There has been a lot of cheer from policymakers about the recent decision by the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to ban the import and sale of second-hand clothing bales across Africa. Guttural noises have been made about how this is good for Africa and its infant industry that needs to be protected from foreign players. I cannot speak for the whole of Africa, all I know is that this and the 2015 ban on clothing bales in Zimbabwe are elitist moves that will hurt the majority of ordinary Zimbabweans who cannot afford new clothes. There is barely a local textile industry to talk of here anymore.
While the stated intent of these bans is to boost the local textile industries and encourage value-addition, the reality is that the Zimbabwean textile industry has collapsed and is unable to meet the clothing needs of the population. Banning affordable second-hand clothing will leave many Zimbabweans without decent clothing options. All you need to do is walk into one of the boutiques in Harare and look at the price tags. How will an ordinary Zimbabwean be able to afford a US$30 jacket in winter when they earn less than a dollar a day? Experience has shown that such local producers when protected from foreign competition, never bother to become more efficient and reduce costs. In comparison, a jacket costs US$5 at Mupedzanhamo the local second-hand bale outlet.
The informal sector has thrived on importing and selling second-hand clothes which most citizens rely on. Thousands of informal traders and their families survive on this business. Banning it would take away their livelihoods. Many of these traders are sole breadwinners supporting extended families. The reality is that the second-hand (bales) industry probably benefits and employs more people than the local textile industry which the authorities are seeking to protect.
In any case, the ban on secondhand clothes is not going to benefit the local textile industry anyway. These formal local clothing retailers largely import new clothes and shoes from countries like China. All the ban is going to do is merely benefit these boutiques as it does not apply to them. Their products are expensive for average Zimbabweans who live on less than $1 per day. Very few local companies still manufacture clothes, with most having closed down over the years due to mismanagement and failure to modernise. David Whitehead, once a major textile company, was run down by incompetent managers and eventually shut down.
The few textile players left in Zimbabwe cannot produce enough clothes to meet local demand. Zimbabwe exports the bulk of its cotton because the moribund local industry lacks the capacity to absorb it. Even if they wanted to make clothes for the local market, they do not have the resources – their equipment is outdated and the skilled workforce has disappeared.
It would take many years and significant investment in new machinery and skills training to rebuild the manufacturing capacity required to produce enough affordable clothing for millions of Zimbabweans. In the meantime, banning affordable second-hand bales will not spur demand for expensive few locally made clothes that are not readily available anyway. It will leave the majority of Zimbabweans without affordable clothing options. Many will be forced to go naked.
The ban shows a callous disregard for the masses by policymakers. While a few wealthy individuals in the protected textile industry may benefit from reduced competition, millions of poor Zimbabweans will suffer from lack of choice. The elitist ban is similar to other short-sighted policies that the Zimbabwean government has made over the years that ended up hurting citizens rather than helping them. It is about as useful as a similar clamp on second-hand Japanese vehicles. The strict ban has not boosted the local industry as the government claimed it would.
Banning products without understanding economic realities on the ground and people’s needs is a recipe for failure. Such top-down directives that ignore empirical facts usually backfire in Zimbabwe. They tend to be driven by elite interests rather than a desire to uplift ordinary people. Rather than banning affordable clothing options for millions of impoverished people, leaders should focus on reviving the economy and textile industry through prudent long-term reforms to empower businesses and citizens. With decent incomes and employment opportunities, Zimbabweans will be able to afford new clothes, which will drive growth in the textile and retail sectors.
The government also needs to invest in modernizing the few remaining textile factories and providing technical skills training to workers to boost productivity and quality. Planning ahead to meet future domestic clothing demands makes more sense than simply banning products ordinary people rely on. As long as the economy is in shambles and people earn meager incomes, they will opt for cheaper second-hand bales that clothe families for as little as $1 for two. Banning bales without providing viable alternatives is cruel.
If the Zimbabwean government wants citizens to wear locally-made new clothes, it should resuscitate the textile industry and also empower people to afford those clothes. An abrupt outright ban reflects how out of touch the policy makers are with the daily struggles of citizens. The AfCFTA and Zimbabwean government should reconsider this ban and instead introduce gradual phased policies to rebuild the textile industry in tandem with empowering citizens through job creation and poverty reduction programs.
Banning products that millions rely on without understanding the socio-economic implications is not prudent policymaking. It ignores ground realities faced by citizens. While AfCTFA aims to encourage industrialization and self-sufficiency across Africa, which is commendable, the immediate banning of second-hand clothes will do more harm than good in Zimbabwe’s current economic environment. A more phased, incremental approach would be advisable.
Bans are just one side of the equation. The trade bloc should have invested resources to empower local textile industries first. An outright ban should only be implemented once Zimbabwe’s clothing factories have the capacity to produce quality, affordable clothes for domestic consumption. As it stands, this ban is impractical and divorced from reality. It will spawn shortages, the rise of expensive smuggled bales, the emergence of cartels and the growth of corruption. A poorly conceptualized policy made in ignorance of ground conditions will hurt those it claims to protect – ordinary African citizens.
AfCTFA and member states should go back to the drawing board to come up with realistic policies that uplift local industries while also safeguarding consumer welfare, particularly for the poor. Good policymaking requires foresight and empathy. This ban reflects neither.