If you've ever cleaned out your closet, donated the excess and congratulated yourself for keeping clothing out of landfill, chances are you've been relying on a group of people you've probably never even heard of: Ghana's kayayei. Though they're seldom celebrated by vocal champions of the circular economy, kayayei have been described as "the backbone of the secondhand clothing trade."
"Kayayei" is the Ghanaian word for women porters who carry all kinds of goods on their heads through local markets. Though they might get paid to transport anything from groceries to dry goods, kayayei play a particularly significant role in the global apparel economy.
This is because Accra, Ghana, is home to the largest secondhand market in West Africa, according to American not-for-profit The OR Foundation. The organization, which has been researching the flow of used clothing through Ghana since 2016, says that 15 million garments donated and exported by the Global North — think countries like the U.S., U.K. and Canada — pass through a single market in Accra, called Kantamanto, each week.
Kayayei play an essential part in transporting garments from secondhand clothing importers to the markets where they will be sorted and hopefully resold. That means that millions of items donated every week by Marie Kondo-inspired Americans, Brits and more would never make it to the secondhand clothing stream, where they have a shot at being diverted from landfills, if it weren't for kayayei. (Even the clothing that does make it to the market in Ghana won't all be sellable and thus may still end up in a landfill — just in a different country from where it was donated — but that's a story for another time.)
Though kayayei comprise a crucial link in the secondhand supply chain, they've long faced difficult working conditions and inadequate protections. Their work is physically intense: The bales they transport on their heads weigh a minimum of 120 pounds, but the narrow aisles of the markets they navigate don't allow for other modes of carrying. Years of bearing these loads can lead to debilitating neck and back pain. The work is also conspicuously low-paying, with most kayayei earning no more than $10 a day.
"Kayayei play an essential role in extending the life of billions of garments every year, which means they play a pivotal role in manifesting our [the fashion industry in the Global North's] good intentions," says co-founder of the OR Foundation Liz Ricketts via email. "The relief we often feel upon donating clothing becomes a literal weight that the kayayei bear. Our desire to divert clothing from our landfills is no excuse for the violence kayayei face. Some of these women die because their necks break under the weight of clothing."
Covid-19 has exacerbated the difficulties of making a living as a kayayo even further. Like many worldwide who rely on the gig economy for their income, there's no financial safety net for these women. So when the pandemic-related lockdown shuttered the secondhand trade at Kantamanto, kayayei were left with few resources. Even once markets opened back up in late April, many were hesitant to return to work for fear that they'd contract the virus. Though this fear has been felt by citizens all over the globe, it's especially pressing for kayayei due to the fact that many don't have access to basic sanitation infrastructure.
According to a press release from the OR Foundation, in the Old Fadama community where over 13,000 kayayei live, "social distancing is all but impossible." Toilet and washing facilities all require users to pay a fee, which makes them inaccessible for those whose inability to work has put them in financial dire straits. Even as frequent hand-washing has become an obsessive norm in many parts of the world, it remains a luxury for many kayayei.
The Kayayei Youth Association has shared reports with the OR Foundation claiming that the Ghanaian government is offering inadequate assistance in the face of these challenges. These community leaders are organizing as a result, staging demonstrations and making specific asks of the government: that it provide free water for Old Fadama residents through June 1 so they can wash their hands to reduce the spread of the virus; for government-sponsored transport so that kayayei can opt to return to the northern part of the country from which many of them hail if they wish; and for assistance with lodging and food.
Though the OR Foundation has been raising funds to provide temporary relief in the form of food and hand sanitizer for those living in Old Fadama, Ricketts and her co-founder Branson Skinner join the Kayayei Youth Association in hoping that local government will do more to support these vulnerable but essential workers in the global secondhand supply chain.
Ricketts is also keen for citizens in the Global North to start thinking more critically about what happens to the clothing they donate. Just because it's dropped off in a bin with a recycling sign on the side doesn't mean it's guaranteed to "help someone in need" or find a second life, she says.
"The very convenient idea that people in the Global South need our excess clothing is a legacy of colonialism," Ricketts says. "Until we confront these truths, the fashion industry will likely remain unregulated and the Global North will continue to achieve 'sustainability' and 'zero-waste' goals at the expense of disenfranchised women like the kayayei."