Illustrated: Africa's E-Waste 10 Step Program

This post was submitted this week without photos.  I'm leaving the original up for low-bandwidth readers (e.g. Ghana).  For high bandwidth, video-streaming, see   Primary source see 

1. Demand for electronics in Ghana rises. Meltwater Academy (MEST), internet cafes, Accra Hospital, etc. Rate of internet growth is 10 times the USA’s or Europe’s.
2, Wages in Ghana support electricity but not “brand new” electronics. 30% of electronics imported are new, but 70% are used goods from Europe (mostly) or USA [see 2011 SBC E-Waste Assessment Ghana]
3. Ghana Dealer faces $7,000 shipping cost per 350 TVs or 650 computers. He’s paying $15 out of pocket for every bad one that goes on the container, just for transport. So he doesn’t like junk.
4. Ghana Dealer hires techs in Europe to inspect each piece of electronic purchased and loaded. These people have been labelled “Waste Tourists” and “criminals” by race-profiling Europol reports. In the trade, it’s called “fly and buy”.

5. Containerload of “ewaste” arrives in Accra. Customs agents in Ghana a) Don’t know what they are looking at, and b) hear reports by Watchdogs that 80% of “e-waste” imports are bad. A “gift” gets the container through customs (usually computers for inspector), or a “value added tax”. Add $3K to get the container from port to point of distribution.

6. Gently used product is delivered to retail stores and markets in Ghana, many owned by repair technicians who do further upgrades and preventive maintenance. 85% of the goods, according toSBC Report, are working or repaired. Ghana has 15,000 electronics repair technicians.

7. Retail consumers and shoppers in Accra often carry in an old computer for “trade in”. The repair/resale market treats these like used car trade ins, accepting them for discount or less. Some provide parts for other repairs, but most reuse is truly exhausted.
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8. Scrappers from Agbobbloshie come with cash to buy the accumulated retail consumer trade-in junk from the retail shops. Most of the goods they take to Agbogbloshie were imported back in the 1990s, and used for 15 years… not taken straight from port.
9. USA Non-profit takes photos of poor kids burning 25-year old electronics at Agbogbloshie.   NGO says that “80%-90%” of the exports from Europe are burned, creating pollution.  Fake statistic is picked up by a reputable paper (e.g. USA Today) and recycled over and over as a "reference".
10. USA Shredding companies and planned obsolescence manufacturers pay non-profit handsomely to promote legislation banning export, or creating non-tariff barriers to export (e.g. San Jose CA), hoping more new sales and more scrap results.
Outcome: If Ghana is forced to buy brand new PCs, in 15 years those will still be brought for trade in, and Agbogbloshie will remain. But for most African consumers, a $700 computer would be impossible, it would force children out of schools and into the fields, and undermine organizations like MEST.
Fair trade recycling is when USA suppliers offer better used product and discounts in return for responsible take-back and recycling of trade-ins and residue. The USA Exporter remains a steward, a partner of the African buyer, providing money and technical assistance to keep recycling safe.
The best and most effective recycling processes are hand labor, a decent job in Africa. Recycling creates clean jobs. And in a decade, Ghana could be like Singapore, a nations which developed buying and repairing and tinkering and making shanzhai white box affordable electronics for wider distribution, or contract manufacturing to assemble and sell new product. Or at MEST Meltwater Academy, they may become coders, write software, and create Apps for Africans.
But there are also alternatives to electronics repair, resale, support, software coding, and de-manufacturing. Kids in Africa can also pick cotton. They can become child soldiers, trap endangered species, mine tantalum and coltan, pump petroleum, become sex workers, or join the military. It’s important that e-Waste Watchdogs stop recycling and repair if these other jobs are to continue.
Environmentalists are good. But we need to know what we are talking about, not just make it up as we go along. Repair and reuse of technology isn’t perfect, but in Africa, recycling and repair jobs are not on the top of the bad list for Peace Corps students to wind up in.

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