Chagua, or vintage clothing, is sold throughout Rwanda in every single public market. Stalls and stalls of baby clothes, soccer jerseys, sweatshirts, shoes, and dresses line the aisles, with salesman offering discounts on the newest imports. This informal industry is reportedly worth millions of US dollars and, according to the UN, the East African Community imported $151 million worth of vintage clothing in 2016.
In an effort to discourage these imports, and focus on improving East Africa’s own textile industry, several East African nations – including Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Burundi – will eliminate the sale and import of secondhand clothing in 2019. The majority of this used clothing comes from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, leading to a controversial decision that has resulted in a trade dispute, as well as angered both market salesman and industry workers who will likely lose their jobs.
In response to the ban, the Office of the US Trade Representative threatened to withdraw the membership of Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) – an act that grants much of sub-Saharan Africa duty-free access to US markets for items like oil and produce. The Office argued that economic cooperation between East African nations and the US was paramount to the continuation of AGOA, and that the clothing ban rendered the deal disadvantageous to the United States. Meanwhile, Kenya recently canceled its plan to impose the ban after increasing pressure from the US, although no countries have yet been removed from AGOA just yet.
Rwandan trade officials have called out this reprimand as an inappropriate response to what should be an insignificant issue. In a quote to The Guardian, the chief of staff to the secretary general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development noted, “Morally, EAC consumers shouldn’t be punished for their changing tastes and growing middle class.”
In spite of government and regional support, not all Rwandans approve of this ban. Many people in Rwanda are nervous about where citizens will purchase their clothes, as the textile industry is quite juvenile. Most ‘Made in Rwanda’ clothing pieces are crafted by well known Rwandan fashion designers, rendering the clothes far more expensive than what the average Rwandan can afford.
Regardless, in a quote to The New Times in reference to the ban and AGOA controversy, Rwandan President Paul Kagame commented, “This is the choice we find that we have to make. As far as I am concerned, making the choice is simple, [and] we might suffer consequences. Even when confronted with difficult choices, there is always a way.”