elites to the disadvantage of small and medium industry and crafts.
- adverse global business environment and missing capital for investments.
- climatic changes with an increase in ecological crises (for example expansion of desert areas and water shortages, over-exploitation of tropical forests and damage to the environment induced by raw material mining), massive demographic growth, and prevalent poverty.
With the independence local businesses other than trading only gradually began to establish themselves. However, the current political and economical situation is still in extreme contrast to all those hopes and visions that the incipient nations had had when gaining their independence about fifty years ago. Overall the level of industrialization in most of the countries has remained very low. In a quarter of the countries the share of the processing industry in the gross domestic product is below five percent, half of the African countries merely exhibit a share of ten percent at most. Even the locally harvested cotton is processed outside Africa for the most part.
Africa is regarded as an expensive production location in comparison to other continents!
Significance of Market Liberalization and Economic Globalization in the mid-1980s
Many African countries tried to strengthen their own industries in order to reduce the dependence on imports. They failed, because the local industry remained unproductive and could only exist as long as import bans, subsidies or tariffs were in effect. The liberalization of the markets, which took place under pressure from World Bank and International Monetary Fund, overstrained the companies that were not innovative enough or simply outdated. This was especially true for the textile manufactures of the time.
Today there are more or less functioning textile productions in every African country again. They primarily produce niche products like uniforms, workwear, textiles with typical African design that have found a market in Europe and the United States, and textiles for low-tariff export.
The individual African countries are trying to attract investors to establish new businesses for the production of export goods. Some are rather successful, for example Mauritania, Madagascar, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and Ethiopia.
But so far mostly contract production companies (extended work benches of Chinese textile firms) have emerged. Creative fashion companies like those existing for example in Hong Kong today are still nowhere to be seen in most of the countries. On the contrary, companies are said to have relocated their production from Africa to Asia for financial reasons lately.
The Influence of Poverty on the Demand for Clothing in Africa
Due to their extremely low income a great many people live in permanent poverty. Incomes are very unequally distributed and in most countries there is a high rate of unemployment. People try to make a living with jobs in the “informal sector” (shadow economy not showing up in the official statistics of the national economy) of the cities and rural areas. The hundreds of thousands of people employed in the used clothes trade (including laundry and tailor shops) are also included with this informal sector.
In the mid-1980s, when the heavily indebted African countries were no longer able to support their textile producers with high subsidies, the prices of the produced clothes strongly increased and people could no longer afford them. The decline in sales not only caused the closure of the production plants but also a shortage in clothing supplies. Therefore the countries allowed the import of new as well as used textiles.
Nowadays the African population can choose between
- very cheap low-quality clothes made of synthetics that make you sweat heavily, which is why they are not very well liked
- clothes made by local tailors from imported fabrics
- expensive imported clothes of a quality like we know it in Europe
- high-quality used clothes from Europe, the United States and Canada at a fraction of the price payable for similar new goods
If the delivery of the popular used clothes were to be ceased the majority of the population (up to and including the middle class) would be forced to buy the unpopular Chinese cheap merchandise, because nobody would be capable to fill the resulting gap with equivalent and affordable new clothes. An import ban on used clothes would only give Asian and especially Chinese importers the opportunity to boost their imports – there would be no advantage for an African textile industry.
Conclusion: Little Influence of Used Clothes on African Textile Production
For years there has been the question whether imports of secondhand clothes to Africa are responsible for the demise of the African textile industry and, if so, to what extent. Therefore, as early as 1997, TEXAID had the Swiss Academy for Development (SAD) assign scientists from Tunisia and Ghana with the task of clarifying the issue in their countries. The result of conversations with more than 2,900 people in the two countries was conclusive: used clothes are not responsible for the missing textile industry in Africa.
A study of the leading British aid organization Oxfam from the year 2005 states that imports of used and new clothes to Africa were permitted at approximately the same time and suspects that the rapid increase in used clothes trade might have further discouraged African textile producers. Nevertheless, Oxfam confirms the great socio-political importance of today's supply of secondhand clothes in Africa. Furthermore, Oxfam's study says that used clothes now rather decrease imports of cheap textiles from China but don't influence African textile production.
The study recommends that aid organizations involved in the used clothes trade should retain control of the distribution of their goods to the consumers as long as possible in order to minimize corruption. With this in mind, TEXAID has expanded its control of the supply chain to Bulgaria and Hungary over the past two years. Although desirable, further controls are practically impossible to organize and finance.
Moreover, Oxfam's study demands the disclosure of what effectively happens to the collected used clothes. At TEXAID this is the norm.
A «dialog program» of the German organization “FairWertung” realized over the course of two years, which was covered in June 2010 in German Television and specialist journals, came to the conclusion that from a social viewpoint the distribution of secondhand clothes in Africa is to be appreciated and can't be held responsible for the condition of the textile industry there.
TEXAID is fully aware of the fact that there exists corruption in some African countries and that used clothes import and trade also suffer from it. TEXAID states that from a social point of view even in these countries the used clothes are indispensable for a large part of the population (normally more than fifty percent).
(Commentary on the need for imported used clothes in Africa; June 2009; German only.)