E-waste in Africa: Innovative solutions to a pressing global problem

By Laureen Fagan - 16 January 2017 at 9:01 am
E-waste in Africa: Innovative solutions to a pressing global problem

A report released Sunday on e-waste in Asian countries found a 63 percent increase in the amount of electronic waste generated when compared with five years ago – and it serves as a reminder of how African nations struggle with their own e-waste challenges and creative solutions too.

The E-Waste Monitor report is the latest in a series from the United Nations (UN) research arm, all focused on Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE). The global and regional studies look at how discarded, out-of-date mobile devices, computers, household appliances, toys and more are impacting global health and the environment.

Figures from 2014, included in this latest report, show that a per capita rate of 3.7 kilograms of e-waste is generated across 12 Asian nations – now equal to that of continental Africa’s own rate, although Asians also produce far more of the electronics they consumed.

The study authors attribute Asia’s spike to several factors, including lower prices, and the compressed timelines on device lifespan when people quickly upgrade to the latest technology. The reasons for the increase in e-waste closely parallel those of many African nations that are rapidly connecting too.

“As Asian countries rapidly industrialize, and their citizens enjoy higher income and living standards, the consumption and disposal of EEE will continue to increase,” the study authors explain.

It’s true that North America and Europe generate vastly more per capita e-waste than Asia or Africa – which is still less than a fourth of Europe’s. Sustainability activists have for years urged the developed world to stop dumping e-waste loaded with heavy metals and toxins in countries like Nigeria or Ghana.

“These rich nations with strict legislation send most of their e-waste to developing countries,” argued an international team of scientists in an August article for the science journal Nature. “Many poor nations, especially in Africa, have few or no laws on e-waste.”

Calls to protect developing nations from e-waste hazards

The authors argued four recommendations to curb the adverse health impacts of mercury, arsenic, chromium and other toxic substances in e-waste, including an expansion of the Basel Convention of the United Nations which is meant to prevent the illegal dumping of hazardous waste in developing nations.

“The shady trading of trash as ‘used electronics’ bypasses such laws entirely,” said Zhaohua Wang, Bin Zhang and Dabo Guan, the authors of the Nature piece.

They also plead for stronger domestic regulations in concert with a broader U.N.-led global mission, and finally for consumers themselves to take responsibility for their consumption and safe disposal practices.

Yet for all the impact of Western nations on the developed world, what’s happening in Asia – where the e-waste is increasingly a function of domestic consumption – also is happening in Africa. On Friday, Smithsonian Magazine published a piece that takes a deeper look at Agbogbloshie, the international symbol of e-waste in Ghana, with a different view: The story is not that simple.

Citing data from a 2012 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study, the piece looks at how West Africa’s own EEE consumption and consumer demand (and economic and regulatory conditions) drive the e-waste problem. That study looked at five countries — Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria – and found that domestic consumption, not dumping, accounted for up to 85 percent of the e-waste in the region.

African innovation turns e-waste into opportunity

A separate 2015 UNEP report acknowledges Ghana, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and the Republic of Congo as top destinations not just for illegal dumping, but also for electronics recycling.

To that end, an Accra-based entrepreneur launched the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Project, or QAMP. D.K. Osseo-Asare and his team spent months understanding the people and culture of e-waste scrapping at the site, came to accept that participants need the income, and created solutions to make that safer.

This month, QAMP begins beta-testing a Twitter-like platform that supports the metal marketplace, connecting e-waste scrappers with buyers but also offering health and safety information. It’s part of the organization’s wider mission to provide workshops, repair manuals and other tools for success, in service to the idea that Agbogbloshie isn’t just a toxic e-waste dump but a micro-industrial ecosystem.

“You have to change how people perceive the place,” Osseo-Asare told Adam Minter, the e-waste expert who wrote the Smithsonian piece. “Once they see the potential, they understand that the solution comes from Agbogbloshie and not from outside.”

Those solutions are emerging in quite a few African nations, as innovators see both the challenge of Africa’s own growing e-waste generation and the opportunities it presents. In Togo, a youth-focused tech startup based at an incubator in Lomé is working to recycle e-waste in programs that put tech tools into the hands of students who need them, and help them understand how to get the best use from it.

In Tanzania, the BuniHub maker space in Dar es Salaam is home to a 3D printer built entirely from e-waste parts – and the success drew at least eight inquiries from other countries. Back in Ghana, the KLAKS 3D team in Kumasi are now running a computer company that builds 3D printers from e-waste.

Given the global expectations for fairness and a sustainable future, developed countries must shoulder responsibility for e-waste impacts and their disproportional generation of used laptops, air conditioners and phones. The international violations and impact on the planet must be taken seriously.

At the same time, and as Africa and now Asia’s own technology use registers with explosive growth, it is imperative that government leaders help to find ways to manage e-waste so that health and environment are protected, while entrepreneurs and e-waste recycling businesses have every chance to succeed.

Laureen Fagan

Laureen Fagan

Laureen is the editor of Africa Times

Laureen is a freelance journalist creating high-quality, informed content on international affairs, politics and technology. She has worked both in and out of newsrooms since 2000. She is a former paramedic with significant experience in community resilience and nonprofit community development initiatives, and maintains "a passion for action" on sustainability and climate change. She also is trained in conflict resolution and diversity, and has special interests in science and medical reporting, and culture and religion issues. Laureen received her MSJ from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism in the United States, and completed additional graduate study in theology at University of Notre Dame.

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