The current dispute over the trade deal, he said, exposed “the underbelly of globalization.”
Kenya, for example, had half a million workers in the garment industry a few decades ago. That number has shrunk to 20,000 today, and production is geared toward exporting clothes often too expensive for the local market. In Ghana, jobs in textiles plunged by 80 percent between 1975 and 2000. Many people in Zambia, which produced clothes locally 30 years ago, can now only afford to buy imported secondhand clothes.
Although many support government efforts to build national textile industries, they say that the ban on used clothing should be done incrementally.
In Rwanda, where the per capita gross domestic product is $700, many people oppose the ban, saying it has thrown thousands out of jobs distributing and selling secondhand clothes and has hurt the nation’s youth in particular.
Since Rwandan import tariffs on used garments have been raised 12 times, clothes sellers in Kigali have watched their revenues plummet. The government decision was premature, they said, put in place before the country was able to produce clothes that are affordable. And though the ban excludes imports of secondhand clothing, it hasn’t stopped the influx of more expensive new clothing from China.
Peter Singiranumwe, 26, relied on selling used clothing to help pay for his rent and studies in telecommunications and engineering. “Now I’ll have to stop because I don’t make enough money anymore,” he said. “It’s impossible.”
And the question remains whether Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda are ready to build a textile industry of their own.
Vital ingredients for that to happen are still missing, and cutting off imports of used clothing alone is unlikely to fix the problem, some in the industry say. Energy and transportation costs in Rwanda are among the highest in Africa, there is a dearth of skilled workers in tailoring and light manufacturing, and imports of high-quality materials like fabric and yarn are prohibitively expensive.
There’s also the question of the size and purchasing power of the local consumer market. “Do we have a ready market here to which we can feed ‘Made In Rwanda’ clothes to the population?” asked Johannes Otieno, the manager of Utexrwa, which makes uniforms for the army, the police and hospitals.
Mr. Otieno said he opposes the East African ban on secondhand clothing, questioning what Rwanda would do if the United States ejected it from the trade deal.
“A country cannot survive alone,” he said. “We depend on America for a lot of things. We’re not stable enough to say, ‘We don’t need you anymore.’”