The Fireworks Economy, Part 1: Burning Wire Adds No Value

European and American NGOs and Regulators who are entranced by the flames at Old Fadama's "Agbogbloshie" scrapyard have three main boogeymen.  Many argue that sales of used goods should be banned to Africa based on public concern over three "questionable" practices:

1) Burning Wire
2) Breaking CRT Tubes
3) Circuit Boards

So many documentaries have now been filmed with close up camera shots of each of these, that we receive RFPs that ban our company from doing work unless we promise not to do business with Africans.  As someone who lived in Cameroon for 30 months in the 1980s - and is still in touch via Facebook with my landlord from the small town of Ngaoundal there after 30 years - this "segregation" of business distresses me greatly.

I've made the point, repeatedly, that Africans (like my landlord in Cameroun in 1980s) owned thousands and thousands of televisions decades ago.  Period.  A close up of a junk TV being broken, its wires burned, its CRT glass scattered, and its circuit boards being removed by a dirt-clad African, is no basis for trade policy.

There are, of course, much bigger environmental challenges in Africa than urban appliance recycling. A shortage of electricity drives continuous demand for charcoal, which is harvested, illegally, from African forests.  The access to forests created by charcoal demand in turn opens the gate to illegal game poachers and mercury-based-alluvial gold mining. If you are concerned about Africa's environment, species protection, illegal forestry, and metal mining are the elephants in the room.

But let's not deny the three TV recycling issues.  Wire burning, CRT busting, and Circuit Boards are real "waste" concerns.  What we know for certain is that these Wires, CRTs, and Circuit Boards are not "dumped" here by hundreds of sea containers sent by unscrupulous recyclers in rich nations.  They are generated by (to coin a term) "normal" African househods, "normal" consumers in emerging markets.  Waste happens, decades after used devices are imported.

Why do these African men in their late teens and early twenties even bother burning wire or breaking CRT tubes? There's very little money in the first, and no money at all in the second.  Young black men burn wires for the same reason young white men do.  They are bored and unemployed.

To find this culprit, you must understand what my pal Anne calls the "Fireworks Economy".  (I'd told her I call it a "graffiti economy" and she understood - but gave it a better name.)

What is a "graffiti" or "fireworks" economy?  I shall refer you back to one of my first publications, "Value Added By Recycling Industries in Massachusetts (1992)".  Value added is where humans or machines or time or scarcity changes the value of a material.  It's the creation of wealth.  In recycling, it usually refers to taking a "waste" material, such as paper, and baling it or pulping it until it's worth more, like new paper or a greeting card.  The free market naturally attracts people to more valuable activity.  When there is little choice of valuable things for young testosterone filled men to do, they spray paint buildings, and start fights and fires.

But see what these men are doing which does add value, and you may hesitate to boycott Africa even if anyone was shipping mostly junk there (again, a disproven hypothesis).

They are pushing carts through the streets of Accra to collect African junk.  Collection adds value.

You see "carters" in cities all over the world.  It's a low barrier to entry, a primary school drop out can push a cart and collect junk.  Scrapyards pay more for 10 tons of scrap paper in one place than they'd pay for one ton of scrap paper in ten places.  Packing it into a bale makes it easier to move, adding more value.  Boiling it to a pulp and removing the ink with hydrapulpers (the big "egg beaters" at a recycled paper mill) adds a lot of value, after the pulp is poured upon mill screens and pressed into tissue, greeting cards, or pizza boxes.  To be profitable, the value you add to recyclables has to be more than the expense of buying or adding the value.  This is pretty obvious to most blog readers.

If you are working in a market with 40% unemployment, there's a pretty low bar. Rather than "hustling" (as Yaroo in the photograph above calls it) you could just be setting off fireworks, adding nothing of value.

But if you are a photojournalist whose confirmation bias is to find exotic kids and fire, you will move to photograph the grafitti or fireworks economy.

When there is a whole lot of human activity going on that adds no apparent value - like ugly graffiti spraypainted on walls - someone is usually working for nearly free, and we may struggle to learn why.  Buy photojournalists see it first.

When I first came to Agbogbloshie, I was told to expect to meet "children" and teenagers at the wire burning site.  Based on what I had read and seen in photos, child labor was an important part of the scrap practice.   Instead, I found mostly men in their 20-30s.  According to Jack Caravanos / Blacksmith Institute study, the average age of workers at the entire Agbogbloshie scrapyard is 34 years old, and a few hundred people work there --- mostly in automobile, truck, and bicycle scrap.  We found the number of wire burners to be about 25, and the WEEE demanufacturers to be similar. Definitely not the thousands of workers who'd be necessary to manage millions of tons.


Awal Muhammad of Savelugu performs fire art for Sasha Rainbow and Placebo 2017 at Agbogbloshie

As I've pointed out several times, most of the fires you see are from tires, and most of the wires being  burned come from auto harnesses and white goods, not from TVs and computers. My buddy Awal Muhammad (above) told us that he learned years ago that when there's a white photographer present, he can get more attention by adding more gasoline to his fire.  Attention can mean getting taken out for a hot lunch.

Otherwise, the wages for burning wire are pretty damn low.  Here's the math I saw

Value of 1 kilogram of unburned wire:   $2
Value of 1 kilogram of burned wire:   $1.50

So are the guys making 50 cents a kilo?  Of course not.  Because burning wire removes the outer plastic casing, and you wind up with less than a kilo.  The finer computer wire can even be lost in the process.

If you wind up with 0.7 kilos, you are actually only producing $1.40 worth of wire, losing 10 cents in the process.  We found that the young men (who for the most part do not own the wire, they are paid by an older wire monger who doesn't want to burn it himself) were on the lowest rung of the scrapyard.

see top, fuel being added to attract #ewasterepublic Jacopo Ottaviana

So why do they do it?



Positive reinforcement (western fascination)...

Boys like fires.  A number of them aren't even being paid at all, they are there to watch.  So in terms of "value added", this is like spraypainting graffiti. People doing it are unemployed or under-employed.  And it reminds them somehow of home...

Wire burning happens in every country, and in every country it's associated with high unemployment.

The young men typically show up at the Agbogbloshie market riding on the top of an onion truck, or hitching a ride with a charcoal seller.  Burning wires reminds them of the charcoal making in the northern villages, where trees are burned to sell in the City of Accra as charcoal.

They have moved from a worse environmental problem in Africa - deforestation which leads to carbon, poaching and metal mining - and into recycling.  The idea that their work is more shameful here is the clumsy colonial assumptions and ... photojournalism's affixed stare.


We have something in common.  A fireworks economy, with little value added when the show is over.

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