How Exports of Electronics Get to Agbogbloshie in 6 Easy Steps

At Fair Trade Recycling, we are fans of Dave Hakkens of the Netherlands and his maker & repair-stuff videos.  It was with a mixture of delight and gritted teeth that we watched his new video on Agbogbloshie.

His video "A Free Trip" does portray the ingenuity and skill we tried to document in Africa, and does it with more flair than I could.

But he also opens with the headlines that junk is exported directly to Agbogbloshie by westerners to be dumped.  That's just ridiculous and has been disproven by every study by USITC, MIT, SBC, etc.

So Dave, thanks for seeing people for what they can do rather than for what they cannot do.

But next time, do a little more homework.

  1. The goods are exported by African Ex Pats (like Joe Benson) who are in close communication with buyers (#2)
  2. The goods are imported by African Tech Sector shops which buy mostly working but also do repair for consumers (#3)
  3. The goods are sold to African consumers and businesses.
  4. The goods are then USED FOR 5-25 years!  Accra had electricity 50 years ago!  Ghana has 20 television stations!  
  5. At the end of 2 decades of use and storage and often re-repair, the "scrap" electronics are collected by scrappers from Old Fadama (not called "Sodom and Gomorrah"), house to house, via pushcart 
  6. The scrap is traded, bought and sold, at Agbogbloshie (an automobile scrapyard) based on metals or parts value.
The first item we saw being dismantled at Agbogbloshie was a VCR.  A VCR, Dave.  Try to sell a containerload of VCRs to an African.  Those were everywhere in Africa in the 80s and 90s, but no one imports VCRs today.

See Report at Resource Fever - Global Circular Economy of Strategic Metals (Bo2W)
Step 6 is 15-25 years after Step 1.  Improving testing, or arresting #1 Africans, or boycotting #2 Africans, or selling brand new product to #3 Africans, does absolutely nothing.  Donating money to E-Stewards has zero effect on Step 6.  Even brand new stuff wears out, and according to Africans does so faster than "solid state" used electronics imported from Europe and USA.

Most of the NGO's emphasis is how to somehow stop accidental breakage, non-functioning parts, shipping damage, etc. (7%).  But the point is that the ENTIRE chart above will wind up at a scrapyard SOMEDAY, and most of what's there today was imported decades ago.

So if boycotting Africa and moving people from the cities back to tree houses isn't the solution, how then do we deal with "the problem" of scrapping electronics at the eventual end of life?

A lot of emphasis has also been put on "providing the proper tools" to scrappers at Step 6 and I'm all for that but it's being done by people who don't know what they are talking about and who make things up and take pictures of themselves being exotic heroes.  See blog post "Ten Most Toxic African E-Waste Recycling Processes (2012)".  Or look at 2010's "Ten Worst Practices".  This doesn't require millions of dollars or imprisonment of Africa's best and brightest geeks.

Really all we need to do is pay the scrappers for unburned wire and leave everything else pretty much alone unless we have lived there and want to have an intelligent conversation with every single African involved in Steps 1-6.

Dave was there at the same time as I was (and Adam Minter, and Jacopo Ottaviana, and Mystery Photojournalist Man) but unfortunately didn't get to meet with me or Wahab, Emmanuel, Kamal, and the dozens of Africa Tech Sector and scrap recyclers we interviewed in multiple languages.  I tried to get in touch with him (via Twitter) but he didn't really know who I am and our schedules didn't line up.

Anyway, thanks Dave Hakkens, it was progress.  But please do us a favor and link back to a Ghana Technician's take on the problem, Emmanuel E.P. Nyalete.

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