Everyday, shipping containers packed full of secondhand clothing from Europe and North America are unloaded at Douala’s main port and transported to markets throughout the country. The clothing has been packed into bales and, once arriving in Cameroon, those made up of higher end clothing are channeled to the bigger markets in the main urban centers with lower quality clothing moving to smaller, less-urban markets, and with the lowest quality items finally making their way to the smallest markets. Whether it is the result of foreign generosity, opportunistic middle men, the appeasement of guilty over-consuming consciences in the West or the natural distribution of goods in an open market will depend on who you ask, but whatever the cause, the end result is an abundance of used clothing pervading the markets throughout Cameroon and much of West Africa. Fashionable items being worn in Europe a few months ago can now be bought in the muddy lanes of Munya Market for a couple of dollars; moreover, there is probably a larger stock of H & M clothing in Buea’s markets, than in your average suburban neighborhood back home.
In Buea we noticed this right away and were surprised to see ‘new’ Diesel jeans and Esprit sweaters lining the stalls next to a dirt road on our walk to the office. Apart from the secondhand clothing, other options found in the markets include ‘real’ luxury brands imported from Dubai (this is what all the vendors claim, however, the clothing is obviously fake, of noticeably low quality and much more expensive than the more quality secondhand products shipped in from the west), extremely low quality clothing made in and imported from Asia (which is also more expensive than the secondhand clothing) and traditional African clothing of bright colors and varying patterns. While there are always a few shops selling traditional clothing, the number of stalls offering products from Asia or the West far outnumber them and are only becoming more abundant. In Cameroon, secondhand clothing imported from the West accounted for over 70% of all imported textiles according to some recent reports, with similar percentages found in a number of other countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
While it may seem like a noble idea to ship secondhand goods from wealthier areas to regions with limited goods and smaller economies, there are many questions that arise as to how this influx of foreign goodwill affects developing economies. Throw into the equation the mass importation of cheap goods from Asia, and it is understandable why it is difficult for African companies or industries to survive, let alone emerge in this environment. We have read that the textile industry in Nigeria has dwindled in the last decade or so, unable to compete with these types of imports; likewise, in Cameroon there is little produced locally. Outside of the export of raw materials, Cameroon’s economy is largely undeveloped. There aren’t necessarily easy solutions, but it seems clear that aid sent in the form of used goods and well-meaning intentions are actually counterproductive. While many African countries do need aid, perhaps it is more important to provide assistance in ways that encourages the local economy, as opposed to making it dependent on the continuance of Western over-consumption and subsequent generosity.
We’re not sure what the solutions are, but seeing the reality of this type of assistance on the economy and local Cameroonians has influenced our perspective. There are times when giving secondhand goods are definitely beneficial and this type of assistance has profited many people in poorer countries; however, it is not always a solution. There are countless ways to partner with those in need and it is exciting to see the creative and innovative approaches that are being taken to accomplish this. These may not be the ‘quick fix’ solutions that have been common to this point, but will likely be a welcome change and much more beneficial in the long term.