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"All These Clothes are Secondhand"

In rural Tanzania, there is one thing that is often noticeable in any market area. Next to the usual arrays of vegetable stalls are sections devoted to colorful clothes, some hanging, some in big piles on spread-out sheets on the ground. The clothes are almost exclusively foreign in nature, easily identified with their Korean lettering, Chinese characters, European logos, and even American flags. Yet most show little sign of wear-and-tear, no doubt due to careful selection, cleaning, and ironing. At the equivalent of a couple of USD per shirt, they make for an affordable supply for locals.

And indeed, the popularity of such second-hand clothing among locals is evident by just looking at what people wear on the streets. From the well-known jerseys of Arsenal and Manchester United to the completely unknown uniforms of random high schools and supermarkets in faraway lands, the locals seem not at all deterred by the strange exotic nature of the foreign garments. If anything, they are rather proud of their ability to pay so little price for such sturdy clothing, bragging about how little they paid for a piece that lasted years without damage.

To go a step further, it actually seems many people in rural Tanzania have a higher preference for such foreign secondhand clothing, not primarily due to low cost, but high quality. The mentality goes, "if these things have been used by somebody else for a long time, endured long journey all the way to Africa, and yet still long so new, they must still be usable for a long time to come." Thought this way, spending more money on brand-new clothes with no guarantee of long-term use simply makes no sense. The fact that someone else used it becomes equated with a sense of warranty.

So far, the resultant high demand for secondhand clothing seems to be satisfactorily met by the supply. Donating used clothing, to a certain extent, is a culture in many parts of the more developed world. From the Salvation Army in the US to the street-corner donation boxes in Taiwan, there are plenty of opportunities for secondhand clothing to be obtained, at a minimal cost. Given how much pieces of clothes can fit into a transcontinental container ship or a truck, the logistic cost per piece of clothing can be very effectively suppressed to not burden the final consumer-facing price.

Yet, as these ultra-cheap pieces of secondhand clothing flood the open-air markets of rural Africa from across the world at the benefit of the local consumers, one party in particular suffers. That is the African textiles industry. Histories speak of previously flourishing factories in northern Nigeria or Ghana and newly established ones in Ethiopia, but there is heavy doubt that African-produced clothing can find a mass-market locally. For a local customer base that is used to high quality foreign secondhand clothing, will they be willing to devote little purchasing power to untested African ones?

To make matters worse, it may be difficult for African produced clothing to compete in price with foreign imports. The dismal state of rural Tanzanian, and to an extent, African infrastructure, in general, reflect upon the sheer cost of industrial production. Higher electricity and transport costs can easily offset any advantage Africa has in abundance of cheap unskilled labor. This is not even accounting for systemic political corruption or socialist policy-inspired red tape that would derail the most well-structured business plan.

In any discussions about Africa's so-called "de-industrialization," it is easy for people, especially sensationalizing politicians, to place the blame on either the dark past of colonial economic arrangements or "neo-colonizing" foreign powers like China. But making foreigners the scapegoats for lack of industrial development ignores the fundamental fact that governs the market: locals purchase the highest quality products for the cheapest price. The unfortunate truth is that African industrialists have not found a way to capture the hearts of African consumers.

Nowhere is this unfortunate truth more visible than looking at all the foreign secondhand clothing adorning the bodies of rural Tanzanians. Certainly, people will prefer clothing that has visuals meaning for them, rather than some foreign alphabets they cannot even read, but their personal sense of economic nationalism must be suppressed if there are no good local alternatives to be had. Cheap foreign imports like secondhand clothing are without a doubt threat to African industrialization, but reversing their dominance requires a bit more effort than denouncing their inevitable presence.


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