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Bar Mitzvahs, Hot Moms And Africa's Bumper Crop Of Cool T-Shirts

Posted: 12/06/11 01:00 AM ET

Project Repat, a Boston-based social enterprise, has found a use for some of the secondhand clothing dumped in Africa every year, partnering with artisans and small businesses in Nairobi, Kenya to create new products made entirely from old t-shirts.

In June 2010, Sean Hewens, my co-founder, was stuck in an atrocious traffic jam in Nairobi. The cause of the backup? An overturned fruit and vegetable rickshaw pushed by a Kenyan wearing a t-shirt that read, "I Danced My Ass Off at Josh's Bar Mitzvah."

Some American t-shirts arrive in African countries thanks to charities like World Vision, which gives away all of that paraphenalia from the losing Super Bowl teams (Patriots 19 - 0!), but the vast majority of shirts arrive in Africa as part of the billion-dollar secondhand clothing industry. Remember that "Bart Simpson for President" t-shirt you'd been holding onto since college and finally donated to the Goodwill? It was almost certainly packaged with thousands of other t-shirts and sold to a t-shirt middleman who transported it across the ocean with tons of other articles of used clothing and sold it onto the massive secondhand African market. In 2010, the US exported more than 10million dollars of used clothing to Kenya alone.

Many people argue that an excess supply of inexpensive clothing has prevented domestic companies in countries like Kenya from producing their own clothing, thereby hindering economic progress. However, as we literally waded through piles and piles of secondhand t-shirts in the markets around Nairobi, we realized that the story is much more complicated. We observed that just one secondhand market, like Gikomba Market in Nairobi, supports thousands of the Kenyans who rely on the secondhand clothing trade for employment: bulk buyers, middlemen, retailers and tailors. While the margins are small, individuals are empowered to run their own business, negotiate prices and even pay taxes.

A stroll through the market reveals just how massive these markets really are and how much of our old clothing ends up there. There are endless sets of stalls selling just about anything you could find in an American mall, from used shoes and socks to jeans, jackets, and purses. Retailers are eager to try to sell to the Americans that are wandering through their markets, as wazungu, white people, are not commonly seen here. Even though I've explained to everyone that we're looking for t-shirts, I keep hearing the same question: "What about jeans?"

As we wander through the markets, we see massive bales of t-shirts on the shoulders of Kenyans who have just purchased their bounty for the week. You can peek into a couple of warehouses and see hundreds of bales stacked on top of each other. On the outskirts of the market are hundreds of tailors, using foot-powered sewing machines that were also likely castaways from other countries. We are certainly a spectacle here, but that doesn't stop the Kenyans from getting excited about having their picture taken with us as we hold up all the t-shirts we've purchased.

What we discovered when we were in Kenya in May was that many Kenyans were turning the secondhand t-shirts dumped on their country into altogether new items of clothing. Based upon what we observed, it's totally possible that your old Bart Simpson t-shirt might end up with different colored sleeves cut from a different t-shirt and fancy yellow piping from the scraps of a third (SEE PHOTO). What I love about this trend is that the Kenyans are taking our "old" clothing and, thanks to some Kenyan ingenuity, making it their own. The result is a t-shirt that is a mixture of old and new, American and Kenyan, and totally unique. Sean and I were so inspired by this idea, that we asked the Kenyan artisans we met to make 100 "modified" shirts for us to bring home and sell.

Many Americans believe that Africans need donated clothing. This is undeniably true in disaster-relief situations such as famines or earthquakes, but n the vast majority of instances, donated clothing such as that being given away by organizations like World Relief ends up disrupting local markets by providing goods gratis.

During our trip to Kenya in May, we observed scores of markets that, while fueled by secondhand castoff clothing dumped from America, were flourishing and providing a sustainable living for thousands of people. Rather than bypassing local markets and trying to help individuals in developing nations by giving them more free stuff (the TOMS model), why not partner with small businesses in countries like Kenya already participating in a healthy, functioning marketplace?

It's amazing to see what the Kenyans are doing with our old clothing. Besides the practical matter of taking in the sides of extra large t-shirts to make them fit the size of and average Kenyan, an entire art movement based on our excess secondhand clothing had seemed to emerge throughout the market. Artists were removing t-shirt sleeves and sewing on ones from other shirts that matched the color scheme of the shirt, or creating new patches and designs on the shirts. Others were intentionally bleaching shirts to make a pattern across the shirt (although some of the Kenyans told us that this was "so last year"). We also found another set of artists sewing patterns onto our old dress shirts.

In a "tree house" located above one of the shoe stalls, workers were taking trash and t-shirt scraps from the market and turning them into percussion instruments for street children to play, perfect Bar Mitvah gifts if you ask me.

Support Project Repat Here.

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