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Africa’s e-scrap story: A new narrative

It’s time to park any mass media-inspired preconceptions for a few moments and to embark on a journey that reveals how, in some parts of Africa at least, increasing environmental consciousness is helping to fuel change within the e-scrap sector. A tour of reuse and recycling facilities in Kenya and Ghana underscores the influence of a growing demand for responsible recycling while also highlighting the avenues down which further progress might lie.

*In honour of Adam Minter’s brand-new book “Secondhand” (see review here) we are posting this popular article he wrote for us back in 2016.
This is part 1 / Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

In a suburb of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, five technicians sit at a long table and methodically use screwdrivers, pliers and hammers to dismantle decade-old desktop computers and servers imported from Europe. The circuit boards go into one pile, the power packs into another. When the piles are big enough, the technicians place the material into small bays located behind them. Despite the East African heat, the workers wear full-body uniforms with their employer’s name – The WEEE Centre – on the back, as well as heavy gloves, hard hats and face masks.

Jane Kariithi of the WEEE Centre.

It’s a small-scale facility compared with the large e-recycling operations in more developed economies, but it’s cutting edge for an Africa which is just beginning to manage the end-of-life electronics that have been accumulating in homes and businesses for two decades. Until now, the continent’s thriving electronics repair, refurbishment and reuse sector has held back the tide of gadgets that otherwise would end up in the waste stream – but that situation is starting to change. ‘The 10- and 15-year-old technologies aren’t in demand anymore, so we see a big and growing opportunity to recycle,’ says Jane Kariithi, The WEEE Centre’s managing director.

Knowledge and sophistication

It isn’t easy to refurbish or recycle electronics in Kenya or in other African countries because they lack ‘the technology and markets to do it like in the developed countries’, Kariithi continues. African recyclers’ knowledge and sophistication are evolving, however, as the volume of e-scrap grows and environmental consciousness expands across the continent. I witnessed this evolution during an eight-day trip that took me to reuse and recycling facilities in Kenya and Ghana.

Although non-governmental organisations and international media groups have made ‘e-waste’ in Africa a topic of concern for decades, there are few data on how much e-scrap the continent or its countries generate.

Take Kenya, for example: in 2007 and 2008, the Nairobi-based Kenyan Information and Communications Technology Network (KICTN) conducted the first comprehensive survey of e-scrap in the country and determined that Kenyans were producing 2984 tons of end-of-life electronics annually, evenly split between computers (laptops and desktops) and monitors. That grew quickly: in 2012, they produced 44 000 tonnes, according to the UN Environmental Programme’s Solving the E-waste Problem initiative.

According to the KICTN study, Kenya imported most of those used electronic products for the simple reason that it’s a rapidly developing country but a poor one, so its citizens need access to low-priced electronics. In 2012, a Kenyan’s per capita GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity in current US dollars was US$ 1807 – a sum far too small for most individuals or families to justify buying a new laptop, phone or TV.

Much bigger problem

The WEEE Centre, located 20 minutes from central Nairobi, started out as an importer of used electronics, supplying computers and other technology to Kenyan education institutions in conjunction with the non-governmental organisation Computers for Schools Kenya. The programme receives computers from companies such as Microsoft, imports and refurbishes them, then provides training and support to individuals at the receiving institutions. Kariithi says the scheme has provided in excess of 250 000 computers to more than 9000 Kenyan institutions, giving 15 million young Kenyans access to technology.

That was the easy part. ‘After a few years, the computers started to become obsolete,’ Kariithi explains as we step into a room at The WEEE Centre where technicians evaluate and refurbish returned machines. ‘We didn’t know what to do, and we realised the problem was much bigger than schools.’

That’s how, in 2006, The WEEE Centre became the first licensed, formal recycler in Kenya. Although Kariithi led that effort, she had assistance from World Loop, a Brussels-based non-governmental organisation devoted to offsetting the negative environmental impacts of information technology, as well as the co-operation of corporate and government partners, including the European Commission and the Kenyan ministry of environment, water and natural resources.

Local solution

Dismantling is at the heart of The WEEE Centre’s operation: it sells reusable parts locally; non-ferrous metals, wire and cables go to local metal recyclers; and plastics end up at local processors who downcycle the material into plastic lumber. Circuit boards and hard drives are segregated from the rest of the scrap and sold to agents for European refiners.

When I ask if anyone ‘cooks’ circuit boards in Kenya to recover the precious metal content, Kariithi laughs. ‘No,’ she says. ‘You’d make less money. Even the informal sector sells to the Europeans.’

To show me what happens to the glass, Kariithi takes me to her office and presents me with the manifest for a 50-tonne shipment of CRT glass bound for Belgium later in the week. World Loop helped arrange the shipment, she notes, showing me the export documentation, including a letter from the Kenyan government allowing the transboundary shipment of the leaded CRT glass. ‘We don’t have a local solution here, so we have to export it,’ she explains.

Next, we visit a room in which a wire-stripping machine processes clean cables that are obsolete or damaged. The room also has a small table for processing cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors. A worker uses a hot wire to separate the CRTs’ leaded glass from non-leaded glass, then vacuums out the phosphorus.

Producer responsibility system

The WEEE Centre handles 10 to 15 tonnes of end-of-life electronics and appliances on a monthly basis, with most of the material coming from its programme. It also has a few corporate suppliers that sought to work with a certified, formal recycling operation.

According to Kariithi, the centre has the capacity to handle 50 tonnes a month, but it won’t have a chance to fill that capacity until it can compete with the informal sector for spent household, business and corporate equipment. Still, she sees reason for hope. ‘The government is creating a producer responsibility system,’ she notes.

Kenya’s proposed producer responsibility initiative was ‘stuck’ in parliament for years. Amina Abdalla, chair of the National Assembly’s committee on environment and natural resources as well as the driving force behind the proposed system, blames the hold-up on ‘a low level of understanding of the entire recycling sector and the complexity of the regulation’.

In her view, Kenyans still associate recycling and e-scrap with waste disposal and the country’s plentiful dump sites. ‘Scrap collectors are looked down upon, and they’re registered under the solid waste laws, not recycling laws,’ she says. ‘We need to separate them legally and in people’s minds.’

Despite these obstacles, Abdalla isn’t dissuaded. The producer responsibility system, she says, is an inevitability that will open up Kenya to a formal recycling sector for one reason: ‘The most efficient institution in Kenya is the tax man, so we’ll have the tax man register and tax new and used goods at the point of entry (into the country).’ Importers will pay the tax, and the collected money will go to recyclers.

‘We are the model’

Abdalla is pragmatic about the limits of such a system and about what kinds of systems Kenya can and will build. ‘I’m worried about our technical capacity to handle some materials,’ she concedes. ‘If a material is hazardous, I’d rather see it exported.’ Still, a producer responsibility system should be able to take care of around 40% of the end-of-life electronics problem in Kenya, she says.

If that happens, it will be an important step forward for Africa’s scrap recycling industry – and its environment. A few days before my visit, in fact, Nairobi hosted a conference on e-recycling that attracted representatives from across East Africa who were keen to learn from Kenya’s example. ‘We are the model,’ Abdalla says.

Kenya might be the model for Africa but it is the exception, not the rule. Most of the continent’s electronics recycling remains highly dispersed and informal owing to the low income level of its population. The inability of most Africans to afford new electronics has spawned a highly-sophisticated reuse and refurbishment industry, leaving recyclers only a modest stream of the oldest, most obsolete goods.

‘So much demand’

I see this supply chain in action when I visit Tema, the biggest port in Ghana. My guides are: Leticia, a clearing agent who works with an importer of second-hand goods; Wahab Muhammed Odoi, a Ghanaian-American importer of tested, working electronics who lives in the US state of Vermont half of the year; and Robin Ingenthron, ceo of Good Point Recycling of Burlington in Vermont, one of Muhammed’s key suppliers and founder of WR3A, a free trade recycling association.

According to Leticia, roughly half of the goods imported into Tema – electronics and otherwise – are second-hand. That quickly becomes apparent as we walk down a line of shipping containers stacked three high. By my count, there are at least 600 containers in a line that extends hundreds of feet.

Of the dozens of containers being unloaded for customs officers, only a few contain new goods. The other loads are mixed and variable. The first container we pass holds 12 TVs, four car bumpers, 12 children’s bicycles, two baby car seats, a large propane-powered generator and a recliner, just to name a few of the most identifiable items.

That’s just the beginning. The most plentiful second-hand imports at Tema are cars and automotive parts. Whole cars, vans, hearses and ambulances arrive in containers, while other containers hold used struts, doors, hoods, transmissions, engines, engines still attached to transmissions and lead-acid batteries (imports of which are prohibited under Ghanaian and international law). ‘The batteries still have life in them,’ Leticia explains. ‘That’s why they’re imported.’

End-of-life electronics is one product category you don’t see much at the port. According to Muhammed, the tested and working laptops and desktops coveted by Ghanaians have become harder to buy overseas as recycling programmes in the USA and Europe swallow up more material. ‘If I bring a load of laptops to Tema,’ he says, ‘I’ll have people rushing over from around the container yard, asking to buy them. There’s so much demand.’

‘So much demand’

I see this supply chain in action when I visit Tema, the biggest port in Ghana. My guides are: Leticia, a clearing agent who works with an importer of second-hand goods; Wahab Muhammed Odoi, a Ghanaian-American importer of tested, working electronics who lives in the US state of Vermont half of the year; and Robin Ingenthron, ceo of Good Point Recycling of Burlington in Vermont, one of Muhammed’s key suppliers and founder of WR3A, a free trade recycling association.

According to Leticia, roughly half of the goods imported into Tema – electronics and otherwise – are second-hand. That quickly becomes apparent as we walk down a line of shipping containers stacked three high. By my count, there are at least 600 containers in a line that extends hundreds of feet.

Of the dozens of containers being unloaded for customs officers, only a few contain new goods. The other loads are mixed and variable. The first container we pass holds 12 TVs, four car bumpers, 12 children’s bicycles, two baby car seats, a large propane-powered generator and a recliner, just to name a few of the most identifiable items.

That’s just the beginning. The most plentiful second-hand imports at Tema are cars and automotive parts. Whole cars, vans, hearses and ambulances arrive in containers, while other containers hold used struts, doors, hoods, transmissions, engines, engines still attached to transmissions and lead-acid batteries (imports of which are prohibited under Ghanaian and international law). ‘The batteries still have life in them,’ Leticia explains. ‘That’s why they’re imported.’

End-of-life electronics is one product category you don’t see much at the port. According to Muhammed, the tested and working laptops and desktops coveted by Ghanaians have become harder to buy overseas as recycling programmes in the USA and Europe swallow up more material. ‘If I bring a load of laptops to Tema,’ he says, ‘I’ll have people rushing over from around the container yard, asking to buy them. There’s so much demand.’

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