Three distinct features that confront one soon after stepping in any African bustling city are the seamless flow of informal traders, an avalanche of private taxis, with different monikers across the borders and a vibrant second-hand clothing sector.
Depending on the region, second hand clothes markets known as “chigua”, “mitumba”, “salaula”, “mazitye” or “bhero” have become a 21st Century phenomena in Africa, with reports that it is a billion-dollar industry, with hundreds of ships docking every day in some African harbours to deliver huge consignments.
One of the biggest open markets in Tanzania, Karioke market in Dar es-Salaam, enjoys brisk business in selling second-hand clothes, so does Karatina open air market in Kenya, which also covers other East African countries.
The story is the same when one crosses into Zambia.
It is not unusual to see hordes of people rummaging through second-hand clothes known as “salaula” on the periphery of Kamwala market in Lusaka, Zambia, while Mupedzanhamo in Harare, Zimbabwe, is renowned as the “informal boutique”.
This is despite the existence of Statutory Instrument 99 of 2020 in the country that tightens measures to enforce the ban on the importation of second-hand clothes.
However, African governments might need to revisit their policies on importation of second-hand clothes in their countries in light of hazardous threats that are posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
By Wednesday, 700 000 people had lost their lives to Covid-19, while 20 million had tested positive to the pandemic that is already ravaging some parts of Africa, with South Africa having 500 000 infections.
Without any decisive research having been taken on the existence, or lack thereof, any symbiotic relationship between the consequential effects of the virus and second clothes, African governments should begin to untangle the financial web and cartels behind this billion-dollar industry.
This huge informal sector has also killed some vibrant and most promising textile industries in most African countries since the 1980s.
Secondly, the continued use of second clothing is portrayed as undignified and eroding African pride.
A glean through some academic work that has been done over the years revealed that most of the second-hand clothes finding their way to Africa are often donated for charity. When these huge consignments of donated clothes fail to sell in thrifty shops in countries of origins, they are resold in bulk to commercial textile recyclers.
The garments then find their way to sorting centres that are located in different global regions that include Eastern Europe and Middle East and before being eventually shipped to their final destination — Africa.
It is said that East Africa alone imports over US$150 million worth of used clothes and shoes, largely from the US and Europe.
Faced with such huge cheap imports, textile industries in most African countries, once huge creators of employment in the value chain process, have struggled to regain their yesteryear lustre, leaving thousands jobless.
When Cone Textiles and other clothing companies were closed in 2012 due to viability problems, thousands of families, particularly in the satellite town of Chitungwiza, were thrown into abject poverty.
Different investors later came on board, but the centre could not hold, forcing many to become informal traders illegally, crossing into Mozambique to bring in tonnes of second-hand clothes.
For many, selling second-hand clothes has become not only a source of livelihood, but a lucrative venture.
But is that the trajectory that Africa wants to take? Disruption of human traffic and movement of cargo as result of the effects of Covid-19 should allow nations to resuscitate their once-vibrant textile industries.
When Europe raised alarm that there was likelihood of the shortage of PPEs, most countries had to look within their borders to ensure they had enough protective clothing.
Our own local universities began producing sanitisers and disposable masks for the local market.
In no time, the country was awash with both disposable and non-disposable masks.
That level of ingenuity displayed by local companies and universities shows that our people can do wonders if they are supported financially.
With an abundance of cotton, the country could start small by resuscitating a ginning company to produce poly-cotton.
We have had very sad stories in the textile industry where some local manufacturers benefiting from a tax rebate to import material actually shun local cotton, arguing that it does not produce good quality material.
That is not true.
Such assertions or peddling of falsehoods are meant to destroy the textile industry in Zimbabwe to enrich a few individuals who qualify for the rebate, based on their scale of production.
On a continental scale, African countries that ratified the African Continental Free Trade Area should begin to utilise the vehicle to boost textile trade among themselves .
If member countries can start or consolidate trade relations among themselves, there is no reason why second hand clothes will continue to flood the shores of Africa under the guise that they are cheap and affordable.
Yes, it is a strategy by the second hand clothes merchants to make them cheap so that they totally destroy the textile industry in Africa.
Lastly, African leaders will need to speak with one voice against second hand clothes imports.
Sadly, what has been emerging is a fragmented position on the issue.
In 2014, Rwanda declared that it would no longer allow second-hand clothes.
Rwanda is aiming to make imports of second-hand clothing a thing of the past.
If properly implemented, such a bold declaration will boost opportunities for home-grown businesses.
Following such a robust move in 2019, Rwanda raised import tariffs on such goods. Its decision did not come cheap through, because the United States immediately blocked Kigali from exporting domestically-made clothing duty-free to the US.
Other countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda once tried to take the same route, but stopped dead in their tracks when they were bullied into submission.
Such decisions like what Rwanda did are always painful decisions, but they have to be taken if Africa is to move to another level.
But like what the great Greek philosopher once said, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. African leaders will only conquer as one united bloc.