Stall holder: the little market, Gulu

Stall Holder: The Little Market, Gulu

Whilst our bicycle powered juicer is still in research and development, here at Daniel Comboni Vocational Institute on the DFID (Department for International Development) funded Youth Development Programme in Northern Uganda we have been looking at something else.

The Main Market, Gulu

The Main Market, Gulu

Poverty has long roots, it is a major aim of our programme to support women, many want to train in ‘Tailoring and Garment Cutting’ as the course is called. But there is no Ugandan textile industry at any level, why not? Uganda even grows cotton, early twentieth century colonists came here intending to replace the loss of raw cotton from America. In the early 1970’s cotton made up 40% of Uganda’s exports, it is now below 4%.

The Main Market, Gulu

The Main Market, Gulu

The Ugandan textile industry collapse began with Amin. In 1973 Uganda was producing nearly 50 million square metres of fabric annually, by 1980 only 7.5 million, it has not grown much since. The liberalisation and opening up of Ugandan markets to the West in the 80’s and 90’s, promoted by the World Bank, allowed used clothing to pour in and finished off the industry by substituting a new one dependent on the west. There are still attempts to drive the Ugandan textile industry but it now comes up against western philanthropy; how?

Second Hand Clothes: The Main Market Gulu

Second-Hand Clothes: The Main Market Gulu

The second-hand clothes market:

Clothes come in from the West and USA through dealers, you buy a bale (starting at 15 kg and 300,000 Shillings upwards at the dockside going down in size and price as you move into the country) of unsorted second-hand clothes, which you sort and sell on to other dealers or direct. Second-hand clothes are sold in every market, everywhere, reckoned to be at least a billion dollar plus market across Africa.

Second Hand Clothes: The Little Market, Gulu

Second-Hand Clothes: The Little Market, Gulu

In Northern Uganda clothes are mostly American, many T shirts (A student has just walked past in one reading: ‘Don’t let the skirt fool you; support Minnesotan Ice Hockey’, another is promoting ‘The Lincoln Center’, another says ‘Summer Camp, Maryland 2007’), cheap jeans that sort of thing.

Second Hand Clothes: The Main Market, Gulu

Second-Hand Clothes: The Main Market, Gulu


Much of this clothing has been donated by people wanting to help others, every high street in the UK has charity shops dealing in second-hand clothes. Over a third of the clothes in the markets are surplus charity goods sold for money in the very countries the original donors had wanted to help for free. Some are cheap imports from China and Asia, although their quality is lower than Western second-hand. The local joke is that there are 4 grades of goods made in Chinese factories, grade 1 is best quality for Chinese use only, grade 2 are seconds, grade three is thrown away and grade four goes to Africa.

Second Hand Clothes: The Little Market Gulu

Second-Hand Clothes: The Little Market Gulu

Bizarrely, clothes from say, Western charities don’t take a simple route from East Cheam High Street, UK to the small market in Gulu opposite Uchumi supermarket. Many surplus charity clothes are sorted, for example in Poland, sent back to central European countries for export, often via container to a smaller African country eg  Benin or Togo or Rwanda and then exported into Nigeria, Uganda etc. There is even a huge market in smuggling second-hand clothes, it’s so complex I’m surprised John Le Carre hasn’t written a thriller about it.

Clothes Stall: Gulu

Clothes Stall: Gulu

Many people now make good money selling used clothes, it is a big business and the clothes are very cheap for people with even less money. It is estimated that over 80% of the clothes worn in Uganda are second-hand and imported. This is a viable business for the mobile who can work long hours in the markets. For vulnerable young women, like our students with children and family duties it is more difficult. Simple tailoring used to be an income for these women; with a hand sewing machine most things can be made at home. The second-hand clothes market has killed that. Locally produced clothes from local textiles can be found but they are far more expensive than second-hand. Does the constant display of American cultural values via used T shirt slogans ((still very desirable) promote self-reliance and a positive view of your own country?

Second Hand Clothes: the Main Market, Gulu

Second-Hand Clothes: the Main Market, Gulu

Should we be blaming Western charities, western economic process or supporting a new economic model? There is an interesting documentary about Zambia, made a while ago but the principle still holds. An aid worker, Shantha Bloemen traces a T shirt from donation in New Jersey, USA to its sale in a Zambian market. It ends with this:

“Sophi Phiri, a corporate investment banker, says: “We don’t have a political colonialism in Zambia, we have an economic colonialism. “If they [the World Bank] can control the shots that far then are we an independent state?”

or view it on You Tube

Second Hand Clothes: The Main Market, Gulu

Second-Hand Clothes: The Main Market, Gulu

Like Zambia, tailoring has collapsed in Uganda, but there is income in making school jumpers. All schools demand a jumper as part of the uniform; it is not always blisteringly hot. If you can set up a group making sweaters, can get a working knitting machine or two and can get a couple of school contracts you can make a small living.

Sweater Weavers on their first days training

Sweater Weavers on their first days training

Hence the course provided at Daniel Comboni. There are some 60 sweater weavers in the new intake in this college, there are six knitting machines for them. Knitting machines are expensive and temperamental, parts are difficult to find, only one person can use them at a time.

Helen teaches Madame Monica to knit

Madame Monica Learning to knit

How to make a living? Another VSO volunteers in Gulu  is a keen hand knitter and has already taught several Ugandan women the skill. Recently she came to Comboni to teach the Sweater Weaving instructor, girls are taught crochet at primary level so the concept is there.

Madame Monica and Helen 2

Madame Monica Learning to Knit

The problem has always been finding the knitting needles. The head of carpentry went away with a sample, returning the next day with perfect pairs of needles whittled from bamboo. He will teach his students how to make them, they can supply needles at very low cost to the sweater weavers, making a small income themselves in the process.

While the weavers wait to get on the machines, Madame will show them how to make saleable items like babies hats, at least they will make some sort of supplementary income. It’s a start, maybe?

Madame Monica Leaning to Knit

Madame Monica Leaning to Knit