DAKAR, Senegal – Secondhand T-shirts, jeans and dresses are piled high for blocks along the busy streets in Dakar's Colobane neighborhood, where people buy donated European and American fashions at a fraction of their original price.
Mourianne Gnagna Cisse, 52, picks through a pile of shorts, setting aside ones she thinks will bring the most profit when she resells them in her village. She has done this for a decade to support her four children.
"It allows me to eat," she said. "Life is hard. I have no other way of making money." Today, she'll buy crisp cotton shorts for 200 CFA ($0.30) and sell them for 300 CFA ($0.50).
The secondhand clothing trade, known here in French as "friperie," has been criticized for cutting away at the local clothing industry in Senegal, providing an abundance of clothes at low prices.
Now a few entrepreneurial Senegalese, some who have returned from living in Europe, are trying to create a better business model for the trade and give jobs to more people in this West African country.
The trade's impact can be seen across Africa: The baseball T-shirt thrown into a charity bin in Chicago may become the go-to shirt for a rural vendor. A designer skirt from Naples might make its way to a young office worker in Nigeria.
In Senegal, most secondhand clothes are bought for children and young men. Women prefer vibrant local patterns that fit their curves, but good, affordable bras usually come from overseas, said 36-year-old Maimouna Dia.
"They are much better quality," she said.
Many in Senegal, especially the older generations, still prefer locally made clothes, but to preserve them for dressing up on religious holidays and the Friday Muslim prayers, many say it can be more economical to buy and wear Western ones daily. They wash more easily. A traditional outfit means buying cloth, and paying for a tailor and design.
Over the past decade, as the secondhand clothing trade has shifted Africa's younger generations toward Western dress, and it has harmed Senegal's ability to add value to its clothing market, said Bachir Diop, the CEO of the Society for Development and Textile Fibers.
"If we create a textile industry here ... we have more of an advantage in tailoring, in artistry, in the creation of cloths," he argued, suggesting that Senegal's boubous, or long, flowing robes, would be an ideal export.
Most of the secondhand clothing arriving in massive bundles from places like France, Italy, the U.S. and Belgium are sold by the organizations in those countries that receive donations and are sorted before they reach Africa.
A Senegalese company has created a new approach, giving local people steady jobs by having them do the sorting themselves. Its founders hope the model is one that others here can replicate.
"Since we're always buying from Europe and the clothes are coming here, why then are we not creating more jobs here?" said 42-year-old Mouhamed Bachir Loum, a partner at the company, Invotex. "And if we are the ones who sort it and know the product, we can stand behind it."
After living in Italy for more than a decade and returning to Senegal four years ago, Loum and his partners want to see Senegal's residents stay home instead of joining the migration toward Europe.
Instead of buying pre-sorted clothes, Invotex buys them at a cheaper price in bulk from Italy. The company has a factory, a pressing machine and a workforce in Senegal to sort through them. The workers receive a monthly wage, plus bonuses, and clothes to use or sell.
Lamine Mbow, a 24-year-old employee, said he is lucky to have found the job.
He and 15 others open 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) packages of clothes, shoes and home goods and spend days sorting damaged, cheaper clothes from higher-quality ones. The better items are wrapped into 45-kilogram blocks to sell to market vendors.
"It's nice to be in a quiet, calm environment and out of the sun doing this type of work" with a steady salary, Mbow said.
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