Updated: Apr 21
The sighting of compatriots clad in fancy GAP or H&M brands on the streets of Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu, Zomba or any other town for that matter, is not uncommon in Malawi. Occasionally, you still get to see the plain red t-shirt with the centrally-placed bright yellow star that makes the Viet Nam flag dressing a Malawian on their day’s mission. My favorite is a man who wore the purple t-shirt with a loud inscription of “Daddy’s girl” as he walked out of a beer hall, singing his happy guts out as he made his way home. Many times, you get to appreciate the taste for modernity as you meet men and women in fast-fashion regalia as they go about their daily chores. Such is the story of us all, everyday Malawians, who frequently court the kaunjika market.
The interconnectedness of our world energizes the many impacts we make on each other, and one of these many ways concerns the recycling of clothing which, like in osmosis, moves from areas of high concentration to those with a lack of adequate fashion (the honest exception is the Viet Nam t-shirt: a piece of no fashion itself, but which has still found its way to Africa to address a critical gap: affordability). For purposes of this article, however, none of the impacts of globalization outstrip that which the global North has on the global South in terms of clothing and fashion.
Frequently, what Beyoncé, Drake, Rihanna or Kim Kardashian appear wearing on stage and on TV is what many of us around the wide world want to mimic. Nike and Old Navy have now become commonplace, although not every piece of clothing they make is purchased new in our ‘developing’ parts of the world. In countries as Malawi, Sierra Leone and Mozambique, one will not find the Old Navy or Nike stores as in London, New York, Paris or Hong Kong. For us, second-hand markets – kaunjika – adequately make up for this deficiency while determining the random ‘quality’ of a bale. As buyers, we are seldom concerned about where such clothes are made, or with what they are made. But so are vendors. “Siniziwa,” a kaunjika vendor from Lusaka retorted when asked where the clothes he was selling originated, if one were to paraphrase Andrew Brook’s 2015 research on the subject. Another from Soweto reiterated a similar utterance in her language.
It is important to note the trade’s benefits on African communities. At the same time, it is worth mentioning that in Rwanda and South Africa, to mention just two countries, second hand clothes are simultaneously viewed as negative impacts on the socio-cultural, environmental and economic fabrics of their countries.
Donations of clothes have increased in the past 20 years. The giver, on whose mind these clothes change the lives of many Africans, is perceivably driven by altruism and a great sense of selflessness. It is, however, hardly checked whether the receiver needed the type of donation given, which renders the basis of such generosity largely an assumption. It further exacerbates the situation of the poor as it reaffirms the stereotype of the poor being helpless, passive recipients of aid. It confirms the suspicion of giving out of excess unlike the outwardly perceived altruism that shows. According to Mr. Brooks, the appropriateness of the donation is paramount.
Another research in 2002 by George Packer, How Susie Bayer’s T-Shirt Ended Up on Yusuf Mama’s Back, notes the grandeur of the American clothing industry. According to Statista, a thinktank, Americans spent $326 billion on clothes in 2018 alone. Americans are forecasted to spend 2.5% more on clothing in 2019. Many of these clothes will hardly ever get used – if not to show off only once at a party – that the rationale to give is anchored in ridding themselves of the enormous excesses. Or to create room for more.
On the economic front, between the 70s and 90s, clothing manufacturing in Africa accounted for approximately 10.9% of the continent’s GDP and 5.1% of the workforce. And due to poor management of our economies, second hand clothes found an important entry point to destroy this growing industry by substituting for domestically produced clothes, leading to a 39% decline in clothing production. Employment declined by 50%. Such economic impacts must be a key concern for most African states in the long and short runs. Quite naturally, locally-produced clothes in a country like Malawi could not compete with brands the second-hand market offered. And so, as Tonia Kandiero confirms in her 2005 research paper on Malawi in the Multilateral Trading System, Malawi’s clothing industry closed down en masse!
Imagine the cyclical impacts. The closure of these factories has had a larger impact on cotton farmers, massively affecting the circular economy. Then, the cotton farmer could no longer pay back a loan that they took from the bank, and, in return, the few exports of cotton impacted our access to foreign reserves that allowed factors of production to manufacture at scale and so cause ever-growing inflation.
South Africa and Rwanda, upon checking the impacts of the second-hand economy, have promoted their own clothing industries through policy reform. According to News24, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda imposed tariffs on second-hand clothes imported from the United States. He has since fast-tracked the construction of local garment factories which will enable Rwandans to buy new clothing domestically. A nice side effect of it is how this creates more local jobs.
According to Mr. Packer, whose research I cited above, second-hand clothing can be analyzed through the interactions among poverty, globalization, dependency and imperialism. Second-hand clothes have influenced Africans in tendencies to conform to the lifestyles portrayed by Western media, thereby destroying African culture and traditions. This, in turn, recreates the cycle of dependency that renders African countries inferior to Western nations in more dimensions than one.
Nonetheless, a weak purchasing power of the African consumer gives second-hand clothing a score. Chronic economic hardships today in both urban and rural areas logically limit what households and individuals can afford. It means an average person who survives under the poverty line cannot buy brand new clothes. The result is one where, compounded by small town or city sizes in Africa (relative to the West), second-hand clothes solve the problem of new clothes standing out when worn by a lot of people who appear wearing a sort of uniform. Second-hand clothes then can become a preference where the range of diversity can be wide.
Most of all, African culture being very communal, second-hand clothes markets also serve as an open space where people can socially interact.
It is really difficult to draw the line and conclude that second hand clothing has a massive negative impact. Clearly, the consumers enjoy and benefit adequately. However, I am persuaded to think that the stances that South Africa and Rwanda have taken are as crucial for promoting domestic markets and economies as they are in advancing our authentic African style and identity. Much is yet to be done to rejig the cost structures of our local clothing manufacturing industries to become more competitive, yet it is the one thing we must still try to do.
Until then, many consumers have been endorsed in the pragmatism of the second-hand wardrobe.