Right back at you: the Ugandan designer returning the west’s cast-offs

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When Bobby Kolade moved back to Uganda in 2018 after 13 years in the European fashion world, he was intent on joining the movement to ban secondhand clothes. The designer remembered buying used clothing at Uganda’s biggest market, Owino in Kampala, as a child, but had since learned about the damage this trade is doing to the environment and to African textile industries.

“I see these clothes, and they offend me. I see white shirts with sweat stains and torn colours, and I feel oppressed,” says Kolade. “What does it say about whoever’s donating those clothes to us? And what does it say about our position in the world? It’s rude, you know? It’s really rude.”

And yet today Kolade is launching a fashion brand made up entirely of repurposed secondhand clothing sourced in Uganda. Buzigahill is all about “redesigning secondhand clothes and redistributing them to the global north, where they were originally discarded before being shipped to Africa”.

Kolade describes Return to Sender, Buzigahill’s first collection, as genderless, playful and raw. Each of the 250 pieces is unique, made from garments that have been cut up and artfully stitched back together. Prices range from $195 (£150) for four-panel T-shirts to $530 for extended coats. Each garment has a “passport” label identifying its country of origin and source.

“The thing I enjoy most is the workmanship you can see. You can tell somebody sat down with scissors, cut something up, then put it back together somehow,” says Kolade, who has sourced the materials himself over the past year. Initially, this meant jumping on boda bodas (motorbike taxis) to visit the huge warehouses next to the maze of stalls at Owino, where he would buy clothing bales imported from countries such as the UK, Germany and Canada.

Later, he built relationships with clothes importers who would deliver bales – from silk scarves made in South Korea to T-shirts from Canada and the US – directly to Buzigahill’s studio. Here, Kolade designs and produces the clothes along with his small team of tailors.

Kolade describes the project as “reactionary design” to the overconsumption of the global north, and the role Africa plays as “a very effective waste disposal system for people’s clothes”. When clothes in the west are discarded at charity shops or donation bins, most are sold by export companies. According to Oxfam, more than 70% of clothes donated globally end up in Africa. Unable to compete with the price of used clothing, local textile industries across the continent suffer.

In 2015, members of the East African Community (EAC) – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – announced plans to ban secondhand clothing imports from their markets. But the US threatened to remove these countries from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives African countries duty-free access to export certain products to the US. Only Rwanda went ahead with a ban in 2018, and, despite severe sanctions, the country’s textile and garment sector is showing promise, growing 83% in value from 2018 to 2020.

But used clothes continue to flow into Uganda, and that’s what led Kolade to change his original vision of designing and producing clothes made in Uganda from Ugandan cotton, and for Ugandans.

Initially grown using forced labour under British colonialism, Uganda has been producing cotton for more than 100 years. In the post-independence era, it had a thriving homegrown textiles industry. This deteriorated following Uganda’s tumultuous politics in the 70s, combined with economic liberalisation in the 90s which enabled secondhand clothing to become the lucrative industry it is today. With just two textile mills remaining, only 5% of Ugandan cotton is consumed locally, with the rest exported in its raw form.

These topics are interrogated in Vintage or Violence, a podcast hosted by Kolade and film-maker Nikissi Serumaga, who is also making a documentary featuring Kolade. The podcast explores why secondhand clothes dominate African textile markets, and what impact this has on local economies and cultures.

“International trade was designed such that, in a country like Uganda, our companies are not supposed to succeed,” argues Kolade. He and his team have faced multiple hurdles over the past year, including working on garments for weeks only for the fabric to disintegrate or stretch after being washed, and struggling to set up payment systems on their website. He says: “I am trying to set up a positive story here, to show that we’ve reacted to an economic and political situation to come up with something fun and accessible, but it is menacing.”

He eventually managed to set up a PayPal account for Buzigahill, but services such as Instagram shopping are not available for Ugandan products. “If I ever read the phrase ‘not available in your country’, again, I will die!”

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But he adds: “When I’ve been completely frustrated at these processes, I’ve had to have some compassion, and to understand that what we’re doing is actually quite absurd [sending secondhand clothes back to the global north]. For me as well, this isn’t what I always intended to do.”

Kolade is half-German, and could have dodged some of these challenges by setting up his company in Europe and distributing the clothes from there. “But that’s not the point. If we are dedicated to value addition in Uganda, then I want the funds to come directly to Uganda, and I want us to set up the systems.”

He is passionate about Ugandan-made products, and has set up a non-profit called Aiduke, which promotes Ugandan fashion products to the local market, with the aim of expanding into global markets.

Buzigahill has a 10-year plan to build small, specialised factories across Uganda, not only for repurposing used clothing but also for hand-woven textiles and artisanal production, and Kolade hopes to expand to neighbouring countries too.

“We have an opportunity here to start really thinking about the whole recycling, upcycling, repurposing industry, as opposed to only focusing on raw materials,” he explains.

“Waste has already become a commodity, but it’s going to become an even more important one. So the sooner we’re able to create industries using this waste as a commodity, the more progress we’re going to make as a region.”

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