Driverless Used Car and Electronics Imports to Africa

Follow up to the new "Driverless" UNU 2018 Person In Port Report

The headline, “Thousands of tons of e-waste shipped illegally to Nigeria inside used vehicles” was familiar. In my last blog, I gave readers "the fine print".

Almost everything documented by the 2018 UNU's "Person in the Port Project" (2018) report on used electronics imports to Nigeria corresponds with our 4 years of research in Ghana. Bottom line, the importers are presumed innocent. Most purchases are normal and good. The headline focuses on a statistic that 15,000 tons of 60,000 tons “didn’t work”. Put another way, 75% of the imported used electronics are fully functional. More importantly, the report tells us that of the 25% of electronics needing repair, Nigeria's Tech Sector is the best on earth at fixing them. 
"The high skill level of Nigeria’s refurbishing sector, with the ability to fix many technical defects in UEEE at reasonable service cost, also motivates importers to import both functioning and non-functioning electronic equipment to Nigeria." 
- 5.8.1 PIP Report 2018
The 2018 report avoids the “poverty porn” - pics of kids posed on old TVs, etc. - that marred its 2015 report. In almost every respect, the report shows a fairer image of Africa’s Tech Sector. And the most important concession Europe has now made is to concede the 2015 Report's KEY FINDING - motives of "drivers" to export "waste" - has been disproven. Joseph "Hurricane" Benson had no "driver" to put waste into his export containers. The only financial motive that can explain these shipments are intent to reuse and repair.

So the "driverless" waste export theory is busted. Let’s focus first on Ten Things the report gets right.

African Controlled: Exports are controlled by Africa’s tech sector, not dumped by “sham” USA and EU recyclers. There is nothing in the PiP Report that does not support our own 10 findings.

  1. No “avoided cost” Drivers”. The exports are purchased in Europe, USA and China by Africans, not accepted for payment. There is no “avoided environmental cost” to pay for transport. Africa’s Techs are picky about what they buy. The cost of shipping a junk TV is about 20 times the value of the scrap inside it. 
  2. No “hundreds of dumped sea containers”. There is not a single case of a container of used electronics being dumped on arrival in Africa, at scapegoat-scrapyards like Agbogbloshie. 
  3. No “80% Dumping”. The report confirms 2011 and 2012 research by the Basel Convention Secretariat in Nigeria and Ghana, and by Memorial University, MIT, etc. 75%-80% of the electronics require no repair at all. Of the remaining 25%, most are repaired. 
  4. Non-working percentage (fallout) doesn’t amount to much at the dump. Electronics that neither work nor are repaired (perhaps damaged in shipping, like brand new product) do not represent a significant percentage at the scrapyards. Most of the goods being scrapped were imported decades earlier and generated by African consumers. 
  5. Africa’s Tech Sector Is Sophisticated. When they choose to buy a non-working item, it is because they routinely repair the non-functioning electronics they import. 
  6. Africa’s Tech Workers are not in “waste” or “recycling” or “informal” jobs.  Appliance repair jobs are sustainable, well-paid, and well-respected in emerging markets. 
  7. Market Demands Good Old Stuff. Most African consumers prefer used solid state electronics from Europe over affordable brand-new electronics from China. 
  8. Africa’s Cities are Already Wired. Electric and electronic appliances have been ubiquitous in African cities for decades. African TV and radio stations have been around for 50 years. By 1995, the majority of homes in cities like Accra and Lagos owned at least one CRT television. Ghana exhausted the electricity produced by its first hydroelectric dam (1965) within 10 years, and had to construct 4 more by 2010. 
  9. The metals eventually get recycled. Strategic and valuable metals re-used in Africa are still be recovered by African recycling initiatives, and are not “lost” to the “circular economy”. 

To a veteran, Nigeria’s used electronics economy doesn’t appear much different from the USA’s in the 1980 and 90s. There are more goods discarded by upwardly mobile African consumers. “Elective upgrade” is occurs as consumers can better afford to replace rather than repair device. But in Africa, there’s still a “third-hand” market in Africa extending product life. And the UNU PiP Report seems surprised that the traffic jams in Nigeria and Ghana - like the household television, computer, and cell phone ownership - cannot be explained by import of brand new stuff.

The only possible explanation for the traffic jams in Africa are that the cars imported there, like the TVs, cell phones, and computers, are driven by Africa's Top Shelf Tech Sector. They are the best in the world at repairing stuff, and the free market is the only explanation for Africa's autobahn-speed development.

I know because I asked and they showed me. There's no secret discovery. Just stop pretending there's a crime here. 

None of that calls for a “white savior” intervention. The report focuses on use of space in mixed reuse containers. TVs are placed in used cars, laptops placed in fridges, cell phones are placed in glove compartments. If that’s surprising, you’ve either never moved to a new home, or you haven’t been paying attention.

For all the excellent data the report provides, the press release opens with a Myth.
"Nevertheless, under the provisions of the Basel Convention, the export to and import of nonfunctional [Untested Electric and Electronic Equipment] into Nigeria are illegal."
The Basel Convention in Annex IX, B1110, explicitly says that used electronics exported for the purpose of repair are LEGAL COMMODITIES, NOT “WASTE”. Check the language of the Basel Convention.

It’s unfortunate that this one flaw in the Report is positioned in the very headline of the press release. But perhaps that illustrates what is going on in the “charitable industrial complex” (Peter Buffet). If your research is funded by “illegal dumping headlines”, you can’t correct every false impression. You can’t ask money for lights without a dark place to put them in. Our African Fair Trade Recycling members have long grumbled about the pictures of kids used to raise millions of dollars by NGOs and anti-export campaigns. Unlike UNICEF, not a dime goes to the poster child or their family, all the money winds up in “rich” countries.

Africa isn’t perfect. But for too long, some recycling companies and NGOs have been reporting allegations as crimes, and offering false statistics as facts. Press releases use pics-of-kids-at-dumps to benefit the charity industrial complex. Enforcement falls at the expense of honest and hard-working technicians in Africa’s reuse industry.

Africa’s geeks have, for decades, added value otherwise “lost” in repairable products, and in so-doing, provided the “critical mass of users” - consumers without whom no investment in cell phone towers, internet cable, or broadcast stations would have been profitable. The Tech Sector importers are Africa’s Big Bang Theory guys, not primitive orphans pawing through debris.

Again, this PiP Report has come a long way to correct that dynamic. We just hope they will print the “international law” and include Annex IX, B1110, in a revised edition.

The next chapter in the story will be about Africa’s Tech Sector taking back “abandoned junk” in the “informal scrap sector”. Through Fair Trade Recycling, shops like Chendiba Enterprises in Ghana are pairing up with formal scrap recycling operations, like Web Element Ventures in Accra. African Techs will be offered cryptocurrency discounts to bring in “trade ins” of 30-year old appliances in return for discounts on pre-owned electronics. Fair Trade Recycling’s “e-waste offset” program acts like a carbon cap and trade program. Participating African techs will collect and recycle one ton of decades-old African junk for every ton of used goods they import.

Africa’s Tech Sector believes in, and belongs to, the Circular Economy. Like Copernicus and Gallileo, they remind you that it doesn’t revolve around US. Nigeria, Ghana, and other rapidly emerging markets are in the rotation, extending the lifecycle while serving the aspirations of the poor.

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