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Tanzania: A Second-Hand Economy?

How have used American and European clothes created a market in Tanzania?

June 24, 2005

How have used American and European clothes created a market in Tanzania?

The most stunning scenery in Tanzania is not the savannah landscape, but the African women. They stand taller and prouder than women anywhere, perhaps from years of carrying bananas and flour on the tops of their heads, perhaps from years of holding the country together.

The white women — European backpackers, lunching diplomatic wives, missionary aid workers — fade away in comparison, graceless and silly in the shadow of the African queens.

Many of the African women in Dar Es Salaam are draped in the brilliantly colored native cloth, graceful folds wrapping their strong bodies and stronger spirits. They are brilliantly colored splashes across the poverty and grief of Tanzania.

The men are a muted background to this scenery. They work, or they sit under shade trees — not as proud, not as strong, not as busy. There are some men in Muslim skullcaps and a few in Indian dhotis, but none at all in traditional African dress.

Almost all of the men and boys in Dar Es Salaam wear mitumba-clothing thrown away by Americans and Europeans, and many are in T-shirts.

Julius Nyerere — Tanzania’s independence leader and its first president from 1961-1965 — would turn over in his grave at the sight of it. Used clothing from the West was among the first imports banned under his prideful policy of socialism with self-reliance. What could be less self-reliant or more symbolically dependent than a nation clothed in the white-world’s castoffs?

Yet, it is difficult to see exploitation or dependence in the human landscape clothed in mitumba. I found that most of the men on the streets of Dar Es Salaam looked natty and impeccable.

The Manzese market in northern Dar Es Salaam is the largest mitumba market in Tanzania. The market runs along busy Moragora Road for more than a mile and contains hundreds of tiny stalls.

Like a suburban shopping mall, different stalls gear their products to different customers. Stalls specialize in baby clothing or blue jeans, athletic wear or Dockers, or even curtains.

The higher-end stalls boast this year’s fashions, tastefully displayed, but the perfect Dockers are priced at $5.00, far out of reach for the poor and accessible only to Tanzania’s upper classes.

Blue jeans, too, are high-end items. The shoppers poring over the blue jeans are discerning consumers, often with a better sense of what is in (how many pockets? how much flare?) than the original purchaser.

The young people in Dar Es Salaam are as fashion savvy as young Americans, with a flawless sense of the hip and unhip.

The market mechanism is considerably more flexible than in an American department store. The Dockers with waist sizes in the low 30s sell for more than those with sizes in the 40s, as Tanzanians in general lack Americans’ paunches.

Otherwise identical polo shirts can vary in price as well, with more popular colors and sizes commanding a premium. Prices trend up at the end of the month when many workers get paid, but drift lower during periods between paychecks.

Perhaps the most interesting pricing behavior is evident in the divide between men’s and women’s clothing, as both supply and demand influences lead to significant price discrimination against the men.

First, because Western women buy many more new clothes than men, they throw away many more clothes as well. Women are also more particular about the condition of their clothing, so about 90% of what is cast aside by women is still in good condition.

Men, however, not only buy less clothing but wear it longer, so only half of the clothing received by the used clothing exporters is in good condition.

On the supply side, the bottom line is that world supply contains perhaps seven times as much women’s clothing in good condition than it does men’s.

African demand exacerbates this imbalance, as African women’s clothing preferences exclude much of Western fashion, while men clamor for the limited supply of T-shirts, khakis and suits that are in good condition.

The end result of this supply and demand dynamic is that in the Manzese market, similar clothing in good condition may cost four to five times as much for men as it does for women.

Geofrey Milonge runs a T-shirt stall near the center of the Manzese market. Geofrey stands tall and shiny-black, with the languid pride and gentle manner that seem to be the national traits of the Tanzanians.

Geofrey arrived from the countryside more than 10 years ago, hoping to escape the rural village in the interior.

Today, he is a mitumba trade success story, having started out on the sidewalk with just a single 50-kilo bale of clothing per month, which he had purchased on credit.

Geofrey buys and sells about 100 bales of clothing per month and runs three mitumba stalls in the Manzese market, each catering to different types of consumers. His T-shirt stall is neatly laid out, with hundreds of T-shirts lining the walls on hangers.

Geofrey sells between 10 and 50 T-shirts per day, usually for between $0.50 and $1.50. Almost all of Geofrey’s T-shirts are from America.

The labels show that most of the T-shirts were originally born in Mexico, China or Central America. Most of the T-shirts also reveal something about their life in America.

The college and professional sports team shirts (Florida Gators, Chicago Bulls) are ubiquitous, and winning teams’ shirts fetch higher prices. Washington Redskins shirts move slowly, but Geofrey had earlier in the morning received $2.00 for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Geofrey buys his T-shirts in 50-kilo bales and he is very careful about where he buys from.

The sellers can hide all kinds of garbage in the middle of a bale, so it pays to know your suppliers and to maker sure that they know that if they give you garbage you won’t be back.

Geofrey prefers to buy bales that have been sorted in the United States, rather than in Africa. The U.S.-sorted bales cost a bit more, but the jewels are less likely to have been skimmed off and you get a lot less junk.

In the world of mitumba, an unbroken U.S.-sorted bale is a high-end luxury good.