USTR Releases Negotiating Objectives of the Proposed U.S.-Kenya Free Trade Agreement

On May 22, 2020, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released the specific negotiating objectives of the proposed U.S.-Kenya Free Trade Agreement. Overall, the proposed free trade agreement (FTA) intends to “builds on the objectives of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and serve as an enduring foundation to expand U.S.-Africa trade and investment across the continent.” USTR also visions to conclude an agreement with Kenya that “can serve as a model for additional agreements in Africa, leading to a network of agreements that contribute to Africa’s regional integration objectives.”

Regarding the textiles and apparel (T&A) sector, USTR says it will “Secure duty-free access for U.S. textile and apparel products and seek to improve competitive opportunities for exports of U.S. textile and apparel products while taking into account U.S. import sensitivities.” The proposed agreement also will “Establish origin procedures that streamline the certification and verification of rules of origin and that promote strong enforcement, including with respect to textiles.” The same/very similar language is used in the proposed U.S.-Japan Free Trade Agreement and U.S.-EU trade negotiation.

Of the total $667million U.S. merchandise imports from Kenya in 2019, nearly 70% were apparel items, making the sector the single largest stakeholder of the proposed FTA. While still being a relatively minor supplier, Kenya’s apparel exports to the U.S. reached a record high of $453million in 2019, which was an increase of 132% from ten years ago. For many U.S. fashion companies, Kenya is also its single largest apparel-sourcing base in Sub-saharan Africa (SSA), accounting for one-third of the region’s total apparel exports to the U.S. in 2019.

However, how to design the textile and apparel chapter in the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA is anything but easy. A preliminary content analysis of the 133 public comments submitted to the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) as of May 2020 shows that various stakeholders have proposed competing views on several complicated issues, ranging from the rules of origin to the tariff elimination schedule. Specifically:

First, the fashion apparel industry has expressed strong unanimous support for the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA. Notably, Kenya is widely regarded as a growing sourcing destination for U.S. fashion brands and retailers. As noted by the U.S. Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) in its comment “there is a tremendous opportunity to expand trade between the United States and Kenya” through the elimination of both tariff and non-tariff barriers under the FTA.

Second, the fashion apparel industry calls for the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA to “do no harm” to the existing supply chain established based on AGOA and ensure a seamless transition between the two trade programs. For example, PVH, one of the largest U.S. fashion corporations, says in its comment, “no change should be made with respect to market access and dutyfree treatment for apparel made in Kenya effective from the date of entry into force of the agreement.” Likewise, USFIA calls for the new FTA to “Preserve the commercial opportunities developed through AGOA benefits.” The American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) further proposes to extend AGOA for another ten years after 2025, regardless of the status of the U.S.-Kenya FTA.

Third, despite the overall support for the agreement, industry stakeholders hold different views on how liberal the apparel-specific rules of origin should be in the U.S.-Kenya FTA and how long to keep it. Data shows, between 2015 and 2019, 99.7% of U.S. apparel imports from Kenya claimed the AGOA benefits. Of these imports, almost 100% took advantage of the so-called “third-country” fabric provision, which allows lesser-developed SSA countries like Kenya to enjoy duty-free access to the U.S. market for apparel made from yarns and fabrics originating from anywhere in the world (also known as the “cut and sew” or “single transformation” rules of origin).

On the one hand, some argue that without AGOA-like liberal rules of origin, Kenya won’t survive as an apparel sourcing destination for U.S. fashion companies because of the lack of local textile manufacturing capacity. For example, according to the African Coalition for Trade representing businesses in several SSA countries, “Africa does not currently have the capacity to produce the volume and variety of yarn and fabric necessary to support its apparel industry. Any tightening of the third-country fabric rule of origin in the post-AOGA model FTA would decimate the African apparel industry and lead to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

However, some other industry stakeholders suggest that U.S.-Kenya FTA should gradually adopt the more restrictive “yarn-forward” rules of origin to encourage the development of the local textile industry in Kenya and the broader SSA region. Should U.S.-Kenya FTA adopt the “yarn-forward” rules of origin, garment factories in Kenya would have to either import yarns and fabrics from the United States, an option that is commercially infeasible given the long-distance, or use textile inputs locally-made. PVH, in its comment, explains the rationale behind the proposal, “we should move to a yarn forward rule of origin in phases…to allow the orderly verticalization of the apparel industry (in Kenya).” AAFA further adds, “A strong, vertical supply chain for the apparel and footwear industry in Kenya will reduce costs, minimize disruption and improve efficiency.”

Notably, the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), which represents the voice of the U.S. textile industry, has not commented on U.S.-Kenya FTA yet but may potentially join the rules of origin debate. For years, NCTO insists that all U.S. free trade agreements should adopt the strict “yarn-forward” rules of origin. NCTO is most likely to hold the same position for the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA because of two reasons: 1) avoid setting a “bad precedent” that may have implications for future U.S. FTA negotiations; 2) prevent the case when U.S. apparel imports from Kenya substantially increase and negatively affect apparel suppliers in the Western Hemisphere (such as Mexico and countries in Central America).

Furthermore, the debate on rules of origin is connected with the discussion on how to promote a regional textile and apparel supply chain in SSA and enhance regional economic integration. Several stakeholders, including AAFA, urge that U.S.-Kenya FTA should support regional supply chain collaboration rather than intensify the competition between Kenya and other AGOA members in the U.S. apparel market. The Atlantic Council, a well-known think tank also argues, “the bilateral (FTA) approach should not undercut the US’ longstanding support for regional integration in African markets and the progress that has been made in the East African Community (EAC) and the African continental free trade agreement area (AfCFTA).” Mauritius embassy echoes and suggests that the U.S.-Kenya FTA “could be made conductive to regional integration in Africa by allowing cumulation provisions in the agreement that would allow the use of materials sourced from other African partners to achieve the rules of origin requirements.

Fourth, industry stakeholders also suggest that U.S.-Kenya FTA could include modern trade agendas to make the agreement more relevant to the needs of the fashion apparel industry in the 21st-century world economy. The most commonly mentioned issues include: 1) Sustainability, labor, and environmental standard; 2) E-commerce, digital trade, and data protection; 3) Strengthened intellectual property rights (IP) protection; 4) Transparency and trade facilitation. The released USTR negotiation objectives have covered most of these topics.

Additionally, how to deal with Kenya’s secondhand clothing import restriction could be another thorny issue relevant to fashion apparel in the U.S.-Kenya FTA negotiation. In its submitted comment, the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), whose members export 8-10 million kilograms of used clothing each year, urged the proposed U.S.-Kenya FTA to “prohibit the imposition of any import ban on secondhand clothing” and “phase-in duty eliminations on secondhand clothing.” However, SMART’s position could be at odds with apparel manufacturers in Kenya, along with U.S. fashion brands and retailers interested in expanding apparel sourcing from the country.

Further readings:

  1. Lu, S. (2019). Challenges for sub-Saharan Africa as an apparel sourcing hubJust-Style.
  2. Kendall Keough and Sheng Lu. (2020). U.S.-Kenya Free Trade Agreement: Comments from the Fashion Apparel Industry. Just-Style.

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

African Growth and Opportunity Act and Textile & Apparel

(In the video: Gail Strickler, former Assistant US Trade Representative for Textiles, highlights the immense opportunities created by the renewal of AGOA for duty-free access to the massive US market for African textile and apparel producers.)

The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a non-reciprocal trade agreement enacted in 2000 that provides duty-free treatment to U.S. 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 U.S. trade and investment ties with the region. (note: non-reciprocal means SSA countries do not need to offer equivalent benefits to imports from the United States.)

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.  Like many trade agreements and trade preference programs, AGOA also set unique rules of origin for textile and apparel (T&A):

First, to enjoy the duty-free and quota-free treatment in the US market, eligible T&A products made in qualifying AGOA countries need to be one of the following categories:

  • Apparel made with US yarns and fabrics;
  • Apparel made with Sub-Saharan African (SSA) regional yarns and fabrics, subject to a cap;
  • Apparel made with yarns and fabrics not produced in commercial quantities in the United States;
  • Certain cashmere and merino wool sweaters; and
  • Eligible hand-loomed, handmade or folklore articles and ethnic printed fabrics.

Second, under a special rule called “third-country fabric” provision, AGOA countries with lesser-developed countries (LDBC) status can further enjoy duty-free access in the US market for apparel made from yarns and fabric originating anywhere in the world (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. [Note: Although the US imports of apparel made with third-country fabric are subject to a cap, the cap has never been reached].

According to a 2014 comprehensive study conducted by the USITC, the “third-country fabric” provision has three major benefits to the AGOA members:

1) Increase exports of apparel. This can be evidenced by the fact that most US apparel imports under AGOA came from those countries that are eligible for the “third-country fabric” provision, such as Lesotho, Kenya, Mauritius, and Swaziland. In comparison, because South Africa is not eligible for the “third-country fabric” provision, its apparel exports to the United States had significantly dropped since 2003 and only accounted for 0.6% among AGOA countries in 2013.

2) Encourage foreign investment. From 2003 to 2013, a total 21 T&A FDI projects were made in SSA, among which 18 projects (or 85.7%) were greenfield FDI. The third-country fabric provision is the main driver for these FDI projects. For example, many Chinese and Taiwanese investors had opened apparel factories in Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria and Tanzania as a source of exports to the United States and the EU.

3) Enhance trade diversification. Theoretically, relaxing rules of origin (RoO) such as the third-fabric provision can free up companies’ resources and allow them to expand export product lines. As observed by a few empirical studies, AGOA’s third-country fabric provision helped related countries increase the varieties of apparel exports between 39 and 61 percent.

AGOA receives new authorization in 2015, which will last for 10 years until 2025 (including the 3rd country fabric provision). This ten-year renewal of AGOA is regarded as critical and necessary to encourage more long-term investment in the region. As put by Florizelle Liser, Assistant US Trade Representative for Africa “What we know is that African producers of apparel, like producers of apparel all around the world, need to have the flexibility to source their input from wherever of those can be produced most effectively, cost effectively for the products that they are sewing. So we want through the “third country fabric” provision to give the African producers of apparel that flexibility. We do know in terms of establishing textiles business on the ground producing those inputs right there in Africa and that more of that indeed is going to happen. The reason is that as U.S. buyers of apparel and this is an enormous market for apparel… as U.S. buyers of apparel source more of their apparel from Africa, then investors in textile mills, which are very expensive, will be incentivized and are being incentivized to actually establish those fabric mills right there in Africa, and then be able to save time, in terms of getting those inputs that are needed for the clothing that is being produced. So we see that happening already: it’s happening in Kenya, it’s happening in Ethiopia and around the continent. And that is what we need to have more of as we go forward in this ten-year extension of AGOA.”

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