Cultural Gulfs in Developing Markets #4: Just the Facts M'am

Why did Africans, Latin Americans, Mid Easterners, and Asians purchase used computer monitors between 1995 and 2010?  Because marketplaces (mostly urban, where electric grids develop first) earning $3,000 per person per year constitute most of the growth in Media Consumption (internet, TV, and cell phones).   The measure of cultural gulfs is streaming music.  Here is an analysis of photos shown in the Guardian, examined under the light of facts about computer displays.

From 2004 to 2012, Ghana's number of internet users increased tenfold from 1.7 to 17 (per 100 residents).  As a percentage of world GDP, Ghana improved, but still remains a work in progress.  Poverty levels remained at 28.5% the year before 2007, when the internet exploded in Ghana. But that was a reduction by half (from 51.7% poverty in 1992 to 28.5% in 2006), and progress must be recognized.     

2006 was when Jim Puckett and I met over export policy in Africa.  It was still an amicable relationship then, and I was very polite in the back and forth with NIH author Charles Schmidt (Unfair Trade E-Waste in Africa) that year.  Eight years later, a lot of data has surfaced, but in the Western Press, the song remains the same.  From The Guardian (2/27/2014), "Agbogbloshie:  the world's largest e-waste dump - in pictures" circulated the Twittersphere.

Exoticization of rag picking, at its finest.  "Other-ization" as my wife (a Francophone African Studies professor at Middlebury College) describes it.

"Largest E-Waste Dump in the World" - Accidental racism at The Guardian?  or just sloppy?

As it turns out, that @Guardian story came out the day after Good Point Recycling's head technician, Eric Prempeh, returned to his home country of Ghana for three weeks of family reunions, and a side helping of research on the state of electronics reuse and repair.  How will the Guardian's portrayal of African recyclers in "primitive spear-handling poses" compare with a professional technician's findings?
E-Scrap News 2/28/2013 |
Good Point Recycling of Middlebury, Vermont announced one of its technicians is headed to controversial e-scrap hotspot Ghana to try to help determine how much of the material dumped at crude processing sites there is actually imported from outside Africa. Eric Prempeh, the technician, is originally from Ghana and will be back in his native country for three weeks. Good Point Recycling is associated with Fair Trade Recycling, an effort that aims to promote responsible export of used electronics so that the technology can benefit individuals in developing nations. 
I've been somewhat guilty of fighting fire with fire.    Emotionalized responses to the Basel Action Network's depiction of Geeks of Color were, in no small part, out of the guilt I feel.  I was wrong for handling Jim with kid gloves in the Charles Schmidt interview.  Letting Jim ride roughshod resulted in the arrests of "Hurricane" technicians like Hamdy Mousa and Joe Benson.  It was the beginning of a firehose of disinformation in support of planned obsolescence, and "big shred".  The #ewaste hoax campaign was directed against smart people emerging from poverty.   With skills and brains, these geeks of color were supplying products for the "good enough market".  For E-Stewards "certification" payments, thirty pieces of silver, sold Big Shred a story against the reuse competitors.   BAN successfully monetized the hyperbole.  It's my fault. 

Yep, it's my moral responsibility to be mad about environmental malpractice.  However, ranting isn't music to many peoples ears.

Eric's buyers in Ghana
Eric Prempeh has been with us at Good Point Recycling, Vermont, for about 2 years.  He has less guilt, less anger, more poise, and is a wizard at technical diagrams.  Like many of my Cameroonian students, he did not pursue the quick wealth of the "resource curse" economy (proximity to people in control of mineral rights).   He did not go into bushmeat hunting (like Fred Somda's father), or sex trafficing, piracy, or drugs, or arms sales, or any of the other stereotypical "bad jobs" which command the schadenfreude of the Western Press.  He was a maintenance and repair tech at Nestle in Accra before moving to Vermont.  He's a better spokesperson than I am, and is going to have a hard time "poisoning the well" on Eric Prempeh's accounts.

Data emerges.  The World Bank Development Indicators, searchable online, show an image of development which cannot possibly be explained by new product sales, and which can only indicate that PCs imported into Ghana were used far longer than the 3 years Americans and Europeans use new product.

Here's a timeline on the overall growth of the internet, leading to the foothills of the crescendo (2007, when the "night of breaking CRT glass" reached its launch point - the CBS 60 Minutes sting of CRT monitors shipped (NOT) to Guiyu.

For more up to day Statistics:  Current Distribution of World Internet Users
Statistic: Distribution of worldwide internet users as of August 2013, by region | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

The growth is all in markets earning averages around $3,000 per year.  Ghana is still behind that, at $1550 per capita in 2012.   Does that make Ghana a better candidate for a technology boycott, or a less likely hub for tinkerers, fixers and repairpeople?

In fact, nations like Ghana make the case even more strongly as a share of growth in internet use worldwide.

2000-2007 Internet Access distribution

Here's a stat I am going to try to put together, as I cannot find it online.

LET US BREAK THIS HOAX DOWN.  What, forensically, do the Guardian's photos show to someone practiced in international trade?   

The "spear-chuckers" in the Guardian photos at Agbogbloshie are standing on 17" CRT computer monitors.  I would say the black monitor is a 1996 or 97 Dell, and the white one is probably a Gateway, but possibly an NEC, 1994-96.

Used 17" Dell CRT Monitor
Price: $ 19.77
                   Only two left - NOW $ 7.77

Gateway EV700

According to Hoax of, er... Story of Stuff, Basel Action Network, and Greenpeace, these devices are turned over by Americans and Europeans about every 3 years.   That's a bit of an exaggeration, so let's say give them 5 years to discarded product.    The 3 year statistic does come from somewhere - people BUY ANOTHER, newer one, within 3 years (source of the stat), and the use (hours per year) of the 3 year old declines.  Everyone knows that we have replaced displays not according to any "obsolescence", but through "elective upgrade".   When something nicer and flatter came along, we bought it. (Software upgrades drive Moore's law, and display devices are immune from most software updates).

So let's examine....
What's the entire lifecycle of these two monitors, before the Guardian's "spearchuckers" stood on them to view their fire sacrifices in Agbogbloshie?

The mining and smelting for these two monitors probably happened between 1990-95, the assembly between 1994-96, and furnacing and forging of cathode ray tube panel and funnel, somewhere in-between.

1. Mineral Origins:    The lead in the CRT glass mined for these two CRT monitors either came from recycled sources - like auto batteries, which were 80%+ of world lead supply in the 1990s - or they were mined.  Lead mining tended to be in Thailand and the Kunming (see 2009 story on lead poisoning among Children in the Kunming area, ignored by Basel Action Network because extraction is not waste and therefore not Basel Convention).

2. CRT Molding:   The leaded silicate was melted in a furnace and molded into 17 inch CRT tubes.  The one in the Gateway was made by Sony (a trinitron tube), or by Asahi if it's an NEC.    The one in the Dell was probably made by Samsung (Klang Malaysia or South Korea) or by Asahi.

3.  Assembly:   The assembly (fixing the CRTs into the plastic and power boards) was probably done by Foxconn, Proview, BenQ, or Viewsonic (or the Subcontractors subcontractors), generally in a low wage Asian economy.  In the 1990s, "Asian Tiger" was a label applied to the rapidly emerging technology economies in Asia, and it was not the "resource curse" lead or copper mining in anyone was referring to.

The last time American factories assembled these was at IBM's Endicott NY facility.  IBM started co-assembly in Mexico in 1992.  But by 1996, when these two CRT monitors were assembled, the USA had pretty much abandoned CRTs.  The decision to skip 5-year scheduled furnace maintenance at Techneglas, Sony and Thompson plants in Pennsylvania and Mexicali meant that North America had made a decision to go to LCD technology.  CRT furnaces were for Asia.  And the assembly followed, with all computer monitor manufacturers outsourcing 17" displays to Taiwan, China, South Korea, Indonesia, or Malaysia factories. Japan remained in the game (Sony, Mitsubishi, NEC) a bit too long but also outsourced, mostly to Taiwan (Japan does not tend to invest much in South Korea).

4.  Retail:   The "date of manufacture" is frequently a year before the computer monitor is even sold, part of the reason why the "five year old" limit in Egypt was so onerous for traders.  That age doesn't "age" the unsold, unretailed, unborn monitor, however.

5.  Useful Life:  Here's where things get interesting.... for about 15 years.

The life span of the CRTs ranges from 15k Hours to 30K hours (Rockwell estimates teh CRT at about 15,000 to 20,000 hours of active use;  EHow places the hours at 25,000 to 30,000).   In 2003, Industry Rags claimed LCDs lasted longer. 
Longer life—more than twice the life expectancy of a CRT ⇒ FPMs’ average LCD backlight life is 25,000 to 50,000 hours at half brightness. This represents approximately three years of life operating 24/7. Compare that to the average life of a CRT, which is 15,000 to 20,000 hours (one and one half to two years of use when running 24/7).   - 2003 Rockwell Automation
Now many of us in the industry strongly doubt the lifespan projections for the LCDs (50,000 hours? Please) but the CRT 20-30,000 hours (before the cathode ray gun is replaced, actually a repair common in 1980s-early 90s) is a firmer estimate.  The LCDs are definitely more fragile, and the "wii-screen" phenomenon (accidental throwing of an untethered hand device against the LCD in an abortive bowling game).  The key question is whether people are actually going to replace the fluorescent lamps inside the back panel (which is not considered "end of life" in the longer-lived LCD estimate).

"A more immediate concern is the actual lifespan of the light source in your LCD. This is perhaps THE critical component of your display unit. It is particularly important for maintaining a proper white balance on your TV. As these florescent bulbs age, colors can become unbalanced, which could result in too much red, for example, in your picture. So, it pays to buy name-brand displays. You will definitely pay more for better LCD display brands like Sharp, Toshiba, JVC, or Sony than you will for cheap Chinese or Korean variety knock-offs, but you'll get a backlighting bulb of higher quality and, in the end, a TV whose colors will stay truer longer.
NOTE: As far as I know, Sharp flat-panel LCD TVs are the only ones on the market whose backlights can be replaced by consumers themselves."

But in any case, one thing is UNANIMOUS.

NO ONE IN THE USA IS USING THE DISPLAYS LONG ENOUGH TO TEST EITHER THE LCD OR CRT "HOURS OF USE" FIGURE.   And no one is ordering "replacement straws" (nickname for the small lamps, image above), though overseas refurbishers are pulling them for reuse.

Display devices, in wealthy nations, are replaced not according to obsolescence or exhaustion or a decision about repair.  The average rate of TV replacement in the 1980s was a little difficult to assess because people normally placed an older TV in a guest room, or placed it in an attic.  (If you want to research Sony annual reports for the replacement and use rate, here's a link).  What I will go by is my estimate based on TVs that were turned in for recycling in the late 1990s (Mass DEP Research) and early 2000s, that people replaced their CRTs faster and faster as LCDs became cheaper and cheaper.  

At a rough 2,000 hours of use per year (5-6 hours per day of TV viewing), the CRT televisions and monitors would last about 15 years (Sony Trinitrons last longer).  Some got used a lot less (when they move to the guest bedroom after year 5, hours per day use falls dramatically).   Many CRTs which were replaced by LCDs within 5 years of purchase didn't get used at all, and represent 10 years of full average use remaining to go.   Hotel TVs (pictured in the Greenpeace video shot at left, wrapped in plastic) got far less than 6 hours of use per day, but the hotels still swapped them out for plasmas.  Joe Benson bought them, and was called a filthy exporter by the BBC Panorama.

In any case, one thing is sure:  By 1999, when computer LCD prices began to fall dramatically, CRT monitors (like those in the African photos) replaced by Americans had more years of life ahead of them than behind them.  19"-21" CRTs were more common then, but already falling out of demand, pushed by LCDs. By 2001, a 1997 Dell 17 inch monitor had about 0 hours of use - or more than 10 years of use ahead of it.  

The price of a new 17" CRT computer monitor in 1999 was $352 (Stanford Research).  But the number of unused monitors with 10-15 years of additional life was ballooning. 


So the CRT monitors stood on by the Africans, if they are worn out, were probably used for at least 15 years.  But the likelihood that they were used by an American for 15 years is almost zero, few Americans or Europeans used a 17" CRT for its full life.

Therefore, if they are at the Ghana dump in 2014 because they are exhausted, it's almost certain that they were imported into Ghana before 2004, and used for ten years by Africans - twice as long as they were used by Americans - a more morally and environmentally superior reuse.  And the Africans purchased them for $20-30 each, less than 10% of the cost of a brand new CRT - a smarter purchase.  And now they are finally being thrown away.  When Americans and Europeans threw them away, we didn't pose our children on top of them.

The only possible alternative is that Africans fairly recently purchased the 17" 1990s CRT monitors, and that no one in Ghana is buying them.   There is truth to the statement that Africans are buying fewer 17" CRT displays (unless they are refurbished to new in box standards by Big Secret Factories).  But in that case, why would African entrepreneurs, who pay for the devices and pay for shipping and pay customs fees, rationally buy them to send to Agbogbloshie?  As I showed Charles Schmidt (and rewrote in Monkeys Running the Environmental Zoo blog), there is no economics to break even on CRTs with less than 70% reuse (and that's "break even" as in unprofitable).

Here are three scenarios.  Given that the number of internet users in 2010, in nations earning $3,000 per person per year, is roughly equal to the number of internet users in OECD "rich" nations between 1995-2010, how did the poor people get their display devices?

Scenario 1

The Africans purchased the CRT monitors during the growth in electricity, internet growth, and economic boom chronicled above, before 2007.  The CRTs were used for 5 years by Europeans or Americans, and then used for another 5-10 years by the Africans, and were collected from a city like Accra or Lagos.  And the increase in internet access by people who make $3K per year is explained by used CRT displays for internet access during the surge from 2000-2010.

Scenario 2

The CRTs were completely exhausted by Americans, used for 15 years, and then were shipped to Africa to avoid recycling costs (or as one Slashdot commenter rationalized, were used for 14 years and sent with "one additional year of life").   Then they went almost immediately to Agbogbloshie.   The increase in internet access is best explained by people who make $3K per year buying a brand new unit for $700.

Scenario 3

The CRTs were only used for 5 years in the USA and EU, and were sent working to Africa, but Africans can afford LCDs and refused to purchase them, so they were sent to Agbogbloshie.  The silly, silly, stupid Joe Benson continues to buy them, pay thousands of dollars to ship them, just to have them dumped.  The increase in internet access is best explained by people who make $3K per year buying a brand new unit for $700.

Scenario 2 and 3 are what I label as the "E-Waste Hoax"... Well-intentioned or not, NGOs are misleading environmental community, and profiting from racial profiling.

As you can see, if you read this whole blog, there is indeed a cultural gulf.  And the cultural gulf is best demonstrated by the failure, by reporters in the UK especially, to INTERVIEW the Geeks of Color, the Africans like Mousa and Benson, the Asians like Chiu and Fung.  Rather than listen to Greenpeace and as environmental experts, reporters should have listened to the people who were paying for the shipments, and ask THEM whether they were motivated by "avoiding recycling costs" of the west, or by the supply and demand for internet display devices among the six billion people  in the "non-OECD"?

Ask them, like I did.  Fly and see if their explanation checks out, as I did.  See the WR3A video shown to Charles Schmidt, and ask why he interviewed two white Americans for the "pros" and "cons", instead of interviewing Souleymane, Somda, Mousa, Wahab and Benson.

Africans are so far away from Americans, that we believe when we see them posed on a monitor, that the monitor was dumped there, the Africans are primitive, and the economics are somehow explained by "avoiding the cost of shredding".  So somehow the African buyers must own stock in ERI, SIMS, Vintage Tech, URT, WeRecycle and other Pledge Signers, because that's the only way to explain their investment in shipping CRTs to Agbogbloshie.  Thank the Guaridan for saving us from Acchim's Razor.

We are more afraid of insulting or transgressing fellow environmentalists than we are of assuming the worst about geeks of color.  Maybe you have to come from a racially isolated backwater like Arkansas, as I do, before you can recognize people you like and respect say the stupidest things about blacks, about gays, about interracial marriage, etc.  Maybe the liberals just don't have enough experience with collateral damage to recognize "friendly fire".

How do internet users in Africa in 2012 outnumber Americans in 1997?  How exactly did that happen?  Americans paid $400 for their CRT monitors in the 90s.  How does a person in Ghana, earning $1550 per year, accomplish that, if most of the CRTs imported were for primitive dumping?

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

2013 Top Number of Internet Users by Country

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