In Senegal, old clothes get a new life for profit
China Daily

Workers at French social enterprise Le Relais' recycling center for secondhand clothing sort through bales of clothes in Diamniadio, Senegal, on June 25. (Photo: AFP)

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 jackets, shirts and stonewashed jeans vie with skirts and T-shirts - all of them pre-worn.

Sales of secondhand clothing, "feugue-diaye" in the Wolof language, is a vibrant business in Senegal.

Each year, thousands of tons of garments tossed out by wealthier Europeans 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 habitue of the market, says the bargains can be extraordinary.

"You can buy dresses, jeans, T-shirts for a low price, designer gear," she says.

She contends that secondhand 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 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 ($60-$121), which they then sell off in 45-kilogram batches to retailers.

After paying intermediaries, customs duties and transport costs, the brothers can clear as much as 450,000 CFA francs ($780) in a good month - roughly eight times the minimum monthly salary in Senegal.

Senegal is just part of a global industry in recycled clothes, whose biggest exporter is the United States, with 756,000 tons yearly.

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 tons of presorted used clothing per year and has a warehouse in Diamniadio, about 30 kilometers 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 enroll my children in a private school and buy some land for a home," she says.

One Le Relais wholesale customer, 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.