Mitumba trade is merely ‘waste colonialism’, Greenpeace insists

Second-hand clothe buyers and sellers at Gikomba market

Second-hand clothe buyers and sellers at Gikomba market in Nairobi on June 13, 2021. Traders say as much as half the clothes in a single bale are a waste. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

When Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu launched a county government-run apparel factory, she got orders to make uniforms for chiefs and assistant chiefs.

While Kitui County Textile Centre also made face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic, a new report says East African countries are being coerced into accepting used clothes rather than grow their industries.

Confronting what Greenpeace calls “waste colonialism”, and which in East Africa comes in the form of mitumba trade, has become tricky – and the reason Azimio la Umoja One Kenya Coalition party presidential candidate Raila Odinga had to “clarify” what he meant when he appeared to bad-mouth the business.

Greenpeace recently visited Kenya where its researchers found a horrifying picture.

“Vendors at Gikomba market in Nairobi told me they are often disappointed when they open the bales because nearly half of the clothes are unusable. Their quality is poor, or they are broken or soiled and are nothing more than textile waste,” said Viola Wohlgemuth, a circular economy and toxics campaigner at Greenpeace Germany.

Before Kenya became one of the dumping sites of western-generated second-hand clothes, the debate over mitumba would have probably been nationalistic.

Greenpeace, an international lobby, is now raising its voice and arguing that textile waste is often disguised as second-hand clothing and exported from the Global North to the Global South, to avoid the responsibility and costs of dealing with the problem of disposable wear.

“While these exported used clothes and even brand new overproduced ones are mostly reported and recorded as ‘reused’, nearly half of them end up in dumpsites, rivers or are burnt in the open,” the lobby says.

Before the liberalisation of the markets in the late 80s, thanks to the push by the US for African economies to implement James Baker’s free-market plan, the textile industry – though struggling – was still vibrant.

The thinking then was that developing countries would only achieve growth by adopting free market policies.

But this opened floodgates as cheap second-hand clothes found their way into the market, killing the entire textile sector.

About 85 per cent of Kenya’s textile industries closed shop by the mid-1990s.

And Kenya is not alone. Some of Africa’s major producers of cotton – Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Togo and Uganda – now have thriving second-hand markets and no garment industries.

Kenya’s mitumba business is regarded as an avenue by western nations to offload their waste into developing countries – which all end up in dumpsites.

Greenpeace, in a report titled “Poisoned Gifts” says: “With mitumba continuing to drive the demand for used clothes, this has been at expense of locally made products and local textile industries.”

But the main poser is that most of the second-hand clothes sent to Africa are waste. At Gikomba market, it is normal to find waste disguised as clothes.

Greenpeace says between 30 and 40 per cent of mitumba is of such bad quality that it cannot be sold. This means 55,500 to 74,000 tonnes of it is textile waste. This amounts to 150–200 tonnes of textile waste a day.

But banning the second-hand clothes is still difficult, especially for nations on the continent which signed the African Growth and Opportunities Act (Agoa) in order to penetrate the American market.

Agoa, a brainchild of former US President George W Bush, was initially marketed as a scheme to enable countries in Sub-Sahara to export textiles to America.

Attempts to stop the offloading of used American garments to Africa have been followed by bullying since part of the Agoa deal is that the countries could export new clothes to the US and in return allow Washington to export back used clothes.

While donation is said to prevent surplus clothing from going to landfills in western countries, the second-hand clothing business is also believed to be disrupting the emergence of budding textile industries in developing countries.

When Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania attempted to stop the importation of second-hand clothes and apparel from the US in 2015, the Donald Trump administration issued an ultimatum on February 23, 2018 in which they were bullied to rescind the decision or face new tariffs.

Pressure had initially come from United States Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles (SMART) Association, a group of 40 used clothing exporters.

“The move to curb incoming used clothing is a barrier to US trade, which goes against certain requirements under Agoa,” the group argued.

It added that the move threatened 40,000 sorting and packing jobs in America.

As a follow-up, the Office of the US Trade Representative threatened to remove four of the six East African countries included in the Agoa Act.

While Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania backed out under pressure – after a meeting held in Kampala – Rwanda refused and introduced a tariff of $4 per kilo on imports of used clothing in 2018.

Washington responded by putting tariffs of 30 per cent on Rwandan clothing. Rwanda stopped further imports form the US and started building its textile sector.

“We are put in a situation we have to choose. You choose to be a recipient of used clothes or choose to grow our textile industries. Making the choice is simple,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said.

In one of its brochures, SMART justifies the export of used clothes.

“Clothing and household textiles make up 6.3 per cent of the waste stream or the equivalent of 81 pounds per person thrown away annually in the US. Nearly 95 per cent of used clothing and textiles can be reused and recycled. You can help reduce the amount of clothing and textile products going into landfills by reusing or recycling these materials,” it says.

While it adds that recycling textiles saves the environment from tonnes of harsh chemicals, Africa has no recycle capacity and they all end up in the continent’s landfills.

SMART also argues that textile industries in developing countries “can make more money producing clothing for export to wealthier nations in Europe and North America than selling them locally”.

While Rwanda refused to be bullied by the US, the world’s largest exporter of used clothing, it is Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania which continued to be the mitumba outlets.

The trade is organised by charities and organisations that collect the clothes – mostly for free – and sell them in their shops.

The funds, ostensibly, are used to help the poor. Yet, the same donations are later sold in bulk to wholesalers and exporters, killing industries in developing nations.

It has turned into a multimillion-dollar business.

Years ago, Prof Anyang Nyong’o – current Kisumu governor – warned Kenyans against accepting used clothes.

“When new clothes are expensive because our import substitution industries are high cost, and cannot produce clothes cheap enough for our workers, there is a tendency for us to rationalise the situation and say: ‘Let us import second hand clothes cheap enough for wage earners’,” Prof Nyong’o said.

“This is a false argument. We need to make it very cheap for those in textile industries to import the latest state-of-the-art technology in the making of textiles which will cheapen production per unit.”

Greenpeace says some mitumba sent to Africa have no value and end up as waste.

“Either they are not adequate, sizes that don’t fit, or not useful due to the local climate, their quality is poor, or they are broken or soiled and exporting is just a cheap way to get rid of them,” it says.

There is no data on how many bales of clothes contain waste but traders encounter them all the time.

According to the Greenpeace report, an estimated 40 per cent are of such poor quality that hey are deemed worthless on arrival, ending up in landfills.

“The Global North undoubtedly has a waste problem and is perpetuating a legacy of waste colonialism,” Greenpeace says.