Akube: Nigeria's used clothes trade is benefiting from a shrinking economy

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As they struggle with harsh economic times, more Nigerians are choosing to 'bend down select'.

Along the road to Abule-Egba, there is nothing that indicates the presence of a massive market in the area. It is not that hard to find though; across the road from Super Bus-Stop, you can see the gates beckon.

Finding the market is one task, getting into it is another. As you squeeze your way between traders and their haggling patrons, someone will most likely throw something in the air, a rumpled shirt or a pair of denim pants will drop on your shoulder, followed by shouts of “E dey here, come check am. High grade. I get your size”.

This is not the first thing that strikes you though; it is the mountainous heaps of clothes spread out everywhere as far as sight can carry you.

This will most likely be a result of ‘Open Bale’, the term used to describe the abundance of wares when a trader opens a new sack of clothes.

 

Welcome to Kotangora, the second-hand clothes capital of Lagos where anything is half-price and every shirt, trouser, and jacket smells the same.

Hit by a 2-year long economic depression, months of job cuts across sectors and fewer entrepreneurial options, Nigeria’s already-thin middle class has almost disappeared.

The price of oil, the country’s main export and source of income, has fallen from a high of $112 per barrel in 2014, to less than $50 in 2016.

To survive in these harsh times, many middle and low-income families have had to sacrifice standards and luxuries for more affordable alternatives.

Gas cylinders have given way to kerosene stoves; movie nights have become an occasional luxury and, where packed shirts in sealed nylon were the norm, more people now ‘bend down select’.

The sale and use of second-hand clothes, Akube or Okrika, as it is also called, is not new by any interpretation of the word.

In the early years of Nigeria’s infancy, locally made clothes held a good share of the market. The establishment of Kaduna Textile Mill in 1956, Nigerian Textile Mill in 1962, followed by Aba Textile Mill and Bendel Mill Limited in Asaba meant that local production was capable of meeting the growing demand.

 

Cotton and other textile materials were sourced locally; so the prices were affordable, a key metric in the newly independent country struggling with growing pains.

Two related factors changed this; First, years of military rule and the attendant mismanagement of institutions. Second was the Nigerian Civil War and the massive reset in social conditions that it caused, especially in the East of the country.

By the end of the 1970s, the textile mills were almost dead, and fewer Nigerians could afford the foreign options that were slowly becoming popular.

The eyes of the world were also falling on so-called ‘third world countries’. In the 70s, governments in the West began to offer aid to Africa, even as concerned citizens donated clothes to ‘charity’ for onward transmission to ‘impoverished Africans’.

More often than not, the charitable organizations who received these clothes would sell them to exporters who would pack them in bales and ship to Nigeria’s shores.

It continues to this day.

Shipments of used clothes are now delivered to Cotonou, arguably West Africa’s most porous port, and after bribes are paid to customs and border officials, the clothes enter Nigeria.

The import and sale of used clothes are illegal in Nigeria, but visit the major hubs of used clothes in Lagos; Kotangora, Yaba, Aswani on Monday or Friday, and you will see any ban only exists on year-old sheets of paper.

 

On a given day, a thrifty trader can sell a bale of used clothes, making up to tens of thousands of naira in sales. Kotangora has hundreds of such traders.

I like this business because when I sell, I can take money out to buy food, take care of everything and still buy new market to sell the next day”, says Austin, an akube seller who has traded at Yaba and Oniru.

The reasons why Nigerians patronize second-hand clothes are not entirely financial.

Even after months or years of use, most people still perceive used clothes, particularly those from the west, as more durable than their Chinese or Aba-made alternatives.

There is also more variety available to the willing buyer. Among the stalls at Kotangora, it is not unusual to find a windbreaker, a hoodie, sweatshirts, a denim jacket and dress shirts in the same heap.

It’s not always easy to find correct clothes but if you check well, you will see. If you bring 20,000 to this place, you will buy enough clothes of any kind”, Kenneth, a regular patron of Kotangora says as he lifts his ‘new’ jacket.

See this one. Small money. If I go to boutique now, na 7,000 them go call am”.

 

In the last year or two, akube stalls have escalated into neighborhoods and inner streets while our eyes were turned in many other directions.

On any given day, you will find them on street corners, and at night markets in high-traffic areas like Ojota, Yaba and to some surprise, Lekki, hunched over their heap of clothes or screaming at would-be patrons from within small makeshift stalls.

Austin says he moved to Oniru after the Lagos state government cleared Tejuosho market.

I don dey sell this market for three years. I dey the other side before”, he says, pointing to the "other side", beside Ozumba Mbadiwe, “When I first come Oniru, people never many for here”.

Now, there are about 6 akube traders on the same street as Austin.

In Ikeja, off the ever-busy Toyin Street, there’s a used clothes store that appears every bit like the blue-hued boutiques where you might buy a pair of jeans for an emergency.

Unlike Kotangora, there are no heaps of clothes on the floor; the shirts and denim jackets that Isaac Mbah sells are neatly hanged or placed on mannequins.

Mbah started Akube Central in 2000; in the 17 years since then, he has built it into the shop where he sells his wares.

When I started in 2000, it (was) just hustling, you know, going here and there, putting one or two things together”, Mbah says. “You know, small small, money started coming before I now opened my shops”.

 

Akube Central has Grade 1 denim, the highest quality of used clothes. Patrons buy denim jackets for as much as 12,000 naira, mostly over the phone.

I put my phone number everywhere. Most of my customers call me first, then I tell them what I have and the prices. They can order on the phone, then they come and pick it up. I don’t do delivery yet”, Mbah says.

Clearly, one can hardly deny the importance of akube to medium-and low-income earners, or its significance as an element of life for people in those groups, yet the risks that these old shirts and faded jeans pose puts them on shaky feet.

Like most of the cargo that crosses Nigeria’s almost non-existent borders, there is little or no standardization; so clothes of any and every condition can make their way from Mississippi to a stall in Oniru new market.

Secondhand clothes can carry scabies, dermatitis and many skin diseases, news that is more alarming because most clothes are not cleaned or sterilized to satisfaction.

“People should not use second-hand panties, bras or any other clothes that are in close contact with the skin because you can catch human papillomavirus, HPV, which is a precursor to genital cancer. If the original owner had genital warts or herpes, you will surely catch the disease too. You can also catch scabies and fungi infections”, Olufunmilayo Ajose, a consultant physician, and dermatologist in the Department of Medicine, Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, LASUTH told TELL during an ‘akube boom’ in 2013.

 

As gory as the thought of wearing used panties may appear, second-hand clothes do more damage to the textile industry that shrivels while it strengthens.

Global trade in used clothing runs into billions of dollars every year; Africa is a huge part of this, some estimates claim that up to 80% of the population wear used clothes.

Ludicrous as that may be, these cheaper alternatives have proved stiff competition for local brands hoping to claim a chunk of a sizeable market.

Making a full ensemble; shirt and trouser from local textiles can cost between 5000 to 7000, from buying the actual material to paying a tailor to sew it. A pair of Grade 1 second-hand jeans and shirt costs #3000 at Kotangora.

Making it easy for local brands to produce and sell at lower costs will reduce the appeal of second-hand clothes to a large extent; but the real challenge lies in changing a decade-long bias towards western products, the belief that if it’s from America, it has to be 'original'.



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