The aim is to tackle the skills gap and create a model for apparel sector skills development throughout East Africa

The aim is to tackle the skills gap and create a model for apparel sector skills development throughout East Africa

Around 2,000 young people in Kenya are set to receive training in the clothing industry thanks to a new pilot programme backed by the US government to help address the skills gap that currently hinders growth in the country's apparel sector.

The move comes after a grant was agreed between the US Agency for International Development (USAID) East Africa Trade and Investment Hub (the Hub) with Generation Program Kenya Limited, a local subsidiary of the McKinsey Social Initiative.

The aim is to create 2,000 full-time jobs and provide over 100,000 hours in skills development. As well as tackling the skills gap, another of the pilot's goals is to create a sustainable and replicable model for apparel sector skills development throughout East Africa.

Working hand-in-hand with Kenya's Ministry of Industry, Trade and Cooperatives, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers and apparel companies, the pilot programme will set up and equip seven training centres throughout Kenya and screen 4,000 youth for participation. The pilot activities include recruitment, training and job placement in apparel factories. 

"The programme focuses on at-risk youth employment, skilled workforce development and economic expansion through global supply chain enhancement," explains USAID Kenya acting mission director Tina Dooley-Jones.

"It aligns well with the priorities of our new Administration by providing a business-enabled environment that supports both US and African businesses and investors."

Kenya is the largest apparel exporter within the East African Community (EAC), exporting US$340.54m worth of apparel to the US last year. However this was a drop of 7.5% on the prior year's $368.27m, with the decline continuing into 2017. In the first four months of this year, the value of apparel exports from Kenya fell 15.95% to $102.78m from $122.28m in the same period a year earlier.

The signing of the grant also marks the official kick-off of the Hub's larger 'East Africa Cotton, Textile and Apparel Workforce Development Initiative,' a collaborative effort with the private sector based on a partnership agreement between the Hub and the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA).

Announced earlier this year, the partnership aims to ensure best-in-class manufacturing of goods from East Africa that are destined for US fashion brands and retailers.

Its ultimate goal is to help create 45,000 jobs across Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda in the first three years of the initiative, as well as creating jobs and further growth in the US apparel, footwear, and travel goods sector.

East Africa is establishing itself as a key-sourcing destination for buyers of global apparel, footwear and travel goods. Recently renewed to 2025, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a major incentive that provides up to 35% in duty savings for eligible countries exporting to the US.

Out-of-cycle review

However, the timing of the initiative comes as the United States has launched a review of the eligibility of Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda to continue to receive benefits under AGOA after a petition was filed by the US-based Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) against the countries' decision to phase out imports of used clothing.

The out-of-cycle review could mean that could mean the duty-free benefits on imports from these countries into the US under AGOA are withdrawn, suspended or limited.

The East African Community (EAC) includes the Republic of Kenya, Republic of Rwanda, United Republic of Tanzania, and Republic of Uganda.

However, Kenya is being excluded from the current review due to actions it has taken, including reversing tariff increases and committing not to ban imports of used clothing – although the US says it will watch closely to ensure the country follows through on its commitments. Kenya's reprieve comes after it hired Washington lobbying firm Sonoran Policy Group (SPG) to help prevent the country's expulsion from AGOA.

The AAFA, which represents US apparel brands, retailers and importers, is among groups urging the US government not to suspend or terminate the AGOA benefits, pointing out that beneficiary countries are now taking steps to maximise utilisation of the trade deal and to foster sustainable economic growth following its ten-year renewal.

"Withdrawing benefits now would undermine those initiatives, including those fostering market based economies or leading to the elimination of barriers to US trade and investment," they say. "Even the threat of withdrawal induces uncertainty that puts progress toward those reforms in jeopardy."

US apparel groups urge ongoing AGOA benefits for East Africa