Ghana is known for its bustling second hand clothing markets like Kantamanto, the largest market globally. Featured in the international magazine Dazed, Kantamanto is endearingly attributed with “fueling a new wave of creatives championing a fashion culture unique to the West African nation and being the “go-to place for cheap clothes.”
Kantamanto has become the locus of Ghana’s recent fashion boom amongst the country’s youth. A source of rare designer garments like Prada, otherwise nearly impossible to obtain, the market has created a new avenue of expression and access like a burgeoning thrifting culture that has proven to be beneficial for fashion lovers looking for unique pieces to either add to their collection or further their fashion business. Such is the case for Adom Gee, a self-taught designer and stylist who told Dazed, “Walking through Kantamanto just gives me the inspiration to create more. You never know what you will come and find here”.
“I feel like Kantamanto will forever be a relevant part of Ghana’s fashion ecosystem,” claims Accra-based model-turned-stylist Larley Lartey whose resume includes some of Ghana’s biggest stars such as Stonebwoy.While clothing markets like Kantamanto have become a hub for fashion enthusiasts to seek inspiration and feed their creativity, there, unfortunately, are adverse effects which, if they aren’t taken care of sooner rather than later, will spell doom for The Gold Coast’s environment.
The influx of bales packed with international brand-named clothing keeps the marketing going. Customers can find pieces from the United Kingdom, United States and China with labels ranging from Gucci to H&M. Approximately 70% of donated clothes from Europe find a new home in Africa. The clothes are donated from charity shops and are often unsold stock. Locals refer to the clothes as Obroni W’awu, which means “Dead White Man’s clothes”.
These large parcels are sold to Ghanaian traders starting from $120 a pop. However, according to The Guardian, only 40% of each bale gets sold (4 to 5 million items). The rest is either picked up by refuse companies, set alight near the stalls, or carelessly disposed of in informal landfills as importers cannot return the unwanted goods.
40-foot long sea containers carry approximately 426 bales inside, each weighing roughly 55kgs. According to the Or Foundation, each container costs importers anywhere from $15,000 to $45,000. Kantamanto is one of the largest recipients of second-hand clothing and receives a stock of about 100 bales weekly spread over the 5 000 stalls that serve as a source of income for about 30 000 people. An estimated 3.4 million kilograms (roughly 15 million items) of secondhand garments enter Kantamanto market weekly.
Once each bale is opened, the contents are scrutinized and sorted into selections containing higher quality garments to those referred to colloquially as “asei”, meaning under or of lower quality which then make their way to retailers.
Naturally, garments of high quality sell out much faster, which is why retailers get disheartened when they purchase a bale with unsellable clothes. Bloodstains, rips, tears, mould and broken zips determine whether a retailer will sell the garment at a discounted price or throw it out altogether. Some retailers have expressed that the number of unsellable clothes has increased.
“The problem of waste is getting worse. For 12 years, the goods coming here have not been good, we can’t benefit from them. It’s my impression that countries abroad think Africa is very poor so they give us low-quality goods and their waste,” said John Opoku Agyemang, the secretary of the Kantamanto Hard Workers’ Association, who has worked at the market for 24 years.
The informal disposal of clothes has created an environmental issue for Kantamanto and its surroundings. The volume of waste is a direct reflection of the lack of infrastructure set in place for safe refuse disposal. One hundred tons of clothing leaves as waste every day, with 30% of it collected by the city, and the rest is dumped into illegal landfills. Old Fadama, a community of 80 000 and Accra’s largest informal settlement two miles from the market is a far cry from what it once was. Houses are built on top of waste and rubble, and the Korle Lagoon is engulfed by dirt.
“As it is now, I can’t go near the lagoon. It’s like a death pit. People used to fish there,” recalls photographer Alhassan Fatawu, 24. “There were a lot of canoes with people depending on the lagoon for their livelihood.”
Leading directly to the sea, Korle Lagoon carries tons of waste into Ghana’s beaches, and 30-year-old agribusiness entrepreneur Yvette Yaa Konadu Tetteh has tasked herself with diving deep into the waters to raise awareness about the country’s pollution. “I want people to understand and appreciate the value we have here in Ghana,” said Teteh, who has triumphantly swam along River Volta for the past 40 days, taking air and water samples to ascertain what is in the water.
She told The Guardian, “The only way I can swim is because the waters [of the Volta River] are hopefully clean. Korle Lagoon was once swimmable, but now you wouldn’t want to touch any of it.”
The story of Kantamanto is fascinating. Despite the growing culture of upcycling and repurposing garments, the dark side of the secondhand clothing business overshadows all efforts. The future of Old Fadama and its surrounding environments is in jeopardy as well as the health of the residents. What is being done to reduce the amount of waste landing in the ocean? Not enough. Currently, the government can collect only 70 tons of waste daily. Donators are urged to donate more intentionally and refrain from donating damaged clothing to reduce the number of clothes that will have to be discarded.