This Is How Rwanda’s Ban On Imported Used Clothing From America Paved The Way For Cheap New Chinese Clothing

used clothing market in rwanda
Credit: Quartz

Since 2015, Rwanda has persevered in its efforts to ban the importation of large quantities of cheap used clothing, mostly from the US and the UK. This was in an attempt to boost the local garment industry. Five years down the lane, the decision seems to have invariably paved the way for the increased importation of fashionable clothes from China. 

In 2015, in an attempt to protect their nascent garment and textile industries, six members of the East Africa Community (EAC) bloc of countries – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South-Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda – announced that they would all put in place high tariffs on the import of second-hand clothing or “chagua”. The decision by the EAC angered the United States, who responded that the proposed ban would violate free-trade agreements. America then threatened to remove the EAC countries from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa). Agoa was a US trade policy enacted in 2000 which allows 39 sub-Saharan African nations to export thousands of goods duty-free to the US.

At the back of the new development that year, an organization in the US called Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMRTA), said the decision to phase out used-clothing would impose “significant economic hardship” on America’s used-clothing industry. SMRTA argued that “EAC’s second-hand apparel ban could cost 40,000 US jobs and $124m (£93m) in exports.” According to a 2015 report by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the EAC states that year accounted for almost 13% ($274m; £213m) of the global imports of used clothing. 

Threatened by the United States, all the East Africa community bloc of countries except Rwanda backed off on their earlier plan. In mid-2017, Kenya said it would “comply” with Agoa and withdrew the proposed ban on used clothes. BBC News noted that “Kenya’s benefits from Agoa are considerably higher than Rwanda: exports to the US amounted to nearly $600m (£450m) in 2017, compared to just $43m (£32m) for Rwanda.” 

What Did Rwanda Do? 

An undaunted Rwanda proceeded to increase tariffs on imported used clothes from $0.20 (£0.15) to $2.50 (£1.90) per kg in 2016, a decisive move to phase out all used-clothes imports. Rwanda was exporting about $1.5m of clothing per year to the US at the time.  Rwanda’s government didn’t only say wearing hand-me-downs threatened the dignity of its people, but believed the ban move will help nurture their garment industry and create more than 25,000 jobs, a BBC report said

“This is the choice we find that we have to make. As far as I am concerned, making the choice is simple [although] we might suffer consequences… Rwanda and other countries in the region that are part of Agoa, have to do other things – we have to grow and establish our industries,” Rwanda’s Paul Kagame said in 2017. While Some Rwandans welcomed the government’s efforts, others were not enthused. 

Director-General and co-founder of Kigali Garment Centre Jerome Mugabo told BBC that the ban “helped us to set up our business, as we get more customers since the ban.” Ritesh Patel, managing director of Rwanda’s oldest garment factory – Utexrwa, which was founded in 1984 equally believed that “Rwanda needs to do this to be able to grow its economy… It really helps that we no longer have to compete with cheap chagua, while we simultaneously witness a quickly growing middle class that will be able to afford “Made in Rwanda” products.” 

Mariam, a clothes buyer in Kigali however disagrees. She told the BBC’s Swahili service that “I understand that Rwanda needs to develop its own industries, I support the ‘Made in Rwanda Campaign’, but we are yet to see these industries. It would have been fair if the government allowed second-hand clothes for the sake of the poor.”

A Window Of Opportunity Opened To China

One of the unintended effects of Rwanda’s action is that it has paved way for the importation of “cheap ready-made clothes.” Chinese exports of cheap, ready-made clothes to East Africa is worth $1.2 billion. 

Grant T Harris served as the principal adviser to former US President Barack Obama on issues related to Africa. He told the BBC that “This will just open up more market space and greater dependency on them [China]…the individuals buying the clothes won’t have the means to buy domestic-made apparel, so they are going to turn to cheap, ready-made clothes from China.” Mariam, a clothes buyer in Kigali however also told the BBC’s Swahili service that the only thing you can find in clothes markets today is “Chinese clothes and they are very expensive”. 

Indeed, the BBC reported  a cloth seller in Rwanda, Felicien Maniraguha to have said that ׅׅ“Rwandans prefer clothes that look modern…I doubt if the local textile industry will ever be able to produce nice, fashionable clothes that will become more popular than cheap Chinese imports.”

Is Rwanda’s clothing market not likely to experience the ‘overwhelming’ importation of “cheap, ready-made clothes from China?” Is that not going to equally stifle the flourishing of local garment factories, concerns that were raised by the East African giant against Western Countries earlier?  Will Rwanda have to put strategies in place again, to reduce the dependence on Chinese Clothes imports and protect local industries?

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