The market around Colobane Square in central Dakar has been a hive of activity since dawn as hundreds of buyers and sellers haggle over the latest imports from Europe.
Piles of designer stone-washed jeans and jackets and shirts vie with skirts and T-shirts – all of them pre-worn.
Second-hand clothing, “feugue-diaye” in the Wolof language, is a vibrant business in Senegal.
Each year, thousands of tonnes of garments find a new home in West Africa, helping people to look good and businesses to make money.
“If you want cheap brand-name clothes, this is the place to come to,” says Mamadou Sarr, a 23-year-old wholesaler, pointing to the bales of jeans on his stall.
“All these have come from England.”
Binta, a 29-year-old habituee, says the bargains can be extraordinary.
“You can buy dresses, jeans, T-shirts for a low price, designer gear,” she says.
She contends that second-hand clothes sent from Europe are “harder-wearing” than new garments exported to Senegal from China.
Retailers rummaging through the garments always have an eye out for a particular jewel: a football (soccer) jersey, which is much prized by young Senegalese.
Sarr and his older brother buy the clothing consignments for between 35,000 and 70,000 CFA francs, which they then sell off in 45-kilogramme batches to retailers.
After paying intermediaries, customs duties and transport costs, the brothers can clear as much as 450,000 CFA francs in a good month – roughly eight times the minimum salary in Senegal.
Senegal is just part of a global industry in recycled clothes, whose biggest exporter is the United States, with 756,000 tonnes.
Many wholesalers in Senegal get their clothes from Le Relais, a French cooperative that collects used clothing in France, the former colonial power.
Le Relais sends Dakar around 500 tonnes of pre-sorted clothing per year and has a warehouse in Diamniadio, about 30 kilometres from Dakar, where its 51 employees sort another 200-250 tonnes.
The garments are sifted according to category – dresses, shirts, etc. – then sorted again, graded according to their quality and state of wear.
“There are some goods which aren’t worth anything, but the main thing which we have been trying to do is create jobs,” says Virginie Vyvermans, Le Relais’ deputy chief in Senegal.
Profits from sale of the clothes go into local development projects and into paying the salaries of the employees, most of whom are women. All are on permanent contracts – not temporary or daily work.
One of them, Marie-Helene Marome, spoke highly of her job: “I’ve been able to enrol my children in a private school and buy some land for a home,” she says.
One of Le Relais’ customers, Aliou Diallo, 34, explained how he decided to quit his job as a grocer after the warehouse opened up.
“I saw a chance,” says Diallo. He has seven shops and warehouses around Senegal that employ 30 people.
According to Sarr, retailers often double the markup on clothing they buy from wholesalers.
“A trader who buys a T-shirt from me for 300 CFA francs can sell it in his shop up the road for 500, 700, 800,” he says.
If wholesalers, retailers and customers are delighted with the second-hand business, specialists say there is also a disadvantage.
As developing countries elsewhere have come to experience, the dumping of cheap or free clothing can cripple the local textile industry.
In the 1980s, “customs duties (in Senegal) were slashed and import quotas were abolished, and this opened the door to massive imports of second-hand clothes,” says Ahmadou Aly Mbaye, a professor of economics at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar.
Textile companies “disappeared from Senegal and the neighbouring region,” he notes.
Any attempt to revive the country’s garment industry would encounter “the huge obstacle” posed by cheap imports, he says.
And if the workers at Le Relais enjoy job security and other conditions, such rights are rare in the clothing recycling business, adds Mbaye.
Many people have job insecurity, suffer more accidents and are lower paid than counterparts in other areas of the economy, he says.
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