What’s the real story with Africa’s e-waste?

Beginning in 2009, Ghana’s computer import industry went almost instantly from totally invisible, to worldwide infamy. The work of two photojournalists — Pieter Hugo and Kevin McElvaney — played a key role in this newfound visibility. Their imagery of e-waste and its young victims such as cable burners covered in dirt and soot in an area of Ghana’s capital city called Agbogbloshie was published in National Geographic, Wired magazine, and the New York Times.

I’ve described this as a “computer import industry.” This is not a euphemism. From 2004 until 2011 I made repeated trips to Accra as part of my research (initially my doctoral dissertation) on the city’s internet cafes and their users. I found through my own primary research that this e-waste problem reflected not Western excess and exploitation, but the local demand for computers. E-waste was the end outcome of what preceded it, a viable and valued trade in affordable secondhand computers.

Hyperbolic media coverage

Since then, Agbogbloshie, which encompasses a yam market, a mosque and football field, a scrap metal recycling yard, as well as the widely depicted dump site on the heavily polluted Korle lagoon, has been subject to a second round of even more hyperbolic media coverage. It was described inaccurately by The Guardian in 2014 as, the world’s largest e-waste dump.

This depiction of Ghana’s computer import industry relied on images from a single provocative location — the dump on the edge of a scrap metal market. What the imagery omits is the numerous links in the chain leading up to it: the port at Tema, where containers of electronics arrive, as well as the computer refurbisher’s shops, secondhand computer stores, homes, offices, schools and internet cafes where the computers are used, and the nearby scrap metal market where they are broken down for their reusable and recyclable components.

(House Party Computers in Accra, Ghana sells secondhand machines imported from the United States. All photos in this post were taken by the author.)

The media coverage and the environmental activism that inspired it has traded in two things (1) disturbing imagery of abject poverty (something critics have turned to calling poverty porn) and (2) the false precision of invented statistics. In the process they diagnose the problem incorrectly lending weight to what is very likely an ineffectual solution.

Questionable data

In Morten Jerven’s book ­­Poor Numbers: How We Are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About It, the author casts considerable doubt on data sources from African countries, sources that are nevertheless relied upon by economists and policymakers. Data gathering is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. There is little funding for data collection exercises such as the national census in many countries on the continent which means that our understanding of trade, income, and economic growth in Africa is compromised. Nonetheless it is common for statistical figures (with their exact sources long forgotten) to acquire the sheen of credibility.

An oft-cited figure states that 70-85 percent of electronics imported into Ghana are non-repairable. This suggests that these electronics enter the country as waste and presumably go straight to the dump site. This figure can be traced back to a single source, a report by an NGO, the Basel Action Network. In turn, the figure they quote comes from a conversation with a single individual in Lagos, Nigeria who offered it as an off-the-cuff estimate. This is clearly insufficient evidence to justify policymaking and yet it has. A United Nations report by a Ghanaian research team led by Yaw Amoyaw-Osei, which by contrast was quite systematic and transparent in its data collection methods, calculates that a mere 15 percent of imported electronics come into the country unrepairable. I have also asked refurbishers directly and they state 10–20 percent of what they personally handle is not repairable.

Getting at the truth

These are obviously vastly different figures. So if these figures won’t converge neatly on the truth, how might we discover what’s really going on?

We can start by considering the processes in place — for handling imports, taxation, the value of goods — and to think further about the plausibility of such a massive amount of pure waste coming into the country. To start I would point out that the computers that enter Ghana’s port are assumed to be salable (there is no category in the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System used at ports worldwide for something called electronic waste). Computers are consequently taxed in Ghana at 12.5 percent, according to their presumed sales value as working machines. As a consequence it is far more lucrative to sell secondhand computers than to take them to a dump. A simple perusal of the broader landscape, visiting almost anywhere else in Accra apart from Agbogbloshie shows the burgeoning consumption of electronics of all sorts by Ghanaians in homes, offices, shops and internet cafes — desktop and laptop computers, CRT and LCD monitors, televisions, refrigerators, stereos and innumerable mobile phones.

I want to tell two stories about individuals in this secondhand computer industry based on many weeks of work observing and doing interviews at the port, at shops and scrap metal yards, in addition to Agbogbloshie. They illustrate what I’ve come to understand about this industry and what’s at stake in efforts to crack down on it. What I observed was computer reuse, refurbishment, recycling and other feats of local technical ingenuity. These feats are being threatened by misguided environmental activism that has been influential all they way up to the United Nations Environmental Program and Interpol. The approaches inspired by this misinformed activism will curb e-waste only minimally, if at all, and along the way are likely to harm the efforts of importers, refurbishers, and recyclers in Ghana.

Importers were described in a 2010 Frontline documentary on e-waste and Agbogbloshie as part of a shadowy industry that exploits regulatory loopholes, but there is much more to know about the people in this industry. I found that these importers are often Ghanaian migrants who kept a foot in both worlds — at home and abroad — who created small family businesses for importing electronics and doing computer refurbishment.

An example of a well-organized and coordinated family-run chain of shops was the one known as G.K. Asare Enterprises. The two shopkeepers there, Freeman and Samuel, offered some details about the history of this business and how they coordinated with their uncle in his moves back and forth between Ghana and the United Kingdom. At the front of the shop a sturdy wooden table displayed CPU units stacked eight high and six across. They were a mixture of identical models and miscellaneous machines but generally ones I recognized as reputable brands: Compaq, Dell, Fujitsu, and a few lesser-known ones.

(Machines on display at G.K. Asare Enterprises)

The day I visited the shop, the owner was away doing business in London. The shopkeepers were nephews of the owner and they worked as technicians and salesmen. They noted that their uncle went overseas generally for two or three months at a time. This family business had evolved over the years into a chain of shops. The shopkeepers estimated that their uncle was filling and sending two 40-foot shipping containers approximately every three months. Samuel and Freeman did work beyond simply minding the shop. Their uncle invested in his younger family members so that they could better contribute to the business. For example, Samuel was encouraged by his uncle to get training in computer hardware repair. He completed an A+ course at the local Wintech Professionals Training school to become a computer hardware technician. These skills he put directly to use in repairing and refurbishing the computers coming into the shop.

Developing business acumen

As the business developed, the uncle and his nephews became more discriminating in their selection of goods to import. They came to know better what was in demand in the local market and what brands or models were easier to repair. The uncle called in periodically during his travels to get a reading on what would be worthwhile to import.

The shopkeepers admitted that there were some early mistakes bringing in “those types they can’t sell or when broken they can’t repair” and leading to a certain amount of excess being passed off to the scrap metal dealers. So in the interest of the business the young shopkeepers advised him not to bring [such items]. Samuel estimated that around 10 percent of the computers could not be salvaged and ended up being passed on to the scraps dealers, generally due to damage to the motherboard. This fairly low number was a result of their selection process (“my uncle is very good at selecting goods,” said Samuel) and the fact that he and two other hired technicians worked hard to test, repair and refurbish as many of the computers as they could. They were paid per machine and earned money only for what they were able to get working again, creating a clear incentive to salvage whatever could possibly be salvaged.

In the saying that goes “reduce, reuse, recycle” — this is reuse.

In Ghana, the population of scrap metal collectors and recyclers was composed of the young men and occasionally children working as scrap collectors, scrap processors and scrap traders. Computer towers, monitors and peripheral devices such as printers are increasingly a substantial part of what they trade in. Young men pulling wooden carts filled with metal scraps had become, by 2010, a visible presence in the streets of Accra. This is something I never saw in 2004 when I first visited Ghana, a testament to the growing demand among Ghanaians for owning and using a computer.

(Scrap metal collectors in the La Paz neighborhood of Accra, Ghana)

Ibrahim worked as a scrap metal dealer in the La Paz area. Like most people involved in the scrap metal business in Accra, he and his family were from the northern Ghana. Ibrahim handled computers, monitors, and other defunct electronics as well as cars and car parts, iron sheets, iron bars and other building materials, domestic miscellanea, plastic goods, and more. He described himself as the “destroyer” for the area elaborating: “if something comes to me I have to destroy it. I doesn’t repair. I destroy everything. . . . I used to cut cars into pieces and after I cut it, if they say I should repair it, I can’t. I can use five minutes to cut a car [laughs] and if they give me ten days, I cannot repair it. So I have to call myself the destroyer. I always destroy.”

Ibrahim was drawn to the work of scrap dealing by its low barrier to entry. In 2001 he had dropped out of carpentry school deciding that the burden that paying school fees placed on his family was too high. In scrap dealing, he found a job he could simply walk into without special training, degrees or contacts. His mother gave him a modest sum as his initial working capital, around $500 which she acquired from the sale of a cow. He began straight away buying up metal scraps to sell for a profit. He arrived nine years later at an accumulation of around $5,000 in working capital, an amount he could continually reinvest in the business while still having enough money for daily needs and to provide financial support to his extended family. He had also found ways to augment his income by using his special position as a scraps trader to diversify his business endeavors. For example, two condemned cars he had acquired as scraps he repaired with assistance from his extensive social network of auto mechanics. Afterward he was able to get both vehicles operating as taxis.

(Ibrahim in the scrap metal yard)

For scraps dealers such as Ibrahim, by far the most valuable component of a computer per pound was the copper wires connecting circuit boards, the power supply, and the ports inside the computer case. The copper wires had to first be removed from the plastic insulation they were encased within. Generally this was done by burning the wires to melt off the insulation.

There was also a developing local market for the circuit boards. Many scrap dealers began collecting them on request from buyers. The buyers, as dealers noted, were typically Nigerians or Chinese. The Ghanaian scrap dealers who collected and sold these circuit boards did not actually know what was being done with these boards but believed that they were being exported. The aluminum or iron frame of the computer case was also valuable. Scrap dealers traveled with the iron and aluminum scraps they had collected to the nearby port town of Tema, where they sold these scraps to the SteelWorks or Valco factories for recycling.

In the saying that goes “reduce, reuse, recycle” — this is recycling.

Misguided diagnosis

The problem my account intends to correct is not simply that Ghanaians working in this industry are not getting their due, are not being heard or respected, it’s that the widely understood diagnosis of the problem is incorrect. The solution proposed by organizations like the Basel Action Network and backed by the UNEP, Interpol and others centers on ways of banning or regulating technology exports from the U.S. and Europe, does little to nothing to address the problem. The problem is that electronics (new and used) are being consumed in Ghana in greater and greater quantities. The work that needs to be done to handle the waste and protect these youth is work that must be done in country, in Ghana.

The young people who burn cables in the periphery of the scrap yard are undoubtedly suffering harm from toxic exposure. This harm is unabated by the media coverage and misguided new regulations. In particular, a new EU regulation on computer exports has led to one court case that I know of and a criminal sentence. A Nigerian immigrant, Joe Benson, is serving a 16 month jail term in the UK. Those highly questionable statistics I reviewed earlier were reportedly used as factual evidence in his court case. This is certainly not justice … not for the environment, not for these Ghanaian cable burners, and certainly not for Joe Benson.

The definition of the e-waste problem by journalists and activists has rarely accounted for the distinctions Ghanaians themselves draw between what is reusable, what is valuable, and what is truly waste. And the full set of issues at stake in this import process are much broader than this issue of waste handling alone. There are benefits to local technical skill development of these computer imports. There is the employment of Ghanaian technicians who repair and refurbish nonworking machines locally. There is the technology access and utility that reused machines are providing to the general population in Ghana.

There are also efforts to cast e-waste in Ghana a different light and find solutions to the enduring problem. In particular, an innovative “maker space” with it’s own distinctly Ghanaian style is bringing together computer refurbishers, scrap metal recyclers, and the local tech community — http://qamp.net/. Likewise ethically-minded e-waste recyclers such as Robin Ingenthron advocate for “fair trade recycling” and for simultaneously supporting and recognizing “geeks of color” like the refurbishers and scrap metal dealers I’ve profiled.

All machines, after some period of time will eventually become a waste management issue. As long as there is demand for and use of computers in Ghana, and no substantial in-country effort to address it, the problem will remain unresolved.

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