Ordinary Rwandans continue to struggle to get basic clothing after the government banned importation of used clothing in 2016.
While the government has pledged to boost local textile production to fill the gap, manufacturers in the country are yet to produce affordable clothing for mass consumption.
For example, used clothing for children that was going for between Rwf500 and Rwf1,000 would cost at least Rwf10,000 were it made locally which is unaffordable by many ordinary Rwandans.
Francois Habiyambere, a resident of Rilima in Bugesera District, says he used to go with Rwf9000 to the market and get a number of clothes for all his four children, but now that money can’t even buy for two.
A small dress for a nine-year-old girl now goes for at least Rwf10,000 while shirts for boys go for Rwf8,000 while a pair of trousers goes for Rwf10,000 in village markets.
Habiyambere lost his income last year during the pandemic, meaning clothes are far down on the priority list the little money he manages to earn from working at farms going to buying food.
“I can’t afford clothes for my wife and children now. They are still putting on clothes I bought four or three years ago...” he said.
In villages, it is common to see children, as well as old people putting on torn or worn-out clothes. In some cases, children have to stay naked indoors for lack of clothes to wear as what they have is washed.
Many women are seen moving from house to house in affluent neighbourhoods like Kanombe, Kicukiro, Kibagabaga and other places, knocking on people's gates begging for food and clothes. Speaking to Rwanda Today, Antoine Kajangwe, Director General of Trade and Investment at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, defended the ban, saying it was a decision of the East African Community Summit to give the textile industry a chance.
The textile industry is a labour-intensive sector, with great potential to capture the large domestic market for clothing.
“The ban on second hand clothes gave rise to new textile manufacturers, rising from less than 10 in 2015 to the current 70 textile and leather firms employing many people .”
Kajangwe added that the government is taking steps to make locally made clothes competitive in terms of price.
“One of the measures is the recently passed investment law of February 2021, which gives the textile sector a 50 percent reduction in corporate income tax.
“That is a 15 percent CIT rate, reduced from the previous rate of 30 percent normally applicable to other sectors in Rwanda,” he noted.
While the ban galvanised local textile companies to manufacture clothes under the 'Made in Rwanda' campaign, the result was expensive clothes. The demand left behind by the ban has been largely filled by imports from China. But even these have mainly served Rwanda’s working class, who can afford to part with Rwf13,000 for a shirt, or Rwf15,000 for a pair of trousers.
After the government raised import tariffs on used clothes and used footwear in 2016, many of the traders who used to sell second-hand clothes resorted to selling imports from China.
But the prices of these clothes have shot up this year since Beijing suspended foreign travellers and traders as it pulled all stops to fight the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic.
George Niyongabo, a member of Apparel Manufacturing Group (AMG), said they have been importing raw materials from China in bulk for 'Made in Rwanda' clothes, but says since last year production has been declining as the pandemic dampened the market and supply channels.
“We used to sell our garments all over the country, sending clothes every week but people upcountry no longer buy clothes. Their priorities have changed due to the tough economic times.” Many people however still prefer imports from China because they are still competitively cheaper while others still do not approve of the quality and fashion of clothes made locally. High level manufacturers with better quality like C&H still largely produce for the export market.