By Angela Pereira
It’s Saturday morning in Blantyre and I’m on a treasure hunt.
At the city market, I meticulously pick through a mound of wrinkly clothes, searching for my ‘treasure’—maybe a Guess? t-shirt or Zara jeans for which I can haggle. It’s one of my favourite weekend pastimes and judging from the four Malawian women purposefully searching around me, I’m not alone.
In Malawi, as in most of the developing world, donated Western clothing has become standard, supplanting local garments and hobbling the country’s textile industry.
Second-hand attire is cheaper than local garments, undoubtedly filling a need in a country where one-third of the population lives on less than $1 a day.
“They are the clothes I can afford,” says 22-year-old Chance Mfune. She explains that a used suit at the market would cost less than 500 MWK ($3 CAD), while a tailored suit from Malawi fabrics could run her up to 1800 MWK ($12 CAD).
Used clothes flooded Malawi’s market after 1994, when the government introduced structural adjustment policies at the World Bank’s behest and liberalized trade policies.
For Malawi’s own textile industry, “it was a shock that we have not recovered from,” says Kantilal Desai, former chairman of Malawi’s textile association.
According to Desai, six factories employing about 10,000 people produced clothes for Malawians before 1994. Once squeezed from the internal market, textile companies exported to South Africa and the United States instead. But a South African trade ban and an unreliable transportation system proved these arrangements to be unsustainable, says Desai.
Now, fewer than 3,000 Malawians work in the garment industry and they “are on oxygen,” says Desai. “They can go at any time.”
Professor Ben Kaluwa, a University of Malawi economics lecturer, recently hosted a debate on Malawi’s industrial challenges. At the event he said Malawi has not successfully added value to its primary commodities, making it one of the most import-dependent countries in the world.
For example, Malawi not only imports used clothes – it also imports the fabric on which to print textiles, despite being a cotton producer.
Desai is pushing government to revamp the ailing industry by supporting a plan that would see Malawi producing fabric from its cotton. But two things are missing: private investment and the political will to entice that investment.
“We don’t even know from government when we will have enough energy and water to support the industry,” he says. “Would you expect an investor to put millions of dollars here?
For Desai, the labour-intensive garment industry is worth the effort because it could boost Malawi’s flailing economy.
“How else do you give jobs to those 400,000 drop-outs?” he says referring to the number of Malawian students who never reach secondary school.
It’s a question that resonates with me at the Blantyre market. I think back to my youth, when I would dutifully donate my out-of-fashion jeans to the church clothes drive, feeling good that I was undoubtedly helping ‘people in need.’
But in the tangled world of international trade, investment, and foreign aid, it’s never that simple.