Review: Jacopo Ottaviani Documentary "E-waste Republic" Mystery Vault

The great news is that  -- compared to previous articles (via BBC, The Atlantic, The Guardian, NPR,  NY Times, Washington Post, Wired, etc.) -- the web documentary appearing yesterday on Al Jazeera and internazionale by young Italian reporters Jacopo Ottaviani and Isacco Chiaf, "E-waste Republic", is much more sophisticated.  It allows many other (English-speaking) voices to come forward and describe the nuance of a scrap problem in an African city.

This documentary is far ahead of the pack in documenting the complex pieces of the electronic reuse and scrap markets in Africa.   And they hit the nail on the head by stating that demolishing Agbogbloshie will make the problem worse.

Kudos to Ottaviani for interviewing second hand dealers and repair shops, and giving time to yours truly (on behalf of WR3A / Fair Trade Recycling).  They give author Adam Minter [whose own accounts of Agbogbloshie are frankly more factual] almost as much screen time as Mike Anane.  There are data and statistics, and the documentary stands apart from the lie that boycotting Africa's Geeks will somehow make wire burning juveniles "go away".  I thank and respect Ottaviani and Chiaf for taking the hours and hours to get a "whole story" perspective.

What the documentary fails to do, sadly, is to correct the proportion distortion. or the myth that import for repair is "illegal".  Like Kyle Wiens piece @Wired, Ottaviani recognizes the demolition of the slum is bad - but alsocontinues to make the story about westerners' stuff.  This continues the central conceit that Agbogbloshie's problems somehow revolve significantly around "imported e-waste".

The focus on e-waste exports in sea containers is the Mystery of Al Capone's vault, 29 years after.

[ postscript:  This was a tricky blog to write, as I respect Jacopo and Isacco and value the effort to interview #geeksofcolor and tell a nuanced account.  But it also perpetuates definitions of #ewaste that include reuse and repair, and false testimony about volumes and timelines of simply disposed waste, and honestly it does represent another example of photojournalism's need for exotic hooks. ]

The outstanding part of the web documentary are interviews with African techs.  Ottoviani and Chiaf spoke to far more members of "the Republic" than Cosimo Dannoritzer or other exploitation journalists.  Several African used goods dealers get screen time.  Anane has to compete now with Adam Minter and DK Oseo-Asare of QAMP (Makerspace).  The reuse side of the story is finally on equal footing with the accusers.  And I'm grateful.

However, the camera's focus, like the title, is on the puny.

Are the sea containers filled with e-waste?  That's the titillation that E-Waste Republic continues to toy with.  How big a problem?  It must be big enough to justify our western attention...  Because we are more focused on stuff than African people.

The Dagbani hosts and guides at Agbogbloshie's scrap yard, who did not speak English well, wound up on the cutting room floor. The story they would have told is that only 20-50 VCRs, monitors, TVs and computers come there each day, they come primarily by wheeled push cart.  Never, ever has a sea container been dumped at Agbogbloshie.

The 40,000 people who lived in the razed slum just don't understand the fixation on the used electronics.  Most of the smoke and fire, and most of the wire, is from tire burning.  By titillating us with "povertyporn", the Agbogbloshie of E-waste Republic is, in the end, more like Fox News Geraldo Rivera's 1986 documentary, "The Mystery of Al Capone's Vault".  The reporter Geraldo Rivera admitted in his autobiography that he had hyped and hyperbolized the issue, but in the end found that it works.  The 30M viewers he attracted launched his career.

It is much more difficult to take the path of Dr. Josh Lepawsky and Grace Akese in their article "Sweeping Away Agbogbloshie. Again".  It's commercially challenging to try to actually correct Western preoccupation with "e-waste", or (like Dr. Graham Pickren's thesis) tease out the "fetish" westerners have, via liability and "gotcha journalism", for Stuff with their asset tags on them.  Heather Agyepong's photoessay, "The Gaze on Agbogbloshie" at least recognized the obsession the west had, an intelligent, self-aware distraction.  She saw how much bigger Agbogbloshie is than a scrapyard.  Adam Minter, in his own treatment of the site, saw that the scrapyard was mostly automobiles and tires and city buses, not electronics.

The problem Ottaviani and Chiaf faced is that without the hype over the mystery of e-waste, they probably could not have gotten production.  The past misperception, what I've labelled #ewastehoax or #ewastegate, is the only reason people buy tickets to the show.  So like Geraldo Rivera, they engage in the subtly exploitative close-up shots of unemployed youth breaking stuff (they do not bother to break CRT faceplate glass if there's no camera there, no one earns a penny from that activity), and toy with the wording whether Agbogbloshie is the "largest e-waste dump on earth" - subtly saying "yes" while adding "one of" and "in Africa" rather than saying "no".

There is as much wire burning in California or Italy as there is in Ghana.

In the intro, they don't just clearly say that the used goods imported to Ghana work or are repaired 91% of the time, and that's a better rate than brand new product.  They preserve the central attraction. They play to the conceit that there's a mystery in these vaults, these sea containers of used goods purchased by Africans in Europe and packed by Africans in Europe for a $10,000 journey across the ocean.  A hotel in Europe resells its used CRTs (for LCD replacements) to an African, and it's labelled "abandoned" rather than resold.
Many of these abandoned electric and electronic devices still have commercial value, some because they are still functioning and others because they contain valuable materials which can be recycled. This is why they are loaded onto containers, shipped from the ports of developed countries and sent to developing countries, like Ghana. Awaiting them at their destination is a widespread network of middlemen, dealers, repairmen and second-hand salesmen who choose the devices, test that they are operational and put the e-waste from rich countries back into circulation in the local economy.
That's a long and difficult way of saying "No".   There's no e-waste crime evidence in Al Capone's vault.  Operational stuff isn't "e-waste".  The recycling value doesn't pay for shipping.  If it did, Africans would be buying stuff a lot cheaper.  (Ottoviani requested the chart from me, below, twice).

African's don't buy scrap from Europe, period. There is accidental breakage, shipping damage, replaced parts, and "elective upgrades" that sometimes catch retailers off guard (when a cell phone that sold a month earlier loses its cache).  But there's as much "fallout", or more, in brand new goods imports.

By ignoring the fact that Agbogbloshie is getting the scrap stuff at the end of a used life in a big city, they keep editors happy by fanning the self-obsession white people have with "vaults".

We don't have a fetish about the copper mines, gold mines, or Kabwe lead mines in Africa where thousands die and are poisoned extracting the coltan for our cell phones, but we obsess endlessly about a used cell phone that one day is discarded the same as a new one would be.  Mike Anane has recognized the obsession, and shows his personal vault of asset tags, at his home, in one segment.

Are the sea container "vaults" filled with Al Capone's e-waste? The answer is "no" and the documentary can't get an "A" by continuing to give air time to Mike Anane's baseless allegations of western dumping.  My favorite weasel wording NGO chief is also in true form:
However, there are also dark sides, for example regarding the quality of imported goods. Some studies report an average life span of two or three years. “Almost all used devices entering Western Africa have already been used extensively,” explains Jim Puckett, the founder of BAN (Basel Action Network), a non-governmental organisation which opposes the exportation of toxic waste. “These devices may be bought, used for a few weeks, months or years and immediately afterwards end up in a dumpsite, listed in statistics as domestic e-waste.”
Dark sides.... Jim Puckett is an artist.  Devices used for "a few years and immediately afterwards end up in a dumpsite"?  Subtle?  Years and immediately.  In Ottaviani's defense, he did tweet a reply to me about Anane and Puckett's quotes:
 10 hours ago10 hours ago They are part of the context and can't be ignored/censored. /

Yes, I replied.  The false accuser is always a part of a story about a lynch mob.  No one would have taken the time to arrest and imprison "Hurricane" Joe Benson without the "biggest dump in the world" as a scene of the crime.  But the destruction of Agbogbloshie was about forcible eviction of Accra's poorest neighborhoods because the property was too expensive to buy from them.  The central conceit that #Agbogbloshie is a significant dumpsite is a common interest of the reporters (Ottaviana and Anane) and the NGO leader, and the StEP experts in Europe.  "Without the hype, we wouldn't be here".

My thesis is that the "dark side" is not what Ottaviani and Puckett describe.  The dark side is a Scarlet Letter, charitable industrial complex which keeps enriching the miserablists... NGOs, EU Agents, and photo safari journalists... exploiting pics of kids at dumps, making boycotts and arrests of geeks seem tenable.  It's the lynch mob economy that gives me shivers.

Ottaviani and Chiaf met me, with Wahab Odoi Muhammed, his Ghana pals Peter, Hamadou, and Ahmet, along with author Adam Minter at the #Agbogbloshie Onion Market on March 30, 2015.  We brought 2 Ghana customs officials and went out to lunch after walking and filming 27 young men between ages of 15-34 burn tires and wire and disassemble stuff like VCRs and 1990s computer monitors.  Jacopo and Isaaco came back and interviewed a computer repair and reuse shopkeeper, Steve at Bugi, for an hour the next day.

The problem with this documentary is that it continues to present e-waste as somehow an important part of life in Agbogbloshie or Accra or Ghana.  That misrepresentation is part of the problem.  Representations matter, and representing African buyers like Joe Benson of BJ Electronics of participating in some kind of "witches brew" caldron of smoke and poison destroys the lives of Africa's Tech Sector, Africa's best and brightest, the reason Al Jazeera even has a TV channel in Ghana.  Without the used computers and cell phones, no African could watch or read Ottaviana's web documentary, as there would never have been enough subscribers to pay for the internet delivery cables and switching stations.

But I can't complain too much.  There is this:
“African technicians, the ‘black geeks’, have a fundamental role,” explains Robin Ingenthron, the founder of Fair Trade Recycling, a non-profit organisation which supports e-waste recycling and ethical trading. “Without the television sets they fixed over the years, nobody would have built TV towers. And the same goes for internet access.” “Many of the students in Ghana who have a computer have a second-hand one”, explains Professor Martin Oteng-Ababio, a professor in the Geography department of Ghana University. “It is only thanks to the second hand market that part of the population is allowed access to technology, know-how and technical proficiency which would otherwise be difficult to obtain.” 
Without used car sales, Africans wouldn't be paving their roads.  Eastern Europe developed the same way, buying West Europe's used goods.  World Bank describes it as "critical mass of users", enough consumers to pay for support systems - including recycling downstream as well as content - for consumers.

[See also 2010 blog post, "Wrong, Wrong, Wrong:  How E-Waste Photos Steer WEEE Policy" and 2012 Post on top ten worst recycling practices]

Probably my own conceit is jealousy.  Fair Trade Recycling has been far less successful at fundraising than BAN or StEP or Blacksmith Institute.   I wish I could hang out with the popular Europeans and Americans who throw parties and conferences about documenting and solving Africa's e-waste problems.   I just have to make do drinking muddy unfiltered coffee with my hosts, my friends Wahab and Emmanuel who invited us and organized our tour, who continue to risk arrest and loss of life savings.

The Duke and Dauphin, too, attracted a bigger crowd.

Alright then, I'll go to hell.

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