Environmental Malpractice: Old Fadama (Agbogbloshie) Still Shaken by Bullyboys

First the good news:   Three great articles came out making the same points that I've been trying to make for ten years, adding a great deal of intellectual value to the discussion of the E-Waste Export controversy.

Restart Project, Representations of Waste Matter

Lepawsky, Goldstein, Schulz:  Criminal Negligence?

Minter, Anatomy of a Myth

Ghana's Parliament is now involved, and is asking the same tough questions posed by the Twittersphere through the week.   If it's about flooding, why did they start in the rainy season?  Why did the AMA start on the populated side of the river, rather than dredge from the opposite (scrapyard and landfill) side of the water?  Why start on the first day of the holy Ramadan?

The bad news is that it's too little, too late to help the dispossessed refugees of the shantytown.   My friends and acquaintances there describe homeless children now sleeping on the floors of mosques, unable to purchase mandatory school uniforms and supplies burned or bulldozed.

But the worse news is the slum will be rebuilt much faster than the reputations of environmentalists and journalists.  Too many environmentalists are ignoring our role in the propaganda campaign.

We are living up to our label as "parasites of the poor".  We are losing a generation of influence, as the scrappers of Agbogbloshie grow to dislike us and distrust us, believing that the people repeating lies about them are raking in enormous sums of wealth.

Bullyboy environmentalist, Joe Benson called us.

Sadly, in proportion, it's more true what they say about us than what we are saying about them.  I'm sorry to be the bearer of that news, but don't kid yourselves, I'm not making it up, I have these conversations recorded on film.

My role as a blogger is to remind my fellow environmentalists, including the NGOs and EU-based bureaucrats who are making hundreds of thousands of dollars (or millions, in the case of one NGO) off of the #ewastehoax, that hyperbole harms.

Recommendations to CWIT, INTERPOL on WEEE EWaste Project

delivered by Twitter, Linkedin, and Blogspot

June 25, 2015

David Higgins
Pascal LeRoy

Dear Pascal and David,

Thank you for Pascal's response to our initial draft of comments for the CWIT meeting in Lyon in June.   In addition to presenting more factual numbers, it is important that the CWIT group focus on percentages, not tons.

Ghana's secondhand imports, estimated at 215,000 tons, includes approximately 21,000 tons not reused. That's a real problem, but smaller than the generation of once-reused, now discarded electronics (and cars, and other machines) as cities like Accra modernize.  The generation predicted by World Bank and other sources will require in-country solutions, much greater than "informal" scrapyards (like Agbogbloshie) can offer. 

The ratio of fallout from secondhand electronics imports is similar to clothing, new electronics, automobiles, cell phones, broadcasting equipment.  No import container is perfect.  Shipping damage, human error, demand forecast changes, electrostatic discharge, and other fallout cannot be termed "illegal waste transport" without impacting all development. Criminal enforcement should be directed at goods (such as ivory) which is 100% illegal.

We recommend Interpol and CWIT start discussing acceptable "de minimus" quantities, and whether the testing Guidelines (used in prosecutions) is a good predictor of percentages.  And please, incorporate discussions with Africa's Tech Sector.  They are the ones who send contacts to Europe to source proper reuse equipment, they are the ones who pay for the equipment, they are the ones who have created double and triple-digit teledensity growth for Africans this decade.  Their supply to the "good enough" market creates the critical mass of users which makes paving roads, laying internet cable, erecting cell phone towers, etc., economically feasible.

We can introduce you to several speakers, or university research departments, who know these technicians, who would have been a valuable addition to your list of experts.  Here are some articles written by westerners who accepted this invitation, and met with these champions of the Emerging Market.  Fair Trade Recycling (tm) goal is to engage these technicians in managing the takeback of used electronics, and pay for their proper recycling by donating MORE used equipment at lower prices, rather than by driving up price and lowering demand in the current "Prohibition" enforcement model.

I will be arriving in Lyon (previously scheduled business) on July 1, if anyone from Interpol is interested in meeting to discuss a more progressive agenda to the media-driven "export crisis". In the meantime, here are some articles we recommend for distribution to your guests and attendees.


- Robin Ingenthron, WR3A.org 

PS.  The illegal goods reported in Ghana were refrigerators which work, and which are eligible for a subsidized program to replace them with energy efficient models.   Stating that 1/3 of inspections found illegal goods should differentiate between the energy efficiency ban (not widely understood by importers) and illegal dumping.


"He that beats the drum for the mad man to dance is no better than the mad man himself." – African proverb

It began as a simple problem.  Ghana household teledensity (TV, internet, cell phone) is increasing like wildfire, two and three digit growth, year on year.  Ghana residents mostly afford this with used devices cherry picked from Western depots by African expats.  The most recent study (Secretariat Basel Convention) estimated that Ghana imported 215,000 Tons of second hand electronics goods (including refrigerators, microwaves, as well as PCs, TVs).  The study concluded that about 90% of these were reused or repaired.  21,500 tons not reused were added to the estimated 129,000 tons junked by Ghana residents after years of use.  The fallout rate for used electronics is actually less than new electronics, according to Ghana technicians, explaining consumer preferences.

However, well-intentioned NGOs like Blacksmith Institute, Greenpeace and BAN used the statistics above to imply that "western companies" dumping on Africa was the cause of the toxics problem.  Professional photographers (Fedele, Hugo, Bellini, McElvaney, etc.) used close-ups of scrap workers and odd Biblical references like "Hell" and "Sodom and Gomorrah" to scare people into a pledge campaign to boycott Africa technicians.

The "Sodom and Gomorrah" references to Agbogbloshie are a biblical reference, and the "E-Waste Hell" photos of Old Fadama are everywhere on Twitter, Facebook, in newspapers and magazines.  Fellow environmentalists discovered a white-guilt honeypot.   They found easy grant money, and crossover support from environmentalists and social activists on the "common ground" of not "polluting the poor".   But look what transpired...

1.  Create widespread citation of fake dumping statistic.

"Approximately 80% of electronic waste currently delivered to recyclers is actually exported to developing countries." 

"The dirty little secret is that when you take [your electronic waste] to a recycler, instead of throwing it in a trashcan, about 80 percent of that material, very quickly, finds itself on a container ship going to a country like China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Pakistan — where very dirty things happen to it," says Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network, which works to keep toxic waste out of the environment.

Makes it easy to imagine 50,000,000 tons going into a scrapyard - by hand pushcart - without a driveway.

2.  Take pics of Tire burning

Homer Simpson Voice:   OOOOOooooo!  Fire!

3.  Tell simple story about nameless faceless White Exporters

4. Ignore actual African Importers, Techs of Color 

5. Ignore true statistics (93% Reuse) when Techs ARE interviewed

5.  Hide when Collateral Damage is documented

Photos of Agbogbloshie homes being destroyed June 2015

Twitter photo from Ab

the people look on helplessly as their homes are crashed in

Did enviros conspire with land grabbing developers to evict thousands of homes of scrapper families in Old Fadama / Agbogbloshie?  Of course not.

But we played into a propaganda war over the increasingly valuable property.  It would have been expensive for AMA and developers to buy it.   Easier to find a reason / excuse for teargas and military evactuation.

"They are unChristian outsiders, Dagomba tribe are settlers, Sodom and Gomorrah"

"They caused the flooding which killed 150 people in May"

"They import electronic waste from other countries and burn it, poisoning us"

I had no clue about the property issue when I went to Agbogbloshie.  I was surprised how close it was to the most expensive developments in all of Ghana.  When I saw less than 1,000 tons (not 215,000 tons, and certainly not "most" of the world's millions of tons of ewaste), all home scrap, I asked the scrappers why anyone would repeat this?  I thought maybe, for grant money.

The Dagbani speaking scrappers had another theory about the lie.

They said it was about their land.   People wanted it but did not want to pay for it.  And sure enough, soon after they were being blamed for importing waste, for causing floods, and for being un-Christian... the teargas and bulldozers came.   It looked pretty bad, and I had no idea this was going to happen so quickly.

I'm not very popular with some environmental groups right now.

But see, I'm doing us all a favor.

When someone in our "tribe" of do-gooder environmentalists attacks someone innocent, they draw negativity against our tribe that can affect many generations.  Standing up against "friendly fire" is not disloyal, is not profiteering, is not damaging.    I'm taking bullets for this but I really believe this is the right thing to be documenting, and am asking friends to retweet our messages of support for the "geeks of color".


wire recycler Awal. "They tell lies about us importing waste. All home scrap from Accra." Why? "Land"

There are truths about Agbogbloshie and there are lies. What's really scary is the number, volume, direction of lies.

For a well written history of the land dispute by Josh Lepawsky and Grace Akese of Memorial University (Geography), read this "Discard Studies" essay, just published.

50 million tons per year to this small scrapyard?  Let's see, that's 50,000 tons per day, at 25kg per TV/PC... Gee, Guardian, short on editors?  But hey, it's Africans, don't sweat the easy calculator stuff.

You reprinted two of three propaganda tropes about the minority Dagbani, a Muslim minority in Accra, saying they go by "Sodomites" and that they handle 5 million scrap televisions per DAY.  You just needed to say they were responsible for the flooding.  

Growth of Internet users in Nigeria (Quartz)

Factsheet on Agbogbloshie / Old Fadamana and #E-Waste

Agbogbloshie is a neighborhood near the center of Ghana's capital, Accra.

Ghana household teledensity (TV, internet, cell phone) has three digit growth, year on year.

Ghana residents afford this with used devices cherry picked from Western depots by African expats.

The most recent study (Secretariat Basel Convention) estimated that Ghana imported 215,000 Tons of second hand electronics goods (including refrigerators, microwaves, as well as PCs, TVs). The study concluded that about 90% of these were reused or repaired. 21,500 tons not reused were added to the estimated 129,000 tons junked by Ghana residents after years of use.

The fallout rate for used electronics is less than new electronics, according to Ghana technicians.

By Google Maps, Agbogbloshie is 20 minutes from the international airport, and 9 minutes from Accra's finest hotel. This has made it a Mecca for "exotic journalism".

The neighborhood, also known as "Old Fadama", is primarily inhabited by Muslims from the north of Ghana, Dagbani speakers in the greater Tamale area (other tribal minorities also live there).

Dagbani come as "economic immigrants" to find low wage labor, as alternative to agriculture, charcoal burning, mining, hunting jobs in the North.

Metal scrap recycled at Agbogbloshie's auto scrapyard is brought there from around the city, by tow truck, pickup truck, and hand pushcart.   No sea containers have been seen at Agbogbloshie.

A tire burning operation on the riverbank by the scrap metal yard removes mosquito-bearing tires, but produces smoke and ash.  Wires are placed in the tires, usually from auto wiring but also from used electric and electronic appliances.  Older wiring, especially from buildings and decades old appliances, can bear leaded insulation which winds up in the ash and contaminates the soil.

School dropouts often come to watch the tire burning operation.   During three visits in 2015, 27 young men were counted there.

The economic benefit of burning wire is dismal.  Burners earn about $2 per day.  All we interviewed said they only stay there to kill time while hoping for other work.

The auto yard is not even remotely close to being the largest scrap yard on earth.   Estimates that 20-50 used electronics (PCs, VCRs, CRTs) are collected in the city were evaluated and found to correlate with the plastic housings and circuit boards accumated.   The claim seen in Al Jazeera, Atlantic, Wired News, Washington Post, the Guardian, etc., that the site is a significant ewaste dump or recipient of western dumping is categorically false.  Not simply exaggerated, it is unfounded and false.

Multiple peer-reviewed research studies have found that between 7% and 15% of used electronics imported to Tema (not Accra) are non-repairable.  These include "white goods" (refrigerators and air conditioners) which are banned, working or not, due to conservation programs, subsidized WEEE collections intended to extend Ghana's electric service.

With among the best paying jobs in Ghana, Tech Sector Ghanains ("geeks of color") reuse and refurbishers provide internet, cell phone, and mass media to millions of Africans who could not otherwise afford it.

The increased demand for electricity is created by the high reuse - 85%-93% - of electronics imported.   Accra is near the top of development charts, boasting double and triple digit teledensity increases (World Bank), year on year.

On June 19, 2015, military officers escorting bulldozers began to demolish homes and businesses in the shantytown.   The Ghana press uses the term "Sodom and Gomorrah", borrowed or repeated by the Western Press, to describe the Old Fadama neighborhood.

Hoaxes Harm. Agbogbloshie Land Grab Reportedly Underway


IMG-20150620-WA0005Look, it's hard for a westerner to establish a credible campaign about urban land reform in Africa.   The use of land in central Accra, 9 minutes from the city's most prestigious hotels and government buildings, has been a powderkeg for some time.

But Interpol and CWIT and UNEP's role in the "Agbogbloshie Sodom and Gomorrah" hyperbole should be investigated.   Posing as concerned about the Dagbani speakers who were Accra's Recycling Caste, they set up this cruel display of heartless eviction-by-bulldozer, which started yesterday.

Agbobloshie Demolishing Underway (citifmonline.com) has photos

Best way to get the news at this point is on Twitter.   @RecyHub, @AdamMinter, @Rubbishmaker, @Heatha_a, @RestartProject, @AfricanSolarLLP, @Kwiens, have been there and know what they are talking about, and new voices, like Abhassan Ibn Abdalla are reporting from the scene.
  1. Forced eviction is not a method of slum redevelopment. Demolishing homes and livelihoods is not good governance.
 2 hours ago2 hours ago2 hours agoAgbogbloshie children centre which was sheltering displaced people is being demolished now
  1. agreed. My sense is 'we' flatter ourselves to think our names relevant to those doing the clearing or those being cleared.
The imprisonment of Joe Benson in the UK for "wastecrime" (secondhand computer sales in Africa) was just a part of the story of #ewastegate. The Blacksmith Institute, GAHP, and Green Cross meant well but the use of the $1.2M was tone deaf to the underlying issues. Kevin McElvaney and other photojournalists have reaped their share of "sponsorship". But the worst part is putting Basel Action and Mike Anane on an expense paid promotional tour that makes destruction of recycling yards and arrests of Tech Sector workers pass as "environmental justice" or "remediation".
It just hurts to have a campaign of connected Accra developers take advantage of an environmental story completely misunderstood by Western NGOs, and label Dagbani neighborhood "Sodom and Gomorrah", as if recycling Accra's scrap was doing something wrong. I don't know if it's as bad as Egypts "cleaning of the Zabaleen" (something I was incensed about a decade ago, now forgotten), or China's flattening of "informal recycling" sites during it's rapid urban development phase. As Josh Lepawsky says, we flatter ourselves to think the Accra AMA powers that be will listen to our Western tweets. But the news editors who printed the "Agbogbloshie E-Waste Tragedy" Propaganda need their clocks cleaned. This cannot keep happening to recyclers and refurbishers.

This was not really about recycling. This was about forced relocation.
The story is still developing, and the flooding of the area was real, and the photos on twitter don't really show the extent of the evictions. Reportedly classrooms and homes have been demolished, but the story still needs a chance to develop.

Open WR3A Letter to CWIT / @Interpol on #Ewaste


Please send edits, suggestions, comments either by commenting under this draft or by email or tweet to yourname at wr3a.org.

Mr. Pascal LeRoy
Mr. David Higgins
Countering WEEE Illegal Trade (CWIT

Dear Sirs,

As you may know, WR3A (dba "Fair Trade Recycling") is an NGO business consortium which seeks to support businesspeople in emerging markets.  WR3A offers discounts on the cost of legitimate used electronic devices as an incentive to create takeback and proper recycling channels in those emerging markets.

We appreciate the advance copies of the CWIT literature [links below] which will guide the discussions in Lyon, France, next week.   While I will be in Lyon (previously scheduled) a few days later, I cannot afford to change my ticket.  Worse, the Association has just completed a major field work in Ghana and does not have the resources to bring representatives of Africa's Tech Sector to the meeting.   Therefore I have prepared this letter to convey our thoughts on this process.

The CWIT report contains a chart (from World Bank) showing electrification rates in several African countries.  We immediately noticed that the first statistic for Ghana was incorrect, perhaps because it is frequently updated.   Understandable, since the statistics on electricity and teledensity in Africa are changing at double and triple digits each year.

What we would like CWIT to learn from this is that import of used electric and electronic devices is not driven by European shredding costs.  It is actually driven by this rapidly changing statistic.

Stating the percentage of household electrification rates in Africa without stating the rate of growth can lead to wrong conclusions.   The relatively low percentage of homes with electricity (as compared to the EU) might imply, to some, that the sales of used electronic appliances are less likely to be "legitimate".

In fact, it is the rate of growth of electrification which predicts demand.

In the USA, for example, the poorest parts of the country were the last to get electricity.  When hydroelectric dams came to the Ozark Mountains, my family members drove to cities like Chicago or St. Louis to purchase used appliances.  Memphis, though closer, had a higher poverty rate, fewer used appliances, and more buyer competition.  If you are poor but making progress, your smartest move is to purchase used goods from wealthy geographies.

Similar modelling accounts for sales of automobiles in geographies which were rapidly paving roads (again, the Ozarks is a good example).   The last place to get paved roads had the highest rates of purchase of both new and used cars, and the ratio of used cars to new cars looked very similar to the rates of used vs. new sales of electronics in Africa.

The CWIT Interpol literature uses works like "illegitimate" and "informal" and "criminal" to describe well established supply and demand patterns.  Perhaps when Germany was reunited, the demand for used cars in East Germany and Poland was driven by a desire in Western Germany to avoid the cost of properly recycling autos...  But if Interpol had targeted auto mechanics in East Germany and Poland, it would have been a poor use of limited enforcement resources, discouraged agents of conscience, and thus attracted criminal enterprise to an otherwise mundane exchange of "good enough" products.

The growth of teledensity (internet, television, cell phone) in Africa is a marvelous story, and one written by canny Africans in the Tech Sector.   The best and brightest students are reading tech repair manuals, hacking phones, and finding the cheapest display devices (ones which last 20 years but are replaced in the West after 4 years are a ripe target).

Language with biblical and "halloween" references, and many photos describing "e-waste" businesses, tend to marginalize, exoticize, and otherize these technicians.  The UNEP's recent use of Agbogbloshie photos to describe Africa's Tech Sector was thoughtless and ill considered.  Similar propaganda was used to describe Simon Lin, Terry Gou, Lee Byung-chul, Chung Ju-jung, and others who repaired and tinkered their way into multibillion dollar economies which lifted the living standards of their compatriots in the most sustainable and environmentally sound manner available - through sustainable reuse, repair and refurbishment.   

If Africa is to meet its own potential, mining ores and shredding working devices is the least sustainable path.  But the demand will be met... there is no "Eden" to shepherd Africans to, and no "Sodom and Gomorrah" to take them away from.  It is fruitless and pointless to try to arrest all the geeks and nerds in Africa.  They are too many.  Crackdowns on internet cafe investors have already occurred in Africa, using "e-waste" as an excuse.   As we say in the Ozarks, "We don't have a dog in that fight."

Export for reuse and repair is explicitly legal in the Basel Convention, Annex IX.  The title of the UNEP Report contains a line about "inconsistencies", which describes well the challenges Interpol will face in enforcing EU interpretations which create new interpretations of the Convention, lined against the forces of supply and demand.   We would ask why, when rhino poaching and child labor and sex trafficking and arms trafficking and conflict metal mining are such a blight, Europe would want to add reuse and repair of electronics to the list that only criminals would succeed at.  Africans have real problems.  Reusing goods is not one of them.

Unintended consequences, collateral damage, friendly fire... These have been offered as excuses for false descriptions of statistics for ten years.  We are asking Interpol to suspend the enforcement of Project Eden until you have met the technicians who not only import used electronics, but have raised Africa's teledensity far beyond the wildest goals set by the most aggressive UN ICT or UNCTAD planners in the 1990s.   Decriminalizing things which should not be criminal is the most difficult, but wisest, challenge for regulators. 

Robin Ingenthron


Founder, WR3A