The global business of secondhand clothes thrives in Kenya

Wed Oct 15, 2014 11:16am EDT
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By Portia Crowe

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Shaded by ragged squares of canvas, amid choking dust and the noise of hawkers, shoppers in Nairobi's Gikomba market can turn up Tommy Hilfiger jeans or a Burberry jacket for a fraction of the price in London's Regent Street or New York's Fifth Avenue.

But there's a catch: the clothes are all secondhand, discarded as worthless at charity shops or thrift stores in Europe or the United States and then shipped thousands of miles to another continent, occasionally in such pristine condition that an original price tag is still attached.

Kenya imports about 100,000 tonnes of secondhand clothes a year, providing the government revenues from customs duties and creating tens of thousands of jobs. It also offers quality clothes to Kenyans, many of whom earn less in a month what a pair of new Ralph Lauren khakis costs in the West.

To critics, the business raises the perennial problem of how Africa can build its own industry when it is flooded with cheap imports. But traders in Gikomba do not see it that way.

"It’s a source of employment," said Clement Shuma from behind a pile of secondhand trousers - his speciality - that includes British high-street makes like Topman and Next, and sometimes more internationally well-known labels like Levis or Benetton.

"Even that person who’s not well, who’s earning little, at least can afford a piece of cheap (clothing), at a lower price instead of buying new," he said, adding prices ranged from 400 to 1,000 shillings ($4.50-$11.20) per item, depending on quality and brand.

It is a common scene across Africa, with Ghana, Tanzania, Benin, Uganda and Kenya among the biggest markets. They provide clothing to many on a continent of 1 billion where economies may be growing but many Africans struggle to get by.

“Before, if you see our people, the knees are torn ... you can see the thighs,” said Regina Wanjiku, a used clothes importer and wholesaler at Gikomba, describing the sartorial challenge before the business took off two or three decades ago when Kenyans depended on more expensive local products.   Continued...

A vender sells pineapples next to a second hand stall at the Gikomba market in Nairobi September 18, 2014. REUTERS/Noor Khamis