Circular Economy and African Shanzhai: Under the Bridge

Shanzhai, or Shan Zhai, or sanzai...

I dropped the word "shanzai" recently.  In my mind, it's something I blogged about not that long ago (2011) - a term I learned from meeting Dr. Josh Goldstein at USC via Adam Minter.  But I do admit to that habit of dropping a word or a phrase in places where no one knows what I'm talking about (unless they do).

Like a reference to "the Keystone Cops", the word "shanzhai" went "whoosh" over the heads of my listeners.  But in a reuse and recycling context, it's a profound concept.  It is like a master guitarist finding that a fan has learned to play his riffs even better than he can.  It's the concept of taking an iPhone 6 and repairing it with bells and whistles that make it, virtually, like an iPhone 9 (yet to be invented).

Today's blog has three goals - 1) remind readers of the importance of shanzhai, 2) show some really awesome examples of Africans turning broken LCD TVs into things of higher value, and 3) explore the "poor communicator" dynamic which so often dumbs down own discussions. When is it necessary to go back and remind a new reader what a word means?  Often today, journalists and bloggers "hotline" the word by html to a definition somewhere else online, similar to a footnote.

So here's the thing - Shanzai is being re-defined in relationship to "counterfeit" stuff. In the same way the charitable industrial complex defined African electronic recycling with "bad" images of Agbogbloshie, and defined Chinese technology reuse with cesspools and rice paddies, someone is out to bury the concept of refurbishment itself, and to make it seem shameful.

And they are going to use European and American implicit racism and assumptions about Africans and Chinese people to keep the competition away.  Like second string white baseball players, the American and European "big shred" recyclers are frightened of competition from Jackie Robinson.

To be fair, shanzai does also mean borrowed or knock-off, but in Chinese it has a much more respected context.  As I explained in the blog, Shanzhai is respected in China, in the way that John Frusciante, 47, (Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist) respects Josh Klinghoffer, 37.  Klinghoffer copied Frusciante's guitar riffs and added a spice to them that put the Red Hot Chili Peppers on another level.

Here's what you will see in the blog below the "more" line:

1) Chili Peppers "under the bridge" video
2) An explanation of how I feel lonely explaining African exports (tied to lyrics)
3) A photo slide show demonstrating what Africans are doing with broken LCD TVs (like the ones Total Reclaim allowed to be exported to China)

And as usual, the conclusion

4) African geeks know more than we do, and the "circular economy" doesn't revolve around white people.

followed by

5) a blog-end of why it may be worth it to sometimes write a blog that's over most reader's level of expertise.

See if you can check the boxes


So here's the problem... I didn't intend to write a whole new blog about "shanzhai" again.  I wanted to make a reference to it, in title I chose as "African Shanzhai".  But the planned obsolescence, "big shred", copyright and patent machine is grinding "shanzhai" into something criminal on wikipedia, the same way they are opposing the Right to Repair laws.

So what does any of this have to do with African Shanzhai?

It's hard to believe that I'm all alone on this export thing.  And if you make it to the bottom of this blog, after all the cool refurb photos, you will see my navel gazing exploration of why I am losing the battle to present export markets as adding value.

I don't ever want to feel
Like I did that day
Take me to the place I love
Take me all the way

It's hard to believe
That there's nobody out there
It's hard to believe
That I'm all alone
At least I have her love
The city she loves me
Lonely as I am
Together we cry

Here's where it gets interesting.

Some of the electronics that are being "exported to" (imported by) Africa are being refined into something that is a level above the original.  It's not a spiralling downward, and it's not a circle.  YOU didn't "export" something, they, the Africans IMPORTED something.  Something you hadn't realized has value, because they know more about it than you do.

See my pictures below.

It's Africans taking the LCD backpanes which Americans tediously recycle back into glass, mercury phosphor, plastic, etc., and instead turn it into something even more useful than it was.

Watch what I watched.  See these geeks replace the painted sign "Chendiba Enterprises" over Wahab and Kamil's heads.  See them replace it using a screen damaged UK LCD television which SWEEEP would have ground up into little "circular economy" pieces.

If Europe considers this remanufacturing "illegal" and a subversion of the "circular economy", they have really misunderstood "Eden".

And here is the new one.

And below, in no particular order, are the people and steps in between.

This is "African Shanzhai"

And I've been trying to explain this for almost 20 years.  And yet, reporter after report keeps identifying African electronic recycling with "Agbogbloshie"

They are better than we are, and we are just having a very, very difficult time with the idea that the circular economy doesn't revolve around us.

Here's the new one.

Professional "how to" blog advisors tell you to just assume the least of your audience. Communicate in short sentences. Use bullet points.  Summarize!  Can you think of a question to engage the reader?

Here's the problem.  Communicating to the lowest point on the learning curve slows us all down. It does build consensus, and builds confidence, and will make you a more popular leader.  But confidence can also be earned by acting decisively, and hoping people eventually see your track record and, if they want, go back and understand your thesis or departure point when, as novices, they could not be expected to be "on board".

So in business, you need to groom a #2, a translator.  Someone who makes the notes easy to play.  And if you groom them well, they can be #1, and you can work intelligently from behind the scenes.  You divide your messaging, so that one of you is dangling intellectually challenging bait to the top of the class, while another makes your message simple.

When I grew my Massachusetts DEP division from 6 staff to about 20, in a 3 year period, I had to do a lot of hiring and a lot of all-nighters.  I was just turning 30 at that time - about the same age Kyle Wiens as IFIXIT was going through an even larger growth.

What I found out is that when you grow a staff, that middle managers who have only been on the team for 1-3 years are looked at like "old pros" by recent hires - and they can even kind of see themselves that way, relative to the newbies.  But you have these points where less than 50% of your staff is 75% or more down their "learning curve", and that's where you are pretty vulnerable to a label as a "bad communicator".

See, I found out that 2 people in a staff meeting could agree on the statement that "If you don't know what Robin just said, don't worry, it isn't you."  Yet, they could be agreeing for completely different reasons.  One may be brand new, and the DEP acronyms alone are daunting.  There's an acronym for your timesheet, for heavens sake ("fill out the SRT by 4pm Friday" or something), and new hires are sometimes not even yet in the loop on what the words in the acronym mean, much less the budget line you are referring to that funds that program at a staff meeting.

Someone 2 months in the job is typically only 30% effective on the "learning curve" (and I am assuming readers know what "learning curve" itself means - I took a class on it in my MBA program).  So now they are listening to someone else at the meeting, who knows the acronyms lingo, but doesn't understand the difference between the federal Block Grant, General Funds, and Escheates (Clean Environment Fund) you are talking about in the budget for that acronym.

So here the manager is faced with either going back to square one for the newbie, wasting the time of the more senior staff, or explaining the budget cycle, at the expense of meeting time spent with even more senior staff.  And if there's a question about the public education line, you may say something that the Compost staff don't understand.

Anyway, there is a "learning bottleneck" in high growth, dynamic companies and departments.  High growth also means there's an attraction to your resources.  One of the most insidious critics of my communication skills (according to my boss, Hank Southworth, who explained what was going on) was an authority in another branch with a dotted-line influence over my budget.  Get a couple of late 20s, early 30s, aggressive managers fighting over a budget, and the long blades come out.

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