USITC Report: U.S. Apparel Sourcing under African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)

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A newly released study by the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) suggests that the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) and its “third-country fabric provision” are critical for U.S. apparel sourcing from sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Specifically:

U.S. apparel imports from SSA grew faster than the world average. During 2016–19, U.S. apparel imports from SSA enjoyed a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.8 percent (compared with 1.3 percent CAGR of all countries), from $1.0 billion in 2016 to $1.4 billion in 2019. However, SSA overall remained a small apparel supplier to the U.S. market, accounting for only 1.7 percent of the market shares in 2019 (lower than 2.7 percent in 2004, but was a record high since 2015).

U.S. apparel imports from SSA remain uneven across countries. The five SSA countries–Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Ethiopia altogether accounted for almost 95 percent of all apparel imported from the SSA region under AGOA. The growth of U.S. apparel imports from Ethiopia was particularly fast (86.4% CAGR during 2016-2019), thanks to the country’s industrial parks and its increased use of AGOA benefits. Several global brands such as H&M, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger currently source apparel from garment factories located in these industrial parks.

The USITC report suggests that the duty-free preferences awarded under AGOA and the liberal rules of origin available for apparel under the “third-country fabric provision”* are the key competitive advantages of SSA serving as an apparel sourcing destination for U.S. companies. Due to limited yarn and fabric production in SSA, the third-country fabric provision remained critical for SSA exports of apparel to receive duty-free entrance to the United States. Notably, nearly all U.S. imports of apparel from SSA countries entered under AGOA (98 percent). Of these imports, virtually all of them (95.8 percent) used the third-country fabric provision in 2018.

Further, the USITC report used Madagascar as an example to illustrate the significance of AGOA and its third-country fabric provision in particular to SSA countries’ apparel exports to the United States. As noted by USITC:

  • Madagascar was evidenced by the sharp decline in its apparel exports to the U.S. after the country lost its AGOA eligibility in 2009. Without duty-free access to the United States, the average duty rate for U.S. imports of apparel from Madagascar rose to 19.6 percent, and apparel exports to the United States from Madagascar fell from over $211 million in 2009 to only $40 million in 2011.
  • Madagascar’s AGOA benefits were reinstated in 2014. Just in two years, U.S. apparel imports from Madagascar bounced back to one-half of the 2009 level. In 2019, U.S. apparel imports from Madagascar totaled $243 billion, a new record high since 2015.

The USITC report mentioned several factors that are encouraging more U.S. apparel sourcing from SSA. For example:

  • U.S. fashion companies’ sourcing diversification strategy
  • U.S. fashion companies’ rising emphasis on corporate social responsibility (CSR) in sourcing
  • Deepened regional economic integration among SSA countries through regional trade arrangements such as the African Continental Free Trade Area

However, it remains a concern that SSA countries are lack of genuine competitiveness as apparel sourcing destinations. According to the USITC report, SSA countries’ current competitive advantage in apparel “comes solely through the cutting of tariffs on apparel to zero, since the apparel sectors of Bangladesh, Vietnam, and China are more cost-competitive than those of SSA countries. The current competitive advantage that SSA countries have in the apparel sector will decline significantly if AGOA expires in 2025. The uncertainty about AGOA renewal will likely discourage U.S. FDI in the SSA apparel sector.”

Related, as quoted by the USITC report, according to the 2019 Fashion Industry Benchmarking Study, almost half of the surveyed U.S. fashion companies expressed hesitancy about investing in the SSA region due to the temporary nature of AGOA. Moreover, long lead times, lack of infrastructure, and high logistical costs continue to deter apparel retailers from investing in the AGOA region.

*About the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a non-reciprocal trade agreement enacted in 2000 that provides duty-free treatment to US imports of certain products from eligible sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries. AGOA intends to promote market-led economic growth and development in SSA and deepen US trade and investment ties with the region.

Because apparel production plays a dominant role in many SSA countries’ economic development, apparel has become one of the top exports for many SSA countries under AGOA. Particularly, the “third-country fabric provision” under AGOA allows US apparel imports from certain SSA countries to be qualified for duty-free treatment even if the apparel use yarns and fabrics produced by non-AGOA countries/regions (such as China, South Korea, and Taiwan). This special rule is deemed as critical because most SSA countries still have no capacity in producing capital and technology-intensive textile products.

On 29 June 2015, the Obama Administration signed a new bill to extend the AGOA (including the third-country fabric provision) for another ten years (until 30 September 2025). The new law simplifies the AGOA rules of origin; gives the president the ability to withdraw, suspend or limit benefits (rather than just terminate eligibility) if designated AGOA countries do not comply with the eligibility criteria; adds notification and reporting requirements; and improves transparency and participation in the AGOA review process.

About the “Third-Country Fabric” provision under AGOA

This is a “Special Rule” for lesser-developed SSA countries (LDCs) under AGOA. According to the rule, these SSA LDCs can enjoy duty-free and quota-free access to the U.S. market for apparel made from yarns and fabrics originating from anywhere in the world. In comparison, most U.S. free trade agreements require the more restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin.

Related reading: Challenges facing Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) as an Apparel Sourcing Base