There has been quite a debate in recent years over Ghana’s long history of importing second-hand goods from Europe, and more prominently, the United States. Last Fall, the nation’s government implemented a total ban on the importation of second-hand refrigerators and air conditioners due to their negative environmental impacts, which caused a stir in leaving more than 15,000 people jobless.
Many a business has been made in Ghana from breaking down and redistributing products like these—sound cards from trashed computers and alternators and other parts from abandoned cars are among the most immediately useful and sellable. The problem is that the non-useful parts of these machines are then burned in giant bonfires, from which lead, arsenic and mercury have steadily seeped into neighborhood water supplies.
This debate is likely not to end anytime soon, but it has a particularly interesting angle in the apparel sector. (For the record, Ghana’s government banned the resale of “unhygienic” items like underwear, handkerchiefs and mattresses in 2011). There are plenty of tailors in the country who are upset that boatloads of useless-in-America shirts (“John Edwards 2008” campaign shirts were in particular abundance) make it difficult for them to compete from a pricing standpoint. Even the clothes that are higher-end, which have long been passed from first-world countries to here—can spark debate.
See, there is a common myth in Ghana that no citizen of a developed country would wear the clothes of an obruni wawu (“dead white man”), and so the clothes sent here all came from obrunis. This is not true, of course (perhaps Ghanaians should listen to American rapper Macklemore’s hit song introducing second-hand thrift shopping as something cool in pop culture), and good quality clothes here can be scored as a result: stylish t-shirts for two or three cedi (USD$1-$1.50), designer jeans for about 10 cedi (USD$5), and so on.
There is no doubt that second-hand goods from developed countries will continue to be part of Ghana’s economy, the question is just exactly how much.