When the government slapped a prohibitive tax on second-hand clothes in 2016, there were no ready alternatives for the millions of low-income earners who depended on cheaper clothing options provided by second-hand clothes.
The rationale for this radical decision was that the government intended to support and grow the local garment industry, which at that point was largely nascent, with the few garment makers only managing to produce a few articles that were serving a small segment of the rich, with others making military fatigues and uniforms for other uses.
Clothing being a universally known basic need, it was reckless for the government to ban second-hand clothes without preparing the market to have a variety of cheaper alternatives for new clothes.
The poor could get clothes for as low as Rwf2,000 or even less from legitimate traders of second-hand clothes. But this is no more, as they have no option but to buy the same clothes from smugglers at a higher price.
The government could correct this by harnessing a gradual — not sudden — elimination of second-hand clothes while supporting garment makers to produce cheaper clothes.
Although the garments industry has seen some growth over the past four years with the advent of the ‘Made in Rwanda’ campaign, the supply of Rwandan-made clothes still does not match demand, while pricing remains a problem.
This gap has been overwhelmingly filled by Chinese garment imports which have flooded the market, making Rwandan-made clothes even more expensive.
The local garment makers also say banks are reluctant to lend to them.
When the government decided to bet on the local garment makers, it should have followed that up by facilitating them all the way for instance through subsidised financing, since demand is assured.
The move to exempt all raw-material imports for making garments has helped a lot, a similar pragmatic policy should be taken in addressing capital constraints and skills gaps.
The government should not ignore the fact that Chinese garments that have replaced second-hand clothes are also expensive and probably only affordable to the working class.
The government continues to attract investors from China and elsewhere to set up manufacturing plants in the country, which is good, but these foreign garment makers like C & H have also been serving export markets and ignored the local market.
Think of a farmer in Mamba, Gisagara District who cannot afford to spend Rwf15,000 on a new shirt. What are his options?