ACCRA, GHANA - Ghanaian multimedia artist Sel Kofiga documents the many hands that imported secondhand clothing and fabrics that pass through the bustling Kantamanto market in Accra, which largely deals with goods discarded by the West. 

Kofiga’s work focuses on the complex challenges within the market, including people’s livelihoods and the excess production the market represents. Prior to the pandemic, American NGO the OR Foundation estimated about 15 million items arrived weekly and that about 40 percent ended up discarded. That means aside from the livelihoods this trade supports, Ghana is burdened with discarding what the West doesn’t want. 

Multimedia artist Sel Kofiga turns fabrics from Kantamanto market into upcycled clothes under the name The Slum Studio, in Accra, Ghana, Sept. 22, 2020. (Stacey Knott/VOA)

“In this process of distribution, you get people that are carrying these bales on the shoulders and then on their heads, to warehouses, to shops and all these things. And then, we have people who put the bales on trucks and then distribute them to other places," Kofiga explains. "So, before the shirts or the dress even gets to the unknown person who is coming to buy it, there is a lot of work that goes into it and that is where I am more interested in trying to see how these things affect people.”

The coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, has had a major impact here. Fewer imports are coming in and buyer demand has decreased. Those who live on daily wages are especially vulnerable. They have been reliant on NGOs and charitable support to survive, market worker Abdulai Rukaya says.

Fabric painted by Sel Kofiga hangs at Kantamanto market, in Accra, Ghana, Sept. 22, 2020. (Stacey Knott/VOA)

“Because of the COVID, the business has come down, even I have a child. For the whole of the day if I don’t get something, how will my child feed?” Rukaya asks.

While those in the market wait for work to pick up again, there are concerns over a clampdown on some items, after authorities said they were reinforcing an existing ban over fears some imports could spread diseases.  

Legislation banning secondhand undergarments, mattresses and sanitary ware took effect in 1994 due to health fears and concerns Ghana was being used as a dumping ground, but some of these items can still be found in the markets. A Ghana Standards Authority officer said porous borders are partly to blame but added the current clampdown has led to a “huge reduction” in these items. 

Sel Kofiga paints a piece of fabric he bought at Kantamanto market, in Accra, Ghana, Sept. 22, 2020. (Stacey Knott/VOA)

NGO People’s Dialogue on Human Settlements says there are negative implications for bans like this for those who rely on selling these goods and those who buy them due to their cheaper price. 

Abdul-Mujib Salifu, a program manager at the NGO, says focusing on upgrading the market would be more useful, and believes people have always been careful to wash anything bought from the market.

“The informal economy [whether] we like it or not plays a very big role in government’s management of economic situations," Salifu notes, "so sometimes when politicians try to raise -  they just see one law somewhere, and you ask them, and they say, ‘This law it bans people from this and we are going to enforce it’, you can’t enforce laws when you don’t create alternatives.”

Piles of clothing and fabric can be found throughout Kantamanto market, many imported from Western countries, in Accra, Ghana, Sept. 22, 2020. (Stacey Knott/VOA)

For his part, artist Kofiga also turns fabrics from the market into upcycled clothes, which he hopes will inspire a greener, global fashion industry.  

Kofiga says he doesn’t want secondhand garment imports into Ghana to cease – but that he just wants to highlight the excessive waste fast fashion creates, and to inspire people to have a better appreciation for what still has some use.