Uganda Hopes to Ban Markets From Selling Secondhand Clothing

Half of the country’s population wears secondhand clothing, including underwear, posing serious health risks.
Betty Nabweteme, 33, selling secondhand bras in a stall in Uganda’s largest market. (Photo: Amy Fallon)
Dec 30, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Amy Fallon is a freelance journalist currently based in Uganda.

Betty Nabweteme is standing in a stall in Owino, Uganda’s largest market, one hand acting like a coat hanger, with an assortment of bras hanging off it.

“This is from Korea,” says the 33-year-old as she holds up a black bra. She has been a vendor selling an array of imported underwear from places such as Asia, the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia six days a week for eight years.

“I am trying to survive through this. It helps my family,” Nabweteme continues, explaining that the undergarments cost $1.40 each if they’re good quality or less than a dollar if they’re damaged. This is cheaper than the brand-new ones sold in a local supermarket chain, which start at about $4 and come from Thailand, China, and Dubai.

Owino, Uganda’s largest market. (Photo: Amy Fallon)

Uganda imports at least 1,500 tons of secondhand clothing annually from the United States alone, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission, though the U.K. and other nations also contribute. Called mivumba or mitumba, this clothing, courtesy of Western thrift stores, is worth more than $2 million and includes fast-fashion labels and high-end wear.

Mayambala Wafrika, chairperson of the Worldwide African Congress, a nonpartisan grassroots lobby group, claims that more than half the Ugandan population wears secondhand clothes, including underwear.

Local designers argue that the secondhand imports undermine local efforts, and activists reportedly want a bill introduced in parliament that bans vendors from selling secondhand underwear.

Secondhand clothing hanging in a Kampala mall store called BOLD. (Photo: Amy Fallon)

The Ugandan government has long been talking about banning secondhand items, to no avail. “The fact that a person in the West wears a knickers or a bra for more than one year and then throws it away to the charity dustbin, then it is brought to Africa for us to wear, is a disgrace to our society. Some secondhand undergarments are so dirty to the extent that you can vividly see spots of anal and genital fluids in them. They pose serious health risks,” says Wafrika.

The East African country proposed a National Textiles Policy in 2009 that would have phased out secondhand clothes by the end of this year. The dilemma is that Ugandans need affordable clothing, but local designers face stiff competition from cheaper imports.

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Catherine & Sons, a Ugandan label, will start manufacturing underwear in February. Prices are yet to be determined, but the company says underwear will start at $3 and sets at $6. It says competition from the secondhand market is already “relentless,” but when it comes to underwear, “the cheap Chinese imports are a bigger threat as one cannot compete at such low prices against the Chinese. So we cannot ever compete on price but on quality.”

But Wafrika points out that local textile companies lack “government support.”

Nabweteme is still traveling across Kampala weekly to buy bales, which arrive at Kenya’s coastal port, Mombasa, and then travel overland to neighboring Uganda, normally costing up to $230 each and containing more than 300 bras.

Normally she can make a profit of $29 on a good day, and $15 on a bad day, but she must put in very long hours.

“Only lately it’s been quite bad, because taxes on these things are really, really high,” says Nabweteme. In 2013, the Uganda Revenue Authority announced it would hike up charges on secondhand imports. “That policy that the government has talked about treats us quite badly. New bras are very, very expensive, and people cannot afford them.”