Opportunity abounds for retailers giving used clothing a second lease on life, but while some are reveling in the country’s current economic climate and contributing to the circular economy, the high-end designers are finding it difficult to compete and cope.
In an open-air market in Yaba, Lagos, Tobi Iddrisu, is getting ready to open her boutique and welcome the day’s first customers. She opened the store almost a decade ago with the goal of selling second-hand clothes from China.
Since that time, the store, as well as Iddrisu, have gone through several iterations. For the former, life began as a second-hand children clothing store before moving to incorporate toys and finally transitioning to focus on second-hand fast fashion goods for Gen Z and millennial women.
These days, her suppliers come from places like London, Germany and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) but China still leads the pack. Lately, her brother in Germany has begun sending her some electronic devices like old iPads, laptops and LED television sets which, according to Iddrisu, are beginning to sell rapidly.
For Iddrisu, the shift from her nine-to-five job as a customer service clerk at First Bank Nigeria to a second-hand market trader, has proven to be one of the best decisions of her life, for a number of reasons.
In those days, she took home a meager N250,000 ($330) and struggled to make that stretch to cover her monthly expenses, which included fending for her two boys.
Today, her sons are in one of the top private schools in Lagos and Iddrisu has also ventured into the real estate market with two rental units in her name. Moreover, she is now able to provide employment opportunities to five disadvantaged individuals who Iddrisu employs as sales assistants.
“Things were very good when we started but now there is a lot of competition. Those who supply quality second-hand goods are still thriving because the economy is very difficult,” says Iddrisu.
For her and many other second-hand merchants, business is booming. Cash-strapped Nigerians who cannot pay the prices in high-end retail outlets are flooding to markets in Yaba, Katangua and Asuwani to make their naira stretch as far as possible.
“We sell goods at least 200% or cheaper than those sold in boutiques on the island and for people who are already struggling to make ends meet, how can they buy brand-new items? This goes for all items like hair, cosmetics and electronics. It is simply not affordable buying these things brand new,” says Iddrisu.
The World Poverty Clock, a tool which provides up-to-the-minute poverty data across the world, puts Nigeria as the country with the second highest level of poor people at 71 million after India.
These are people who live below the poverty line of $2. The problem is further exacerbated when you consider the rate of inflation which, according to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS), stood at an all-time high of 22.41% in May 2023.
This report also estimates that the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a measure of the monthly changes in the price of goods and services paid by Nigerians, rose to 24.82% in May. The NBS further cites that about 133 million Nigerians are living in multi-dimensional poverty.
From a lack of forex which has brought trade to almost a complete standstill since the beginning of the year, a devaluation of the naira coupled with challenges in swapping old naira notes for new ones, to the recent fuel subsidy crisis, the country’s economic woes seem far from over.
The report by the NBS shows that the inflationary rise was attributed to food and non-beverage products, electricity, gas and other fuel as well as clothing and footwear. Several initiatives that should have offered advantages to Africa’s largest economy, have also, unfortunately, been met with barriers to entry by Nigeria.
The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), for example, was supposed to provide regional integration of goods and services between African countries. However, Nigeria’s food import substitution policy is not favorable with the goals of the AfCFTA, according to a report by the World Bank.
This was further buttressed when, in August 2019, Nigeria’s former president, Muhammadu Buhari, closed Nigeria’s borders, effectively blocking trade between the country and its neighbors for about a year. The move was an attempt to stop neighboring Benin from re-exporting rice to Nigeria for a significantly higher margin, thereby reducing dumping of the product.
That closure has also led to an increase in the prices of clothes in the second-hand market.
“We get some items from neighboring countries like Benin and Ghana, and when the government shut down the border, a lot of vendors who were relying on their supply from these countries were affected. The lack of supply has increased the cost of some items in the second-hand market and they keep rising even today,” says Iddrisu.
According to American news platform, CBS, the global second-hand market is estimated to hit $350 billion by 2025 and for personal shopper, Bobby Smith, the surge in demand for second-hand products is great for business.
“I usually deal with high-end clients who want exclusive designer wear at affordable prices. For example, most of my clients are interested in second-hand exclusive designer bags which tend to have amazing resale value. I have seen a trend in clients opting for quality, used designer items instead of those brand-new ones from stores because they want to be economical with their spending, given the current economic climate,” says Smith.
The current economic state has actually led to sales orders from individuals with a higher disposable income opting for fairly-used designer items than brand-new ones.
“I am a club promoter in Ikoyi and that means I have to look my best every night. Most of my business comes from meeting [with] new venues and offering my services to the owners, which includes bringing in a crowd that would patronize their goods and keep the club buzzing. My appearance is extremely important so I need to keep up with the trends. I shop second-hand designer wear because there is a lot of originality especially if you know the right stores, because most designers never repeat their styles so you get one-of-a-kind pieces,” says Tola T.
But not everyone is happy about the boom in second-hand clothing. For Lola Amusan, a fashion designer in Lagos, who makes her money designing customized, ready-to-wear clothes, it is a major issue.
“We actually create bespoke clothes for our customers and so the current state of the economy is having a big impact on our bottom line. You cannot comfortably cost how much an item is because every day you go to the market, fabric prices are changing. The unstable power supply means I am running my business on [a] generator 24/7, which means I am spending a lot of money on fuel,” she says.
About 25% of the Nigerian population are considered to be Gen Z and have an insatiable appetite for fashion pieces, according to Iddrisu.
“The young ladies of today want trendy items that no one has and they want items that are not too expensive so they can change them regularly without breaking the bank. Some of our tops sell for as low as N2,000 ($2) to N5,000 ($6),” she says.
Another contributing factor to the growth in the second-hand market relates to the volume of charitable clothing donations from the West. There are various news articles on how Africa has become fast fashion’s dumping ground, a trend which is leading to significant climate change issues for the continent.
As much as the second-hand market is great for cash-strapped Nigerians, there is also a detrimental effect on the local textile and garment industries.
“We simply cannot compete with the second-hand market and I feel the current state of the economy is going to drive a lot of designers, like myself, out of business. Something has to be done,” says Amusan.
One solution that has been suggested by experts is to perhaps transform the fashion economy into a circular one. A circular economy is one where waste is minimized by reusing and upcycling as well as leasing garments. Some have also advocated for an import ban of used clothing into Africa.
But the problem with that is it leaves millions of impoverished people in Africa’s most populous economy without the means to purchase affordable clothing. As it stands, Nigeria’s inflationary problems seem to have a long way to go before subsiding and the current President Bola Tinubu has his work cut out for him.
For people like Iddrisu, times are great and the boom in second-hand clothing is now birthing yet a new opportunity for her in the consumer electronics sector, in which she has opened a brand-new store in Ikeja, as well as provided employment to a further 10 individuals. It’s just another way that she has used the current economic climate to give herself and her employees a second chance at happiness and fulfilment.