Men and women walk through a crowded marketplace with large bags and other purchases clutched in their hands. Stalls line the street, covered in clothing hung haphazardly from lines and scrap metal or in cluttered heaps on tables.
But this isn’t in some large metropolitan center of the world — it’s Gikomba market in Nairobi, Kenya, where used clothing is sold and sometimes resold to marketers from around east Africa.
Virtually all of the clothing that makes its way to Gikomba is used and brought in on shipping containers. Those containers, mostly filled with clothing suitable for warmer climates, are then bought by traders and the owners of the stalls, where the clothing gets sold.
Last week a fire ravaged the market and destroyed many of those stalls. The Kenyan government has promised to help rebuild the market, even though many east African leaders would like to see the used clothing sales put to a stop.
Kenya once had its own bustling textiles market, with around 500,000 people working in mills like Rift Valley Textiles (Rivertex) and Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi) in the 1980s.
But today those numbers have declined by more than 96% to about 20,000, and local production of clothing has all but ceased in some areas.
One tailor from the Ivory Coast, which also receives tons of used clothing shipments per year, reports that orders go up around big feast days and holidays. These few orders come mainly from Muslim women, who don’t usually wear western style clothes.
But for the most part, the used clothing trade has swallowed the demand for more traditional African textiles.
Americans who donate clothes each year collectively give 14.3 million tons of it, which then goes directly to the poor and to secondhand shops. Perhaps most often, however, it ends up in Africa, where Oxfam reports that 70% of global clothing donations end up.
Kenya, alone, is the biggest importer of used clothing, shoes, and accessories, bringing in about 100,000 metric tonnes of these items per year. Most of these were rejects from thrift stores or charities, and some came from bogus recycling companies in the west.
Additionally, those clothes are sold for cheap, so people shopping at Gikomba — who typically live on about $2 per day — are able to buy for themselves and their families.
And that presents a dilemma for leaders in countries like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, who want to see a return to local textile manufacturing but don’t want to destroy the bustling trade found in Gikomba and elsewhere. Several countries already ban the trade of used clothing, and others are considering it.