Life at Sseko, News, Uganda

{..ready, set…}


I am going to do my best to keep it as succinct as possible. But please, bear with me, here. 

Here is what I DON’T want to do. I don’t want to tell you we have it all figured out. And don’t want to in any way insinuate that we are doing things better than anyone else. What I DO wan’t to do is start a conversation about this issue. 

While I was in Uganda for the first time, there was something that struck me about the “stuff” there.  It was such an interesting picture, to be in Uganda, a million miles from home and see young kiddos running around wearing what looked like to be clothes I might find in my closet circa 1995. At first it was amusing. You’d seeing a boda boda driver wearing an Backstreet Boys t-shirt. Or a little boy wearing a top with Barbie plastered to the front. I even saw a kid wearing a Mizzou Tigers (my alma mater!) shirt. 

I was pretty surprised by the lack of traditional dress and distinctly African fashion. Of course, it existed, but western clothes and fashion is far more prevalent. I would walk down to the Owino market in the middle of the city and literally wander for HOURS through a maze of used clothing. I mean, we are talking twisty miles of 12 foot mini-mountains of t-shirts, jackets, swim suits, business suits and shoes and shoes galore. And all it, clearly came from the West. 

I knew there was not a thriving fashion, garment, textile or footwear industry in Uganda. But what I didn’t know was why.  I guess I just assumed it was the typical African culprits. You know, poor government policies, high transactions costs, poor infrastructure, etc. etc. But the more I thought about it, that didn’t totally make sense. Because those are the things that plagued many of the countries that started in the garment manufacturing industry and are now experiencing some of the fastest economic growth in the world. And it hasn’t always been that way. Perhaps there is another factor, unique to Africa methinks? 

When I started asking the question, the answer I got surprised me. 

It is really hard to compete with free

Did you know that the global trade of second-hand clothing industry is a multi-billion dollar a year business? 

I know this is getting long. But follow me for a few more minutes. Let’s think about how that Mizzou T-shirt got to Uganda. And then think for a second about the implications that t-shirt has.

Ted drops off said t-shirt at his local Salvation Army along with all the other homecoming and fraternity shirts he has managed to collect over his college years. 

There is a likelihood (and high probability) that Salvation Army doesn’t even unpack that donation before they sell a large majority of their second hand clothing donations to a dealer for a pretty nominal price per pound. Those dealers then export to developing countries and sell these donations to second hand clothing dealers in these countries for a 300-400% mark up. 

Those dealers then sell the second hand clothing in the markets, typically making just enough profit to buy another bale of clothing and do it all over again. (Bloemen, T-Shirt Travels.)

Are you still with me? Now, let’s just for a second talk about what happens when a local market is flooded with lower-than-cost-of-production (aka free or donated) goods. 

This isn’t complicate economics I am asking you to consider. You set up a lemonade stand and sell reasonably priced tasty treats. And someone sets up next you. Only they are giving their lemonade away practically for free…

Here are some things to consider: 

The second-hand clothing industry has been steadily growing over the past two decades. That means, people have been giving (and selling) clothes to developing economies more than ever.

Meanwhile…here is how that increase in donated goods has actually affected some African economies:

In the 1990s there were approximately 41 textile and clothing industries in the West African region. By 2004, only six companies were operating at full capacity. And only three of these companies had satisfactory levels of performance and output. 

In Nigeria, one of the largest producers of textiles in Africa, upwards of 80,000 jobs have been lost in the textile and clothing industry in the past ten years. (Barber, 37.)

In the early 1990s, in Zambia, there were 85 clothing manufacturers. In 1991 imports of second-hand clothing become legal and within a decade every single one those manufactures goes out of business and over 10,000 jobs are lost. 

Overall, there are estimates that used-clothing imports are estimated to be responsible for roughly 40% of the decline in apparel production and roughly 50% of the decline in apparel employment in an average African country over the period 1981 to 2000. (Frazer, 21.) 

And do remember this little tidbit: clothing, garment and textile manufacturing has historically provided the first rung on the industrial ladder for developing countries. It is a relatively low-skill, but labor intensive industry that involves relatively low technology, capital and access to natural resources.  As a country begins to profit on this lowest rung of the manufacturing ladder, they accrue physical and human capital and can begin to move into more skill and capital-intensive industries.

And therefore,  log A = g ( U ) + β X + h ( bν ) + η.

Just kidding! In case you felt like you were in class, I thought I would see if you are still awake. (But seriously, that is an equation I came across while researching this very issue. Uh, I skipped that chapter. Numbers and letters smooshed together like that give me the heeby-jeebies.)

I am going to cut myself off here. I think you people are pretty smart and that I probably don’t need to spell out other lasting consequences and implications of these facts. 

Does this make you rethink the way we “give” (or “drop” or “dump”) product on Africa and other developing economies? 

Is our “giving” (in the specific area of non-durable goods) having the effect that we’d hope? 

Seriously, what do you think? Am I way off here? I want to be someone who is constantly learning and growing and changing. And given the information I have, this is where I find myself sitting. But if you think I am off my rocker, I’d seriously love to know that too. And tell me why. I like learning. Even if that means I feel dumb for a couple minutes. 

What if instead of “dropping” clothes and shoes in developing economies, we invested in businesses that are creating these products? Instead of “giving” a pair of shoes, we chose to pay a little more or wait a little longer for products that were made by the members of these communities? 

What if instead of giving our hand-me-downs (or new clothes/shoes for that matter), we gave self-sustaining economic opportunity? What if instead of giving “stuff” we gave our business or invested in businesses, which in turn provides sustainable salaries that send little kiddos to school and put mosquito nets over their beds… 

…and eventually sustainable (and profitable!) industries that give entire nations the ability to end the cycle of poverty?

Just a thought.

Seriously. I’d love to hear yours. If you are still there, that is. 




**Click here for some resources I referenced from people smarter than me**


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  • Reply Sarah V. July 24, 2010 at 2:20 am

    I totally agree Liz and wondered the same thing while I was in Uganda! It is shocking how many thousands of jobs have been lost in the textile and clothing industry over the past ten years.

    This actually touches on something I’ve been researching myself lately. I’m currently reading Dead Aid by Damibsa Moyo, which discusses why aid in Africa actually does more harm than good. While it is a controversial topic and I don’t always agree with Moyo, it is something that I believe deserves attention.

    It really does get me thinking. What is aid? How can aid create long lasting, sustainable change or is it even possible? Does aid create a cycle of dependency?

    I think we have to change the way we view ‘aid’ and donations in general and begin the shift into this direction of creating sustainable solutions. Sseko is a great example of that.

  • Reply Samantha July 24, 2010 at 2:40 am

    Thank you for not only making an incredibly beautiful and intentional product, but for educating me as well. Thank you for making me think harder. I learn so much from you.

  • Reply Liz July 24, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Sarah, I am glad to hear you are reading Dead Aid. I totally agree with you in that I feel like Moyo takes here theory a little far. I think we need to think about aid in a new way, but I also think we need to evaluate each specific type of aid–as opposed to just lumping it all together and calling it uniformly "good" or "bad." But it is a thought provoking read, nonetheless. I really recommend the book The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz. I think she has a much more balanced, but equally as compelling take on aid vs. sustainable development. Thanks for your thoughts 🙂

  • Reply Christina July 24, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Great blog Liz. I was wondering the same thing while in Mali. I’m wondering if Planet Aid is guilty of the same pattern… Perhaps the best thing for people to do is find local entities to donate to – homeless shelters, domestc violence agencies, ERs. But it’s not as easy as dropping bags outside a door at Salvation Army, is it?

  • Reply Sarah July 24, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    Oh I love that book! The Blue Sweater is one of my favorites, because it really argues for less charity and more partnership–investing in entrepreneurs who want to change their own community vs. telling them how to do it. Very powerful read.

    I agree with you when you said we need to be investing in more sustainable businesses, opposed to only giving. The sad truth is that giving ‘stuff’, while not a long lasting solution (and one that sometimes does more harm), is at times more feasible than investing in a business. It’s like you said, it takes more money and more time. It would be great to see more organizations shift in that direction, opposed to just giving hand outs and start creating sustainable solutions like Sseko does. I also think it would an awesome blog to talk about how you got this all started once returning home from Uganda, how you found funding, and what challenges you faced in the development stage. It seems like a daunting task and I’d love to hear how you made it happen!

    You are an inspiration and I really admire your work Liz! 🙂

  • Reply Glen July 26, 2010 at 3:26 am

    When I read this I can only really think about Walmart…

    Walmart has provided the country with comparable (although of a lesser quality) goods for an incredibly cheap price. Now when I need a picture frame i gasp when it costs $40 at a framing boutique instead of the $5 I can get it for at Wally World. And while I really want to help Ms. Pretty-Picture-Framer down the street but I just cant afford it… and if Walmart is shut down it may be great for Ms. Pretty-Picture-Framer, but I don’t get all that much out of it except for really expensive picture frames that I know can be sold for an 8th of the price.

    I realize all of this is surface level and by investing in local sustainable businesses Africa would benefit more, but it is hard to tell millions of people that they now have to pay double or triple (or whatever) the price for clothes when they will still be making the same income if they aren’t part of the textile industry.

    Did that make sense? Sometimes I think I make sense but then I don’t.

    Just a thought.

  • Reply Liz July 27, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Glen, I think I understand what you are saying…two thoughts in response. One, I think that is one of the reasons that to be sustainable and really penetrate a broader market, fair trade/sustainable business needs to be cost competitive. I know, there are lots of fair trade things I would LOVE to support. But the reality is, I have never (and probably will never) be able to pay $90 for a scarf. Now, of course it is unrealistic to think that we could compete or beat the price on products that are massed produced…but I think producing a product that can compete in the category is pretty important. We make pretty big sacrifices to keep all of the costs (that don’t affect our employees’ quality of life and the quality of the product} to an absolute minimum to be able to keep our prices as low as we can. The biggest reason we do that is so we can compete with other products in our category…regardless of how they are made. (I will let you know if that works out 🙂

    But I think the second part of the equation is encouraging consumer education on what it actually costs to make a product and run a fair company. We have been so skewed by major distributors who can afford to sell tons of product with little or no margins (or even taking a loss) that we have really messed with our idea of what the cost/price of goods should be. Agree?

  • Reply Amy September 3, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    I think this is fascinating. But I think the problem is not so much that people need to change the way they think about aid. Honestly, for most people (me included), when they drop a load of old clothes off at goodwill, the primary motivation is not to provide aid to others; the primary motivation is to get those clothes out of my house (in order to make room for more clothes).

    When I read this post, the thing that jumps out at me is that the problem is that we (Americans) need to "give away" less crap. Less used clothes. Less used shoes. All of it. Which means buying less of it.

    Walmart and it's ilk are part of this problem, By providing Americans with a convenient place to buy cheap goods (let's just focus on clothing right now, although this applies to a lot of other goods as well), they have helped to foster a market of "disposable" clothes. (Only, as you point out, they aren't really disposable – they might leave our hands relatively quickly but then they just go on to affect others in massive ways that never occur to most people.) The thing is, if you paid $90 for a scarf, you'd probably keep it for a lot longer than you would if you paid $5 for it at Target. You'd probably think long and hard about whether you needed it, or whether you loved it enough to want it anyway.

    It's a tangled and difficult problem, that's certain. And it goes back to production at the other end of the cycle, and whether cheap goods are manufactured in such a way as to positively affect the societies from which they come or not.

    It makes my head spin to try to sort it all out, actually. BUt I do think it's worth considering.

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