Delayed Report on WR3A Investigation of Africa Tech Sector and Agbogbloshie

Please excuse the delay in publishing the promised report on our visit to Accra, Agbogbloshie, Mole, Tamale, and Tema in March and April, 2015.

We were nearly finished with a report, and expected to post it before end of the month of May.  However, four major developments occurred in the weeks immediately preceding the publication date.

  • Natural Disaster - A major flood in Accra, combined with an explosion at a gas station, killed 150 people.  During this disaster, no one was thinking about discarded appliances.
  • UNEP published a lazy, poorly reviewed report (ignoring most of the studies they cite from UNU), and worse, accompanied it with a false headline of "90% illegal" (which was contradicted by the contents of the study itself).   Mathematically, how can 90% of contents be illegal if only 1/3 of seized containers contain SOME illegal material?  What mattered were the photos - eight of Agbogbloshie.
  • CWIT and Interpol announced a meeting for June 24 and 25, featuring Jim Puckett of BAN and Mike Anane as speakers.   While we felt it was unlikely they would spring "new information", we were already delaying our report to address UNEP's "new information" and waiting seemed prudent.
  • AMA, a local Accra municipal association destroyed Agbbogbloshie, citing "floods" and "ewaste imports", AMA sent bulldozers to knock down the homes and businesses of tens of thousands of Agbogbloshie residents and workers.  It was the beginning of Ramadan, and #UNWorldRefugeeDay and rainy season... and the bulldozing to "dredge the waterway" occurred at the populated homes side of the slum, not the abandoned side of the waterway.  
From our "e-waste" prospective (not the evicted's), what's most important about the last point were a couple of hours of filmed interviews we have, with Ghana technicians and scrappers.  Some had told us, when I asked "why?" about the #ewastehoax of Agbogbloshie, that they believed it was part of a propaganda campaign to take their land.  

I reviewed the maps and it was definitely true that Agbogbloshie, described as the remote "outskirts" or "nearby cities like Accra" in Greenpeace and other NGO reports, is smack dab in the middle of the city, 9 minutes from the most luxurious hotels, less from major banks and government complexes.  But in the first draft of the report, I avoided mentioning it, as I thought it came across as rather paranoid.  Now, after the evictions and apparent razing of the scrap businesses, I have to  check that dismissal...

The entanglement of Western second hand goods export and urban planning in Ghana is complicated. In writing the report, we need to check our outrage, and report the facts.

There is definitely a need for urban planning and revitalization, and there's definitely a role for EU to police exports of toxic waste (like Trafigura's).   Our so-called "ewastehoax report" does not impugn either motive.  But catching Africa's second-life tech sector and Africa's end-of-(African)-life recycling sector in the crossfire represents collateral damage.  Too many benefit financially by peddling their "expertise" in a defamation campaign, thereby siphoning off resources necessary to implement a "Fair Trade Recycling" solution to Africa's own e-scrap problems.

We need African geeks of color, we need African hand-dismantlers, and harming them does not benefit urban development or management of electronic scrap.   

If cell phones and displays work for 10 more years than their assumed "end of life" in Europe, they save mining and energy costs.  The reuse reduces recycling costs in the OECD.  The technicians in Africa allow Africans to leapfrog to the next generation of devices, rather than emulate the less-sustainable 3-5 year device life of OECD nations.  Not that anyone has a right to impugn Africans choices to electively upgrade or discard or buy new...  There is just no EU liability or responsibility or stewardship in question that trumps Africans self determination to buy used, or buy new, or invent a third alternative.  Whether an African decides to buy a new product from China, or a used product from China, or sells copper scrap to India, or refurbishes products from Europe or the USA, there is no "Basel Convention" crime (see Annex IX, B1110), and the #whitesaviorcomplex can "stand down" and "hold its fire".

What do we have to add to the report?  What's the source of the delay?

Basically, to tell the definitive story of the so-labelled "largest e-waste dump on earth" requires careful editing (not least to redact my tirades, every time I watch the filmed interviews or see tweets of evicted Agbogbloshie residents).  We are alleging so much hyperbole and exaggeration that the working title became "e-wastegate".  That requires careful writing, and much editing.

Old Fadama (the name of the inhabited part of Agbogbloshie) was a slum in the middle of one of West Africa's most prosperous emerging markets.   Developers had been trying to evict the slum dwellers for decades... while avoiding relocation costs and compensation, according to experts.  As Rafa Font @Recyhub informed me, "Sodom and Gomorrah" was a term used by the developers who wanted to evict the residents as cheaply as possible.  It played off of the "E-waste Tragedy", the Biblical Halloween  hyperbole, close-up photos of "exotic poor", and alliterative descriptive nonsense (see Jim Puckett's "A Place Called Away").  These articles falsely link the Agbogbloshie auto scrapyard to thousands of sea container imports of used electronic devices.  (I will pay Jim one thousand dollars if he can provide any evidence that one one single sea container has ever been imported directly to Old Fadama).

In the meantime, instead of rushing to publication, we have pieced out portions or parts of the report as necessary, to allow peer review, or to provide photos that didn't require word-smithing.  I didn't want our report to come out like BAN's "Digital Dump" or Greenpeace's "Poisoning the Poor", two examples of non-peer reviewed studies which crapped out fake statistics that were later passed around in footnotes of scholarly journals.  There is no sneak attack. We are sharing data, with Blacksmith Institute, CUNY, UNU, Interpol, and others, before the publication.  So far, kind acknowledgement at best.

And as I've linked several times recently, others who share WR3A's concerns about Africa's Tech Sector and Western narcissism have also published articles in the meantime.   There is a sense of traction.  This has come to a head, and our report needs to be tight.

In trying to address all of these new angles, the report had hit 36 pages (and that was before the June evictions).  I have since released a slide show at National Geographic's website, and blogged about key observations.  Our goal is to add more information but shave this down to 20 pages.  That's more work and effort than writing the first 36 (many written from Ghana).

The draft Abstract for our study is at bottom.

Here are some key ideas emerging from our Ghana experts, insights that Wahab Odoi Muhammed, Emmanual Eric Nyalete, Kamil, Jaleel, Kamaldeen, Elvis, Abdullah, Razak, Steve, Awal, Rachid, Hamadou, Peter, and others bring to the table (the bibliography alone will take a page, and hours of spell-check).

- - -

Yes, externalized pollution is acknowledged as "a driver".  But you can't build a policy foundation on it.  Westerners are perhaps most interested in it from our sense of liability --The perception of which shifts the burden of proof from the accuser to the traders. The polution may be in Africa, the solution may be in Africa, the jobs and resources may be African, but has accused US.  As such, somthing that leverages our white guilt became a "pillar" of enforcement mandates.  Interpol, CWIT, UNEP have made it the sole "driver", and then built a theory of export that cannot account for the cost of the transport.   So to explain the flow of money (from Africa to Benson, not from Benson to Africa) they make unsubstantiated references to "organized crime".

But when people in the trade are interviewed, a totally different set of drivers emerges.

- Repair expertise (greater in Accra than in London) is also a driver.
- Rate of first purchase (same as studies of auto markets) predicts second hand sales.
- Elective upgrade - not "repairability" or "functionality testing" drives discard (both in EU and Africa).  Higher testing procedures will not reduce the rate of disuse.
- Electric grid fluctuations are proven to short out brand new devices more often (and at greater cost) than solid state electronics from previous decades.
- Disposable Income decisions - when internet, cell phone, and television access and penetration occur, in double and triple digits per year, in nations earning less than $3,000 per capita per year, the individual consumers in those markets must be presumed to make a rational purchasing decision.  If they buy a used CRT television for $50 rather than a new flat screen for $800, perhaps they know more about their decision than the "saviors".
- Cost and Value Added by hand dis-assembly - hand de-manufacturing of electronics produces a cleaner copper, aluminum, and steel stream, as well as recoverable parts.  The fact that wage demands in OECD nations for machine shredding, at a lower recovery rate, than hand disassembly does not mean the decision to hand-disassemble in a lower wage country is "informal" or "primitive". Walking to work is not more "primitive" than taking a taxi, dudes.
- Avoided Mining Costs.  When Africans recycle, or repair and reuse, they are not being given the same credit as Americans and Europeans for "saving trees" and "avoided mining costs" - even though Africa is ground zero for mines like Kabwe, artisinal gold mining, and illegal forestry.
- Growth in Teledensity.  Not enough new product has been sold to Africa to account for even a fraction of TV viewership, cell phone use, or internet access.  World Bank reports that secondhand electronics created a "critical mass of users".  You can't finance a cell phone tower in a nation earning $2000 per capita per day by assuming that users must buy brand new iPhones.
- Job Choice.  Electronics repair is a better job in Africa than it is in Europe.  Wire burning is a result of unemployment.  Sacrificing repair jobs increases wire burning.
- Electricity conservation programs.  Ghana customs agents interviewed cited refrigerators as the primary "illegal import", and said those were targeted because of the problems with Ghana's electricity demands.  The government had a program to replace older units with more efficient ones, and importing older units could bankrupt that subsidy program.  These seizures were cited by UNEP as part of the 1/3 "illegal ewaste".  But they have NOTHING to do with Agbogbloshie.  Testing for "functionality" does not even address this concern.
- Free commerce.  "Who the hell are you to tell me, an African, what I can buy with my money?"
It is difficult to keep to a page limit and still address all of the mistakes and fallacies in UNEP's "drivers of ewaste hell" report.  For example, the stated "driver" of cheap transport?  Totally, demonstrably, false.   It is cheap to Hong Kong, but insinuating that it is a driver... that it must therefore be cheap to Agbogbloshie?  Why not ASK what the cost is to ship to Agbogbloshie, rather than insinuate it must also be cheap if the same "effect" of cheap shipping to Hong Kong is observed?  The fallacy is a heinous, fail your BEPC (Junior High Diploma), jaw-dropping example of illogic.  UNEP is criminally negligent not to note in its report that transport costs to Africa are not only greater than those they cite to Hong Kong, but are higher than the claimed "avoided recycling cost".

And the statement that Africa is disposessing Europe of metal scrap value?  You need to hear the reaction to that from Africans themselves.  They can mine it but can't recycle it?

Modest Proposal:   It would in fact be helpful to the discussion, and hasten our publication, if I could omit some of the more glaring fallacies  in the UNEP report.  It would reduce the amount of time involved if the UNEP will issue a simple written apology from the report writers, stating for example that the price of shipping to Africa is certainly NOT a "driver".  The cost of shipping to Africa, and within Africa (from the port of Tema) is certainly HIGHER, so much higher that is is economically IMPOSSIBLE to ship 90% waste without the shipper paying for the load.  The very logic that if low costs of shipper were a driver for "ewaste" in China, and "ewaste" is being transported to Africa, therefore African shipping rates must also be low, reflects a certain base of incompetence.  (Hint, I'm suggesting UNEP put out an olive branch before I publish this report, so I don't have to edit my negativity).

The bottom line for the report?  It's truly a shame that honest, well-meaning, environmentally-conscious EU-based WEEE leaders and CWIT did not invite Africa's Tech Sector importers, or its scrap employers, who are separated by 5-15 years of consumer ownership to speak at their meetings.  Almost all of the mistakes in their report could have been eliminated by treating African technicians and importers as grown ups.

African importers, Tech Sector refurbishers, and Africa telecommunications experts could have represented Ghana and provided a counterpoint to #povertypornpeddling NGOs and AMA's stooges. Ph.D candidates like Grace Akese, or TED Talk DK Osseo-Asare, our Adam Minter, or Josh Lepawsky, or Raphael Font, or Alhassan Abdallah, or Kyle Wiens, or Heather Agyepong... there are hundreds of people with more expertise than Jim Puckett and Mike Anane, who do not take CASH for the fake story that put Joe Benson in prison.

And it is a shame on UNEP for using exploitative photos by Kevin McElvaney in place of accurate citations of facts.  And shame for not pointing out that the refrigerator seizures - by far the most "illegal" shipments - were banned because of Ghana's electricity conservation buy-back program for used fridges, NOT because they were hand-disassembled or imported to be burned by children in primitive "still not sponsored" T-Shirts.  I could remove many pages with a simple citation to a "corrections" page, or apology from David Higgins or Pascal LeRoy, and in doing so pay them a compliment.  I know they have integrity, and the potential to demonstrate the leadership which the Mockingbirds of Africa demand of us.  Anyone who read the judgement and evidence in the Joe Benson trial would NOT have trumpeted the conviction as evidence of "90%" illegal dumping (page 43-44 of UNEP report).

Perhaps we could schedule a polite, informed debate?  Emile Lindemulder and I interviewed each other at E-Scrap Conference in New Orleans in 2008.  He basically admitted he could not explain the economics and that he had put "organized crime" into the report ex deux machina to salvage the poisonous root - that 75%-90% of the shipments were illegal... sourced from a source who denies saying it.  Now he's famous with do-gooders in the charitable industrial complex, but his name is associated with shameful race-baiting, racial profiling, and accidental racism in Africa.  I'm here to make peace, to stop the tide of collateral damage to both Emile and Benson, who were the victims of supply and demand and a nasty 80% dumping hoax statistic.

Anyway, my lack of writing discipline in this blog is indicative of the challenges my organization faces in standing up to dozens of highly paid bureaucrats, planned obsolescence and big shred companies, and the charitable industrial complex.  But if Interpol and CWIT are being told to ignore WR3A and Fair Trade Recycling, they should ask who is giving them this advice (within the charitable industrial complex), and why so many new articles are proving our thesis?

Indeed, we felt ignored for a decade, but it's seeming a little less lonely here on the front lines.  The views are up.  The buzz is in our favor.  The twittersphere has Africans who were not there to comment 5 years ago.  A new generation of agents of conscience, seen at ReStart Project and Chendiba Enterprises, and in Heather Agyepong's photo essay attendees, is giving the Agenda Shift more leverage.

It's easier to write a long blog than a short, well referenced, academic report.  Back to work.


Co authors and donations to Fair Trade Recycling are appreciated.


Agbogbloshie is a low income urban neighborhood near the center of Accra, often a destination for new economic migrants from Ghana’s rural northern territories.  The site is alleged to be a major (if not the largest) dump for used “e-waste” discarded from OECD countries. The research team reviewed secondary data on teledensity, including household ownership and consumption of electronics in Ghana, as well as African WEEE generation, import and export studies, and metadata on African urbanization.  Team members then visited Tema Port (alleged source of Agbogbloshie e-scrap), computer reuse and repair facilities in Accra, Tema and Tamale (documented recipients of secondary electronics), the scrap yard at Agbogbloshie (end of life destination for Accra scrap), and villages in northern Ghana (source of migrants, as well as consumers of secondary market devices).  At Agbogbloshie the team filmed Interviews with men who burn wire, as well as scrappers of white goods and autos, and plastic and circuit board collectors.  Eyewitness accounts of current scrap management practices contrast sharply with mainstream press coverage of the Agbogbloshie dumpsite.  

The study found strong evidence that the site has been exploited by photojournalists, NGOs and grant seekers, but no evidence that it is a significant “dumping ground” for obsolete electronics sourced from OECD nations.  Agbogbloshie is not the “largest e-waste dump” on earth, nor a direct destination for any significant portion of used electronics imported at Tema Port.  The ongoing misperceptions of Ghana’s secondary market stubbornly resurface, despite previous reports which do not reconcile the claims, and abandonment of claims by certain NGOs.  Since there is no new evidence of dumping, future reports or continued claims about Agbogbloshie as an “international dumping point” should be investigated to determine whether the claims benefit certain economic interests in the west, or regarded as evidence of confirmation bias in UNEP reports and Interpol reports.  The report concludes that the ten year dynamic of “saving” Asians and Africans from “e-waste” is probably a key example of Buffet’s “charitable industrial complex” in action.

For percentages of Western material managed in Ghana, WR3A compared actual shipping records from Ghana importers, measured material witnessed at Agbogbloshie, estimated waste coming from legal sources (new product failure, past decades of import, accidental shipping damage, etc.), and compared its calculations with figures from StEP, UNEP, and mainstream press accounts.   WR3A’s estimate is that roughly 8,000 tons is waste upon import, contrasting to 21,500 from StEP.  The amount is between 0.000014 and 0.00044 of world electronic waste, making Agbogbloshie one of the smallest e-waste dumpsites on the earth.

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