Can a small fish turn the tide? A desolate tailor shuddered to think about the bleak future of local clothing industry amid the booming of second-hand clothes’ business valued at $1 billion (US$3.1 million) annually—a tenfold leap since 1990. Making new clothes was Jamieson Phiri’s mainstay as the country struggles with high employment figures, but his customers are vanishing as most Malawians resort to kaunjika for affordable wear. The rival trade does not just create jobs when it comes to transporting, selling, cleaning, repairing and restyling the used clothes. It also provides low-cost clothing in a country where 40 percent of the population is trapped in poverty. However, kaunjika is reducing Phiri to a mender of worn-out second-hand clothes—a glimpse of how the textile and clothing industry in the country is sagging under the weight of bales and bales of imported used clothes. “Probably 90 percent of the clothing Malawians buy are second-hand,” says Phiri, who plies in Blantyre Central Business District. “As a small fish, how can I compete with the multimillion dollar industry kaunjika has become?” In recent years, South Africa and Nigeria have banned import of secondhand clothes to safeguard their textile industries. Just two years ago, Malawi contemplated this path, but it was abandoned amid public outcry. As a result, the country’s textile industry—which marks a first step for UK’s accelerated transformation towards industrialisation—is piralling downwards. In The African Textile and Clothing Industry: From Import Substitution to Export Orientation, researcher Herbert Jauch says countries that defied UK’s path and tried to concentrate their first development stages on heavy industries like Russia and China usually failed and had to reconsider their growth pattern in later years. A vibrant textile industry, today, could stimulate similar growth of the labour-intensive manufacturing industry in Malawi. But can the country build a vibrant textile and clothing industry? Jauch argues that at no point before 1960, before the World Trade Organisation came into being, did any country ever try to develop its clothing sector and open up to competition without applying some protection for its infant industries. He writes: “No industry was ever able to survive in open competition on domestic or foreign markets before it had a chance to mature within a protected environment. “Customs duties and other protective measures were always intended to equalise between productivity differentials, and most countries applied a full import ban when it fitted their own industry,” he writes. Should the country ban the importation of second-hand clothing? Although Phiri dislikes the second-hand clothes to be in the market, he feels there is no alternative because locals cannot produce enough clothes to meet the demand of nearly 15 million people in the country. “We need to promote the manufacturing and production side of local businesses before we can start thinking of banning second-hand clothes,” he says. Exploring the phenomenon, Andrew Brooks, a development geographer at King’s
College London, observes that banning second hand clothing cannot solve anything. In the study Unraveling the Relationships between Used-Clothing Imports and the Decline of African Clothing Industries, he asserts that there is already another threat to the local industries:
Chinese imports that are even cheaper than the Western hand-me-downs and locally made clothes. It states: “One of the problems is that these local clothing industries are often more expensive than clothing that’s produced in Asia. If you ban second-hand clothing sometimes this gets replaced with imports of clothing from China or elsewhere in the Far East.” On the other hand, economist Sam Mpasu says the fact that secondhand clothing bolster incomes and livelihoods of some Malawians, banning the trade would instantly worsen poverty levels. “You are talking of people employed in such wholesales as Development Aid from People to People [Dapp] shops. You are talking of transporters. You are talking of transporters. You are talking of sellers. You are talking of those working in Indian shops.
And you are talking of taxes. So it’s quite sensitive area,” says Mpasu. Spokesperson for the Ministry of Trade and Industry Wiskes Nkombezi argues that it is not easy to take sides on the question of regulating the inflow of kaunjika and Chinese goods. “Maybe the magic is market segmentation, how producers target potential customers. Some companies were exporting to the Southern Africa Customs Union [Sacu] and Africa Growth Opportunity Act [Agoa] markets in the face of the same challenges,” says Nkombezi. He reckons it is better for the country to work on its competitiveness so that it reduces costs of production. Challenges will always be there. Save for the problems textile firms faced with the Sacu market and uncertainty surrounding Agoa’s third country fabric provision which has now been extended to 2015, other problems stifling local clothing sector include intermittent power and high costs of transporting and exporting. Nkombezi says government is striving to reform and improve the business environment in the country to attract more investment both foreign direct and domestic investment.