In fact, 70% of donated clothing will end up in markets in Kenya and throughout East Africa, where they form the core of lively local enterprise. Since the 1980s, when Western companies were first given the go-ahead to sell garments that had previously been donated and distributed for free, most people in East Africa own at least one item of clothing that started life in a British store.
That's a major problem for the indiginous textile industry in Kenya, for example, who have seem the figures for their goods go through the floor. Estimates show that the numbers employed by local mills have dropped by over 95% since the 80s. Which brings us to an interesting question facing the Kenyan government. Should they rely strictly on imports, or do something to help their textile industry to live again?
A conference scheduled for November that will be attended by the heads of states of most East African nations is expected to call for a ban on imported second-hand clothes. Their reasoning is straightforward–why should countries with strong traditions of artisinal skill in textiles be dependent on hand-outs of Western discards?
But that could mean the death-knell for markets across the region that rely on just those items. William Ng’ong’a, a used clothes merchant at Gikomba market in Kenya, said in a recent interview with The Guardian:
"I am in this business with my parents, I joined them 10 years ago just after finishing university. It’s the only work I know. I have a degree in commerce which I have never used, but I might be forced to fall back on it if the ban goes through. I am not particularly excited to have to join the overcrowded job market and become a paper pusher because I really love this job."Markets like the one at Gikomba employ thousands of casual workers. All of them face the sack if the ban goes through, and few of them have a degree like William to help them find gainful employment. It's a tricky situation for all involved, with no clear villains or heroes. Everyone just wants to have the chance to make a living. Whichever way the decision goes in November, people are going to lose out.