Deeply rooted in Nigeria’s culture and commerce, Okrika (thrift clothes) is a vital source of affordable clothing for many Nigerians. A looming ban on Okrika is set to change not just Nigeria’s fashion industry but life in Nigeria as we know it.
Citing health, economic and sustainability concerns, on 8 June 2023, the Nigeria Customs Service announced the Federal Government’s intention to ban Okrika (thrift clothes) in Nigeria. An essential and thriving aspect of Nigeria’s fashion landscape, Okrika has become deeply ingrained in Nigeria’s culture and commerce, providing a lifeline for many individuals from poor and middle-class backgrounds. The significance of Okrika extends far beyond being a source of affordable clothing; it represents a way of life, a culture and a means of self-expression for countless Nigerians. As the proposed ban looms, Nigerians need to critically examine the concerns raised by the customs service and the implications the ban may have on Nigeria’s fashion industry and the lives of the people who depend on Okrika for accessible clothing options. Additionally, the proposed ban raises questions about the real challenges faced by Nigeria’s local clothing producers, who must navigate issues of pricing and quality in order to compete with both Okrika and new imported clothes. In this context, the debate surrounding the ban takes on a broader dimension, encompassing sustainability and the dynamics of local industry competition.
Growing up in Ilesa, Osun State during the early 2000s, the only guaranteed new clothes my siblings and I received each year were our cherished ‘Aṣọ Ọdún’—our Christmas clothes. We would often share and rotate outfits, breathing new life into familiar items. However, the most reliable and consistent source of clothing for us was Okrika. The Okrika seller on our street would inform my father whenever she had a new bale, and we would embark on Okrika treasure hunts to enrich our wardrobe.
As an adult, Okrika remains a part of my life. When I started my first job in Marina, Lagos Island in 2019, my first payday led me straight to Balogun market. With a salary of N70,000, I sought affordable yet presentable N1,000 shirts and N1,500 trousers. Okrika was the only way I could build a corporate wardrobe within my budget.
These experiences are not mine alone—Okrika has woven itself into the fabric of Nigerian fashion and commerce. It is not just about affordability; it is the thrill of the hunt and the spirit of resourcefulness that make Okrika an inseparable part of our lives. From cherished traditions to exciting new beginnings, Okrika stands as a symbol of sustainability, community and the timeless beauty of second-hand fashion.
OKRIKA: A BRIEF ORIGIN
The roots of Okrika culture in Nigeria can be found as early as the 15th Century when African societies made some of their earliest encounters with Europeans. Over time, as European traders, missionaries and colonizers introduced Western clothing to the continent, locals began embracing Western styles.
This embrace of Western clothing became more pronounced in the late nineteenth century due to several factors. For one, European clothing represented modernity and sophistication, carrying the allure of a different way of life that was associated with the colonizers. In early Nigerian societies, wearing Western clothing became a symbol of social status and assimilation into the changing times.
Christian missionaries played a significant role in introducing Western clothing to Nigerian communities. As part of their efforts to spread Christianity and Western cultural norms, missionaries encouraged the adoption of Western dress as a sign of religious conversion and assimilation into European ways of life. The late nineteenth century also saw the emergence of urban centres and the growth of formal education in Nigeria. As people moved to cities and attended Western-style schools, they came into greater contact with Western clothing through their interactions with colonial administrators, missionaries and other students. This exposure and desire would later intensify through media and communication channels, including newspapers, magazines and photography.
A growing demand for Western clothing gave rise to a market for second-hand Western clothes. Beyond the demand, the 19th century also saw the beginning of mass production of clothing, standardization of sizing and ready-to-wear, which encouraged the export of new and used clothing from Europe, North America and Asia. The term ‘Okrika’ is believed to have originated from Okrika, a town in Rivers State known for its strategic geographical location along the coast—a prime location for receiving goods shipped from Europe. After European ships arrived laden with second-hand clothing, these garments found their way into the vibrant markets of Okrika. Over time, the term ‘Okrika’ became widely used to describe the thriving practice of buying and selling second-hand clothing in Nigeria while alternative terms ‘bend down select’ and ‘boskoro’—condensed from ‘Bọ́ sí korò’, Yoruba for ‘move to the corner’—describe the shopping process of selecting and trying on new finds. Although initially associated with Western clothing, Okrika has over the years evolved to encompass a diverse array of second-hand garments, embracing styles from different regions and fashion trends.
THE EVOLUTION OF THRIFT SHOPPING IN NIGERIA
Okrika shopping has remained the same and has also changed a lot over the last century. For generations, thrift clothing has transcended its practical purpose to become a way of life. In Nigeria, the evolution of thrift shopping tells a fascinating story of cultural adaptation, economic resilience and fashion ingenuity.
Over time, the trade of thrift clothing has become intricately woven into the fabric of Nigerian culture, influencing fashion trends and fostering a sense of community. Vibrant and bustling, thrift markets have become not just places to shop but spaces where people connect, share stories and celebrate the beauty of diverse styles.
Thrift trading has also evolved over time. Initially, the bales of second-hand clothing primarily came from European countries, notably the UK, France and Germany. However, in the last decade, the countries of origin have diversified. Michael, an Okrika trader in Oshodi, told me that the bales now mostly come from the UK, China and Korea. This shift in the origin countries of Okrika clothes highlights how global commerce in the second-hand clothing trade is dynamic, complex, subject to fluctuations and interconnected.
Additionally, digital technology has transformed the Okrika experience. Social media have opened up new avenues for buying and selling second-hand clothing, catering to a wider audience and increasing accessibility. As a result, Okrika culture has gained visibility beyond local markets like Dugbe in Oyo State and Katangowa in Lagos State. Today, numerous Instagram pages including influencers like Vincent Ebuka are dedicated to thrifting and showcasing trends, allowing people an affordable ‘slay’. From the bustling markets of Dugbe to the expansive offerings of Katangowa and the convenience of Instagram thrift stores, Nigerians continue to appreciate the affordability and accessibility of thrift fashion. One thing remains clear: Okrika sells because it caters to a profound longing—the desire to express oneself through fashion while navigating the boundaries of affordability.
THE PROPOSED BAN AND NIGERIA’S LOVE FOR PROTECTIONISM
In June 2023, the Nigeria Customs Service announced plans to ban second-hand clothing, stating that Okrika clothes pose health risks to Nigerians and stifle the growth of the local cloth and textile manufacturing industry. However, this is not the first time the idea of banning second-hand clothing in Nigeria has surfaced. In 1971, the Nigerian government prohibited the sale of second-hand clothing, with some Igbo intellectuals arguing that the ban was an attempt by the Yakubu Gowon-led government to impede the Igbos’ efforts to revive their finances and the economy of the Eastern Region after the civil war. In 2020, the vice-chairman of the Senate Committee on Customs, Excise and Tariffs, Francis Fadahunsi, called for a ban on the importation of used clothes, citing the need to halt the spread of the coronavirus in the country.
Regarding health concerns, the customs spokesman, Abdullahi Aliyu Maiwada, mentioned potential threats from not knowing the history of the clothes or where they have been. In my experience, thoroughly laundering Okrika clothes before wearing them is standard practice. However, the government might put in place policies and requirements for the quality of second-hand clothes being imported into Nigeria to lessen the responsibility on the citizens. For instance, In the United States, Consumer Product Safety Commission has rules and regulations covering thrift stores.
The economic implications of the proposed ban are also worth debating. Import bans are not unique to second-hand clothing in Nigeria and, historically, Nigeria’s protectionist policies have often proven to be detrimental. An example of this is the famous land border closure of August 2019, which lasted for 16 months. The federal government of Nigeria closed land borders into the country, claiming that border closures would reduce smuggling and improve local production of rice. The policy failed and was only successful in pushing up the price of rice by over 100 per cent from N13,500 before the border closure to N28,000 by December 2020. The price of a 50kg bag of rice has since then increased to about N50,000 as of August 2023.
The challenge faced by the Nigerian fashion industry lies not in the existence of thrift clothes but rather in the inability of local clothing producers to compete in terms of pricing and quality with both thrift clothes and even new imported clothes.
In many thrift markets across Nigeria, you will often hear traders proclaiming, ‘Na mumu dey go boutique’ (meaning ‘only fools go to boutiques’). This expression captures the prevailing sentiment many Nigerians share that spending exorbitant sums on new clothing items in boutiques is impractical, especially when one can find equally stylish and more affordable alternatives in Okrika markets. Speaking with an Okrika trader (who prefers to be identified as The Don) in Yaba, I inquired about his thoughts on the possibility of a ban on Okrika trade. Without hesitating, he said, ‘E no fit happen, wetin people go wear?’ This simple yet profound question underscores the integral role Okrika clothing plays in the lives of countless Nigerians, making it an indispensable aspect of the nation’s fashion and economic landscape. A ban on Okrika will inadvertently put many Nigerians who depend on it for clothing and as a source of livelihood (the traders) in economic hardship.
To compete, Nigerian clothing producers have to surmount key structural and infrastructural issues. They are faced with high production costs, limited economies of scale, inadequate infrastructure, limited access to finance and challenges related to quality control and standardization. However, it is important to note that Okrika is not the root cause of these challenges. Therefore, as with many economic issues in Nigeria, a ban on Okrika would not be the definitive answer to bolstering the competitiveness of local producers. Even if Okrika were to be banned, Nigerian producers would still grapple with the barriers to competition when it comes to new imported ‘wears’. Instead, addressing these obstacles requires a comprehensive approach involving improved infrastructure, access to affordable financing, capacity-building programmes and supportive policies that promote local production and reduce production costs. By adopting such measures, Nigerian clothing producers can enhance their competitiveness, offer affordable clothing options and contribute to the growth and vibrancy of the local fashion industry.
THE BIGGER CONCERNS AROUND SUSTAINABILITY
In addition to the health and economic concerns raised by Nigerian Customs, the issue of sustainability is also crucial in the context of Okrika and thrift culture. The customs spokesperson highlighted the possibility of developed countries using Nigeria as a dumping ground for their used clothing. This fear raises valid points, as African countries should not bear the sole responsibility of dealing with the world’s waste. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, African countries were the destination of over 40 per cent of the UK’s used clothing export in 2021. Similarly, African countries were the destination for over 30 per cent of the global used clothing export in 2021.
However, when we critically assess the concerns, thrifting emerges as a better alternative to simply discarding clothes in landfills. Environmental activists have increasingly advocated for thrifting as it serves as a means to promote a more environmentally conscious approach by giving pre-owned garments a new lease of life. Global Fashion Agenda, a non-profit dedicated to promoting sustainability in the fashion industry, estimates that about 36 billion clothing items are thrown away every year in the US alone.
Instead of resorting to a ban, thrifting should be encouraged globally. Embracing thrift culture can contribute to reducing waste, extending the lifespan of clothing items and minimizing the environmental impact of the fashion industry. It aligns with the principles of circular economy and responsible consumption, which are gaining traction worldwide.
Several countries have also demonstrated the viability of thriving thrift economies, showcasing that embracing thrift culture can indeed yield positive results. Sweden, for instance, has fostered a robust second-hand market through its ‘lagom’ philosophy, encouraging responsible consumption. Japan’s deep-rooted thrift tradition, influenced by the principle of ‘mottainai,’ has led to the proliferation of vintage stores and a widespread practice of recycling clothing. Additionally, the United Kingdom’s emphasis on ‘Love Your Clothes’ and clothing swaps has elevated awareness about the environmental benefits of thrifting. From these examples, it becomes evident that a combination of cultural values, consumer education, and accessible second-hand markets can contribute to the success of a thrifting economy. By adopting such approaches, other countries (like Nigeria) can leverage their unique cultural attributes to encourage sustainable fashion practices and foster a circular fashion ecosystem.
By fostering a positive attitude towards thrifting and encouraging the reuse and recycling of clothing, both developed and developing countries can work together to create a more sustainable and responsible fashion ecosystem. This would involve initiatives such as promoting second-hand markets, educating consumers about the environmental benefits of thrifting and supporting policies that incentivize sustainable practices throughout the fashion supply chain. By doing so, we can address sustainability concerns, reduce waste and foster a more environmentally conscious fashion industry while simultaneously preserving the affordability and accessibility that thrift culture provides⎈
The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].