Textile Recycling Across Continents

Family-owned business Savanna Rags International has successfully grown its operations from 20 employees to being one of the largest textile recyclers in the country. Robin Nierynck reports.

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Textile recycling company Savanna Rags has its origins in Zambia, where more than 22 years ago brothers Ahmed and Yunus Suleman traded in secondhand textiles from merchants who imported from the UK, selling the material on to locals.

Years later, the tables have turned and Savanna Rags is firmly established in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. After the brothers moved to the UK in 1994, they set up on Wood Road with some 20 employees.

Today, the company has grown to be one of the largest textile recyclers in the UK, having moved to a former mill on Forest Road, employing over 170 people and exporting thousands of tonnes of clothing a week from its 1.3 acre site.

Savanna Rags handles about 500 tonnes of material a week, which is sorted onsite and graded into over 60 categories. All items are sorted and graded in the 48,000-square-foot warehouse, via a purpose-built production line. Then items are fine-graded and quality checked before they are bagged for the relevant overseas markets.


The bulk of material is exported oversees, primarily to Africa and a small percentage to Eastern Europe. Although the company has been exporting to Eastern Europe for 20 years, it has had to adapt to changing conditions in the region which, according to director Ahmed Suleman, “used to be a big market but now it is shrinking.”

As is the case for many textile recyclers in the UK, the East African Community’s (EAC) proposed ban on the import of used clothing (see story) is a worrying matter for Savanna Rags.

Commenting on the EAC issue, Mr Suleman notes: “East Africa is a very big market, if we lose that, we would have more rags in the market here and then they would be rushing to one market, which is West Africa”.

Currently, West Africa is Savanna Rags’ main export market, in particular Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Togo. “It’s a workable market at the moment,” Mr Suleman adds. Clothes are sent to Felixstowe, Suffolk, where they are shipped to Africa, a journey which takes several weeks.

But Mr Suleman is hopeful that things might still turn around with the EAC: “Africa is a volatile market – you have to see what happens,” he says. “There’s hope that it’s not going to come to that. The indication we are getting is that all the countries have to agree and that might not happen.”

Savanna Rags also exports around 100 tonnes of ungraded material a week to the Middle East.

Charity work

A large part of the company structure and ethos is based around charity work in the local community and beyond. Savanna Rags has set up its own charity, the Peaceful (Uhuru) Trust, which has raised almost £150,000 for worthy causes. The charity works on development projects in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Malawi and also supports local hospitals and causes nearer home.

Savanna collects a large part of its material from charity shops, including those run by the Peaceful (Uhuru) Trust, which has four shops across Nottinghamshire.

The company also has a longstanding contract with disability charity Scope (see story), and works with a significant number of other national charities including the British Red Cross and the British Heart Foundation.

The remaining volume is collected from Savanna’s network of around 420 textile banks, or supplied by merchants. Savanna Rag clothing banks are primarily located in car parks of schools, local authorities and other sites across the Midlands. The company also buys in clothing from the public through a cash-for-clothes scheme.

Future growth

Mohammed Patel, head of logistics, says that the company is hoping to expand in future, as it is outgrowing its current premises.

“In an ideal world we need something twice as big just for storage,” Mr Patel says, but adds that he is conscious that any new location needs to remain easily accessible to employees and merchants.

Determined to continue the growth of recent years, the company is aiming to grow its annual turnover from £18 million to £20 million, while building the Peaceful Trust too and finding new ways to help people that need it.

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