Help Us Define "Waste Colonialism": Talking Secondhand

Looking for University Research to Help Us Define "Waste Colonialism"...

Actively seeking university researchers interested in "waste colonialism", or the use of apparently environmentally minded rules to serve planned obsolescence and protectionism. #wastecolonialism #freejoebenson #fairtraderecycling

"Waste Colonialism" comes up in the final chapters of Adam Minter's new bestseller "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale".  Adam kicked off his book tour at the University of Vermont, in part to thank my company and our global partners for "dropping our drawers" and giving him access to secrets of the trade.

In fact, the next to last chapter is titled "A Rich Person's Broken Thing". That is drawn directly from conversations I had with my Ozarks grandparents, both on the farm as a child, and in long talks with them after I returned from the Peace Corps in Cameroon, Africa (June 1984-December 1986). Adam captured my grandpa Clarence Fisher's anecdotes about when automobiles first came to the Ozarks (his own father had a horse and wagon, and signed his name with an "X"). As many family members were leaving the Ozarks during the Great Depression (along the "Hillbilly Highway"), his older brother, he said, got into the used automobile business. He explained that no one they knew could afford a new car (and the unpaved roads would be heck on them anyway). Used cars were affordable... but his brother's method was to go to St. Louis, Memphis, or Chicago and listen for sounds a car was making when it had broken down or was about to. If you knew what went wrong with a car, what the sound that problem makes, and how to fix it, you could buy the "rich man's broken thing" for a lot less. They'd bring it down to Cedar Valley, fix the car, and flip it for the price of a working used car.

I explained to my grandparents how I'd seen Africans doing that exact same thing. And Adam not only put it in the book, but recounts the tale of Joseph "Hurricane" Benson of BJ Electronics in England, who was sentenced to prison for buying used hotel CRT TVs and selling them to Africa.

Adam shows the wisdom of the African traders, and accepted my challenge, which was to ask why do rich countries (and in particular white people, because Japan and South Korea don't do this) create "rules" by which Africans can buy secondhand equipment?  And when the UK House of Commons reported that the African exports needed to stop - not to "save" the Africans from pollution, but to retain "strategic minerals and metals" for European industry - why did no one from that House of Commons think it worthy to write the UK Barrister who was recommending Joe Benson be prosecuted?

Adam's answer is "waste colonialism". He doesn't use "racism" the way I have in the blog, but he certainly calls out the bigotry involved in confusing (sometimes deliberately) the secondhand (and "thirdhand") Tech Sector with the unschooled wire burners of the scrap sector.

As I said when apologized to 7 years ago, the apology from Basel Action Network should not be made to me, but to the Africans, Asians and LatinX whom the NGO has been racially profiling as "primitives".

What we want is young people in search of a hypothesis or thesis as to why "tested working" and "fully functional" rules that Joe Benson was convicted of violating were written in the first place, when there was never any evidence that any of the sea containers of used equipment entering Ghana made it to Agbogbloshie (at least, not until after a decade of use). Joe Benson asked the "habeus corpus" question - where is any evidence that anything he sold was being dumped?

Link:  Households with Electricity in Ghana... Nearly everybody.

I've shown repeatedly how the Tech Sector in the global south not only repairs equipment, but completely remanufactures it. The TVs above are made from the working lightboxes of used computer monitors. The signs below are made from TV lighboxes.

How exactly did Waste Colonialism shift the burden of proof onto the darker skinned experts of the Tech Sector? Why did the press believe, and widely report, the bogus made up statistic that 80% of what Africans and Asians buy is unrepairable waste dumped on "primitive" recyclers?  And why has no journalism outlet followed up on the original fraudulent claim, given its use to literally handcuff and imprison black TV repairmen from Africa?

How is it remotely ok that no one took the word of the true experts, the Tech Sector in emerging markets, in writing the export standards, or at the trial of Mr. Benson, Joseph?

TV lightboxes sold as battery powered signs and menus in Tamale, Ghana

In November, I had a dream that Amazon got Adam Minter fired from Bloomberg. So I started out writing him an email about it, but it turned into this blog. It is time for the universities that have lots of international students and are "woke" about racial profiling to investigate the way environmental rules are being twisted to disadvantage the "Right to Repair", which is primarily a Privilege of the Poor.

This is kind of turning into what I'd call a "Faculty Party" blog, where people are interested enough in hearing the details of the Secondhand market to take a deeper dive into the subject.  I think there are 55 people in the world who read these blogs, some professors seem to really dig them. Other professors pretend to be interested because they are stuck talking to me at a faculty party and I keep giving information not recognizing they are just making conversation and are sneaking glances at the door. Those can skip to the end.

Jaleel attempted to repair the laptop Adam Minter wrote "Junkyard Planet" upon

When I told Adam that his laptop might not have been repaired on his first trip, but was working 1 year later, it took us into the deep specialization of the African repair Tech Sector. Some geeks - like Olu Orga (who Adam used as a guide in Agbogbloshie) start in a "thirdhand" market, getting used computers from wealthier Africans.  Others import directly from Japan, China, Europe or USA.  Repeatedly, I've seen fixers in both USA and abroad put 45 minutes of work into a Pentium 3, and stop work completely when a Pentium 4 walks in the door.  It's a time value equation.  When a containerload of easier stuff arrives, the "low hanging fruit" takes precedent. That probably happened when Chendiba's techie Jaleel was stumped by the bad video chip.

But the guy who had the Chinese video chip replacer comes to buy Chendiba's "stumped Jaleel" laptops a low-low price, and has his own niche... similar to my grandfather's automobile trading brother from Cedar Valley. The question of time is not how long it took them to do the repair, it's the equation of letting go of inventory between container shipments. And my broader point is that this is a level of sophistication that was completely absent when a group of white Saviors came to Geneva to draft the PACE document ... which was used to hijack the original language of the Basel Convention on electronic repairs, and even recycling.  Annex IX B1110 was one of the very first things I blogged about in 2006 or 2007, because Basel Action Network had PROTESTED against it and lost.  Two decades later, at the PACE meetings, BAN came to reinsert "tested working" and "fully functional" language which would lead to Joe "Hurricane" Benson's arrest and sentencing, and would waste countless hours of INTERPOL's time chasing "Project Eden".

Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment (PACE)

The details of trade between Africa's tech sector entrepreneurs, based on their own individual and thirdhand specialty, is like a visit to Steve Jobs Cupertino California garage. The names are different from Wosniak, Gates, or Zuckerberg. But the Wahabs, Ibrahims, Olus, Karims and Awudus deserve their own movie...  not just a brief throwaway interview tacked onto a Placebo video about wire burning and tire burnig in Agbogbloshie.

Europeans did invite presenters from Africa. Michael "Fishing as a Boy" Anane was invited to this meeting.

If Wahab buys 5 containers per year, as he did in the past, it displaces shelf stock (Adan;s laptop) faster. If he only brings 2 containers to Tamale in 2019, Kamal will haggle harder. It's actually rather inefficient by Moore's Law standards, owing to northern Ghana being poorer. It differentiates Tamale from Accra (Steve Bugi turns over his stock much faster, has many more local guys with chip makers for the fast nickel on the as-is laptop).

Anyway Adam may be the only Journalist who might possibly be interested in the trading, haggling and intrigue between Wahab, Souley, Steve, Azis, Oluu, and Awudu, who all compete for Wahab's attention, stock, space, and the biggest gambit - who touches the container first. Wahab uses the last to force people to pay what's owed. I've seen Wahab deliberately ship entire loads direct to Tamale, driving past Accra and Kumasi, to pressure Steve in Accra and Aziz in Kumasi to pay the #%$ up... then do the opposite on the next container to pressure Kamal Chendiba in Tamale the next year.

When Jaleel diagnosed a bad video chip - requiring board-level repair - Chendiba called in another Ghana expert who replaced the chip using a Chinese machine that created "universal" video chips for board level repair

The Right to Repair Market is far bigger than the number of  American or European customers who paying for repair and wanted their repaired item back.  It also benefits those of us who trade in or sell or donate a used item that would otherwise be condemned as waste.

The guy Aziz whose wife got Adam Minter's Junkyard Planet laptop owed Wahab a lot of money, Wahab repossessed the car he had sold him, so it was a little uncomfortable trying to get the photo. They have made up but Wahab still isn't selling much to Aziz. This is the kind of granular activity going on in Africa's secondhand and thirdhand market. The market is far, far richer in expertise and experience than anyone who attended the PACE discussions.

There is some discussion about cars and electronics being sold purely for parts. It does happen, and I never went to Benin where I'm sure it happens more. I was shaking my head at the word "probably"for parts in Adam's answer to a question at UVM. When it's a Vermont resident with Ghana roots offering to buy a damaged vehicle from a neighbor, it's probably cosmetic and repairable. The reason she said the African gave her - cosmetic damage lowers customs fees - is absolutely true, and is also why they generally tend to import fewer for-parts-only cars (they still get taxed as a car). But I'm sure Adam knows a lot more about "car crusher light" market, which I've seen evidence of in trains going from USA to Mexico.What I observed I cannot find a photo of, but looked like cars that had been "crush light", the roofs pressed down, but after the doors were removed and placed in the car (protecting the door for reuse). That achieves transport savings, but since there's no steel market for the scrap to go southbound (AZ-Sonora), it had to be parts economy.

Or for that matter, a bicycle parts economy. Adam and I went to observe the unload of used Japanese bicycles in Tamale, north Ghana. And as evidence that Europeans are turning around on the JoeHurricaneBenson issue, I got the most enthusiastic promotion of the Waste Colonialism question by none other than Zoe Lenkiewicz of WasteAID (which in its first opening season was pitching bad stories about Agbogbloshie, but has listened to Africans and done a superb job turning the message back around).

To continue my digression, and reconnect automobile repair in Africa with my Grandpa's history...

The auto trader Wahab and Adam and I visited in the Bronx - Souley - is planning to retire from teaching and move to Brockton to help run our new Good Point Recycling plant (he was weekend leasing the Bronx yard, and there is a construction plan for it). It got a little iffy as afterwards (it came up that Wahab owes Souley money and that it could become an issue, Wahab split his last payment between me and Souley and owes us both the remainder of his September shipment).  Anyway, the "for parts" cars I remember at the Bronx were specific orders from shops that needed those parts, not much evidence of Mexico-style flat-tops, which allow customs to declare it as "metal scrap" (based on looks, and a dash).  The trick is to pay tax for "parts only" if its a reuse car, and "scrap metal only" if it's a parts car.

In conclusion, Africans are doing the same thing that Ozarks Hillbillies were doing 75 years ago during the Great Depression. And the Planned Obsolescence described by Vance Packard in "The Waste Makers" is going on now, and not just among OEMs. Environmental documents like the Basel Convention are being used to promote bigoted and structurally racist trade restrictions.  And if that's not worthy of a Masters Thesis, I don't know what is.

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