Uganda has adopted a second hand culture

While commenting on the many and
increasingly daunting development challenges confronting the National
Resistance Movement (NRM) government, a Ugandan lamented that the country had
become a “used culture” meaning that almost everything sold in Uganda is secondhand
such as vehicles, furniture and even tanks and aircraft. He added that the
traditional dress made from local cotton had become as rare as the mountain gorilla.
Another Ugandan stressed that the secondhand clothes had become a problem that
within ten years the
Uganda culture would
be dead because of imported used products. The ocean of used clothes portrays the
image that Ugandan products were worthless.


Commercial trade in used clothes is
growing rapidly in developing countries but has met with stiff resistance in
some countries in part because they undermine local industries with many
adverse consequences including loss of jobs and foreign exchange, developing
countries are used as waste disposal, Africa gets the worst grades (secondhand
clothes are graded as the good, the bad and the ugly with the latter going to Africa)
and most important of all is the assumption that they were the dead white person’s
clothes and were never even washed before shipment to remove the diseases. In
2001 used clothes was one of
America’s major
exports to
Africa fetching $61.7 million. Some
industrialized countries subsidize the secondhand clothes making them even
cheaper in the markets of developing countries.


The protestors have demanded the
imposition of high tariffs or outright bans. They have also demanded that
clothes which were originally donated to benefit the poorest of the poor should
not be sold for profit. Some African countries have banned used clothing altogether
to protect their own domestic textile industries.   

Used clothes first entered Uganda illegally
Rwanda and they were
called ‘
Rwanda’. Eventually Uganda formally
opened its door to secondhand clothes under the name of mivumba. One senior
Ugandan official admitted that the importation and sale of secondhand clothes
in his country was imposed from outside. At the Owino market in
Kampala, the capital
Uganda, one finds
every imaginable garment including underwear, all in second hand. It attracts
all classes of customers including government ministers.

Uganda used to
manufacture its own clothes and to market surplus to neighboring countries and
beyond fetching the badly needed foreign exchange. The arrival of globalization
and its components of trade liberalization, export diversification and
comparative advantage which have condemned
Uganda to the
production of primary agricultural, timber and fish commodities have helped to
Uganda’s textile

With its high quality cotton, second
only to Egypt’s, and the necessary infrastructure and expertise Uganda is still
capable of producing its own clothes and some for export thanks to the Africa
Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000 opening the American market and the European
markets to all products but arms from least developed countries of which Uganda
is one. However, selling
Uganda textile
products in
Uganda market or
elsewhere has been rendered difficult by the dumping of foreign used clothes
and increasingly by new and cheaper clothes from the Asian region.

Reports from Jinja, the industrial hub
Uganda, observe that
the Southern Range Nyanza Ltd, the local textile manufacturer, was stuck with
products worth Uganda Shillings 2 billion because of cheap imports. The prices
of dumped and likely subsidized products are much lower than the locally
produced textiles. Ipso facto, the
factory was no longer functioning at full capacity and had reduced the purchase
of cotton from farmers who have lost a vital source of income. To make ends
meet, the factory was in the process of laying workers off, the worst thing to
contemplate at a time of rising un-employment and under-employment especially
of young workers who have no any other source of income a situation that is
leading them into crime in order to survive. Unfair import competition is also
adversely affecting other sectors of the economy witness the imported powdered

As we have argued already in the local
Uganda will have to
industrialize if it is going to meet the challenge from jobless workers and
reduce dependence on foreign aid which comes with stringent conditions. The
soft option of increasing police, prison and court services to stem the rising
crime will not work because the underlying problem is economic. The long-term
solution will have to come from adopting the appropriate economic policies and
strategies that will include actual promotion of small and medium-scale
industries (not to talk even passionately about the need to promote them) that
have a high labor-absorptive capacity especially of young and inexperienced
workers entering the job market for the first time. This is an area where
strategic government intervention is unavoidable to correct the imperfections
of the market mechanism that
Uganda has nurtured
since 1987. The high interest rate that has prohibited the emergence of small
and medium businesses in the name of keeping inflation at 5 percent per annum
will have to be relaxed with a compromise struck between the level of inflation
and a stimulus package to absorb labor. We are dealing with political as well
as technical issues that require political economy solutions – not only
technical as is the case at the moment.

These proposed arrangements will also
help the authorities to address the right to work which is proclaimed in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights whose 60th anniversary will be
celebrated later this year and codified in the International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as in the African Charter on Human
and People’s Rights.

Taking such steps – and soon is
essential to avoid the wrath of jobless workers as the country approaches elections
in 2011. The people of
Uganda are beginning
to understand their inalienable human rights including the right to work under decent
conditions and for remunerative wages as well as to live in good houses and
wear decent clothes. Therefore they should not be taken for granted any longer.

As we sum up, let us remember that
apart from the indignity and health risks of wearing used clothes, the decision
to import secondhand clothes into Uganda has undermined efforts to
industrialize and to attract more farmers into the cotton growing business and to
enable the country shift from subsistence to a commercial economy and society
the cornerstone of the NRM’s original intention. There is still time to change
course provided the leadership muster sufficient political will to take and
implement bold decisions. Too much time has been spent on soft options and
discussions both of which have outlived their usefulness. The time for promises
is over. It is now time for concrete actions with definite and tangible improvements
in the living standards of all Ugandans.