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March 14, 1996

Old Clothes Are Hot Item in Kenya


NAIROBI, Kenya -- Martin Eshitemi had to bargain hard for his latest sartorial acquisition, haggling a good 15 minutes with the owner of a wooden stall overflowing with shirts.

When it was over, the taxi-driver paid $1.50 for his prize: a used T-shirt with the NFL logo on the sleeve and Budweiser emblazoned across the chest.

"I don't know what Budweiser means," Eshitemi, 36, acknowledged as he stuffed the shirt into a plastic bag. "I bought it because I like foreign designs. I can't get these kinds of T-shirts in the local shops. I'm looking for some jeans to go with it."

All along the crooked dirt streets of the Gikomba market here, hundreds of merchants were ripping open bales of clothes with knives, spilling shirts, pants, underwear, all manner of clothes, into rough-hewn kiosks.

As hawkers sang out prices in Kiswahili, crowds of buyers surged around the stands with the latest shipments, jostling to get the first pick of sweaters, hats, jeans, shoes, slacks, even three-piece suits -- all second-hand.

This sprawling and muddy market in East Africa's biggest city is the final destination for tons of clothes that Americans and Europeans give away each year to charities like the Salvation Army and Goodwill. But by the time they reach the Gikomba stalls, they are anything but charitable gifts.

In fact, the second-hand clothes market is a growing, multi-million dollar industry here, a capitalist free-for-all where dozens of middlemen make a profit before the consumer finally wears the clothes.

Last year, American companies exported more than $81.1 million worth of cast-off clothes to sub-Saharan Africa, making worn textiles one of the top eight exports to the continent, rivaling airplanes and wheat.

Most of the clothes come from charities in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, U.S. Commerce Department officials say. Only a fraction of the clothes many charities collect are re-sold or given away to the poor in their own region. The rest are sold to companies known as "ragpickers," which sort and export them, executives in the business said.

The charities say that selling the clothes for resale abroad is the best way to use some of the clothing donations they receive to raise funds and serve their clients.

"Americans throw away gobs of good clothes, and they get graded, fumigated, baled and exported," said Sally Miller, who heads the Africa desk at the Commerce Department. "For Africans, these are garments being sent over, not rags."

Every morning, tons of second-hand clothes, packed tightly in 100-pound bales, are trucked to Nairobi from the port of Mombasa. Known in East Africa as "mutumba," the bales of used garments fuel a booming industry that provides thousands of jobs, from truck drivers to hawkers to tailors working out of doors in the marketplace.

Markets like Gikomba can be found in almost every major city and in many small towns in Africa. Zaire alone imports $11 million worth of mutumba from the United States each year; Niger is second with $9 million. By some estimates, one-third of the 550 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa are walking around in cast-off clothing.

"There isn't a single market in Africa you can go to and not find second-hand clothing," said Joseph Wanjohi, the spokesman for the Kenya's Ministry of Commerce and Industry. "The original donor to a charity probably doesn't know that somewhere down the line, someone is making money."

The Kenyan government attempted for years to ban or restrict the sale of imported cast-offs in order to protect its textile industry. A few years ago, President Daniel arap Moi even suggested in speeches that people could contract diseases by buying used clothes. But importers continued to smuggle the clothes into the country anyway, attracted by the seemingly inexhaustible demand.

"We have banned it and unbanned it," said one Kenyan official. "We have done everything we can, but we can't get rid of it. They are giving job opportunities to a lot of people in the low income group."

Last summer, the government gave up trying to interdict the clothes and instead slapped a 85 cent-per-pound import duty on the shipments. The tariff has eroded the profits of some of the merchants in the market and persuaded some Mombasa importers to switch to other products, officials say, but it has hardly dampened the enthusiasm of consumers.

The reason for the used clothing's popularity is clear. With the gross national product per person hovering at $260 a year, most Kenyans cannot afford to buy new clothes sold in shops, where the prices are comparable to those in Europe or the United States. Even middle-class office workers, students and shop clerks come to the Gikomba market to outfit themselves, shoppers said.

A two-piece designer suit can be purchased in the market for $16, while even the cheapest domestic-made suits cost more than $100 in downtown Nairobi. A pair of wool slacks can be bought for $6. A plain T-shirt or a pair of cotton trousers can be picked up for as little as 50 cents or $1.

Beside the kiosk owners, the market is full of ordinary people who are buying clothes they hope to re-sell in the countryside, or even in the market itself. For instance, there are dozens of youths who purchase a couple of choice shirts each day, mend them and then resell them for just enough profit to get something to eat and start over again the next day.

"That's my routine," said Godfrey Karugu, 22, who was trying to find buyers for two dress shirts he had bought one recent morning for $3. "I take them to a tailor and I will try to sell them for 300 shillings" -- about $6.

"You really suffer a lot here," he said. "It's just for survival really."

Many of the shoppers in the market said they prefer the American clothes to local products, not just because the fabrics are more durable, but because American products have a certain cachet here.

So while tourists are paying hard currency for the traditional Kenyan clothes like kikois and kangas, Kenyas are scrapping together their money to buy T-shirts with logos like those of the Chicago Bulls or New York Knicks. Hats with sports logos are all the rage among young Africans, along with washed out jeans and T-shirts sporting beer advertisements.

"The main thing is that the clothes be from the U.S.," said Richard Njeru, 22, who was shopping in the market sporting a Chicago Bears hat and matching T-shirt. "Especially if they have the names of sports teams, you know -- NFL, NHL, NBA."

Not everyone is making a killing in the market. Since the government started charging a tariff on the imports, small- and medium-sized merchants have found themselves squeezed. The major importers in Mombasa have raised the price of bales to cover the duty, but the wholesalers and retailers cannot pass the cost along to consumers without risking pricing themselves out of the market.

Some have complained that the higher duty means they can never hope to make enough to import the clothes themselves. The market is dominated by a few importers, who either have the money to pay the tariffs or, more often, to bribe customs officials and evade the tariff altogether.

Grace Shira, one of several women who own wholesaling operations in the market, says she is now making less than $4 a bale for some items. A 100-pound bale of top-grade T-shirts, for example, costs her about $76 to buy from an importer these days, but she can only get about $80 from the retailers in the market.

"People are getting tired because they are working for nothing," she said. "Sometimes we don't make anything. We have to sell them at a loss. If the government agreed to lower the duty, we could import for ourselves."

Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company

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