Zimbabwe in 2015 banned the import of secondhand clothes in an effort to help resuscitate its flagging clothing industry. The government relaxed the ban in January, and secondhand clothing markets continue to provide a source of income for sellers and rock-bottom prices for purchasers in the nation’s deteriorating economy.
BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — “Tshipha lapha! Tshipha lapha!” – a Ndebele phrase for “It’s cheaper here! It’s cheaper here!” — rings out each Saturday and Sunday on Robert Mugabe Way. And the cheaper, the better for shoppers amid Zimbabwe’s crippled economy, where the government limits how much citizens can withdraw from banks each day.
The shouts attract passers-by to Khothama/Kotamai Boutique (the name means “bend down” in Ndebele and Shona) in Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, where individual items — T-shirts, dresses, shorts, underwear — sell for $1 a piece, and sometimes less. Customers bend down to the ground to pick up one item after another from heaps of secondhand clothes.
Such informal businesses throughout the country provide a source of income as well as affordable prices for many Zimbabweans.
The Zimbabwean government in 2015 banned the import of secondhand clothes, saying cheap imports were obstructing local cotton farmers, local clothing makers and retail sellers of Zimbabwe-made goods. But the government relaxed the ban in January, finding it difficult to enforce.
Zimbabwe’s cotton-to-clothing manufacturing chain was vigorous in the 1990s, when it employed 35,000, but in 2015 was on the verge of collapse, with cotton output declining from peak levels of 353,000 metric tons (389,115 short tons) in fiscal 2000 to approximately 102,000 metric tons (112,435 short tons). The government recently has started a multimillion-dollar project to regenerate the industry, beginning with seeds and other aid to rural farmers.
The import ban was part of the effort to aid the industry but was relaxed after it met with complaints not only from vendors but also from buyers, who said the cheap imports were needed so people could clothe themselves affordably.
Buyers source giant bales of secondhand clothes from Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia for as little as $60, and can make up to $500 per bale once the items are sold.
Trader Benhilda Mado, 38, sells skirts, T-shirts and trousers. She says her earnings cover living expenses and school fees for her children.
“My husband is unemployed, so we take turns to come to the market,” she adds. “Sometimes he goes to buy the bales from Mozambique, or Mutare [Zimbabwe], while I remain behind selling.”
She says the market has enabled her family to earn an honest living for 12 years.
Seller Tatenda Moyo, 27, says that while sales aren’t always booming, even on a bad day he can make at least $30. He used to make more before the government began limiting bank withdrawals in April 2016.
This move “has had a negative impact on our income, because people no longer buy as much,” Moyo says. “But we are grateful, because not a day passes without making as much as $30.”
“I am surviving; it is better than staying at home doing nothing,” he says.
Tatenda Chiringa, 23, says selling used clothes will help fund his education. He earns at least $200 per month from his employer, who owns a stall at the boutique.
“I have always wanted to go back to school but did not have the money,” he says. “I am now saving money to go to school. I want to study engineering.”
While the primary motive for purchasers is that the clothes are cheap, there are other reasons to buy.
Eve Padya, a 28-year-old mobile money transfer agent, says the used clothes boutiques often carry a wider variety of sizes. They also enable her to wear known fashion labels that she could not afford from conventional clothing stores.
“I have bought labels like Identity and Zara from the boutique,” she says. “When you buy it from a shop, it costs not less than $30. But you can get the same thing for as little as $2 or even less from Khothama.”
Talent Gumpo, GPJ Zimbabwe
Although used clothes markets provide solace for cash-strapped Zimbabweans, some argue that they would rather buy clothes that haven’t yet been used.
Padya, for instance, refuses to buy secondhand clothes for her infant.
“I prefer going to the shops for my child’s clothes, because I fear that he could catch infections, since these are used clothes,” she says.
Kilumetsi Moyo, 32, who is not related to trader Tatenda Moyo, shares those sentiments.
“I do not buy from Khothama because I fear that the clothes could be contaminated, from the way they are kept and the fact that someone else once wore them,” he says. “I am sure everyone wants to have new clothes, but, in our economy, people cannot afford buying from the shops, as they are expensive. If the economy was not depressed, I am sure everyone would buy new clothes.”
Sekai Nyadare, a 46-year-old sweets vendor, says she buys from Khothama because she cannot afford conventional clothing shops.
“I have five children who look up to me, and I do not make much from my stall here,” she says. “That is why I buy from Khothama.”
Talent Gumpo, GPJ, translated some of the interviews from Ndebele and Shona.
EDITOR’S NOTE: No sources in this article are related.