IT Compliance

Africa: 6 years of ICT recycling

In 2008, a report published by the United Nations highlighted that, in Zambia, less than 6% of people had access to the internet and Information Communication Technology (ICT) compared with over 80% in the UK. Around that time, the annual price of internet access in many African countries ranged from between one and five times the typical annual salary.

It was about then that some of the first computer recycling plants established themselves. Perfectly serviceable used computers and other ICT hardware would find its way to plants in the West and eventually get shipped around the world to the people who needed it most.

It made sense, too. Approximately 80% of the carbon used in computers goes into the manufacturing process, so reusing tech in this way is a solid policy to adopt.

After being organised and categorised, ICT hardware of all descriptions would be shipped out to locations such as Africa and India where it would be tested, repaired, refurbished and resold to individuals, medical or educational institutions and government organisations alike.

This solution neatly dealt with the West’s mounting eWaste problems, simultaneously opening a world of possibility for students, government and tenacious entrepreneurs all over Africa and other less developed countries

The problem: Unusable junk or reusable treasure?

Perhaps inevitably, it wasn’t long before the system started getting abused and a darker side to the tale surfaced. In the very best case scenario, around 75% of the second hand electronics shipped to Africa could be repaired.

Sure, that’s a statistical majority but, in countries such as Nigeria, hundreds of thousands of people struggle to feed themselves every day. Setting up the necessary infrastructure to safely dispose of the remaining 25%-plus unusable electronics simply wasn’t realistic.

Consequently, the unrepairable material got dumped at street sides and other arbitrary locations. When the piles got too high, the locals would pick through the already-stripped hardware for leftover copper wire and other remotely valuable scraps before burning what was left.

These dump sites were burned multiple times per year, releasing lead, phosphorus, mercury, selenium, cadmium and other toxic substances into the air, water and soil.

The solution: eWaste added to The Basel Convention

Clearly, something had to be done and the Basel Convention was it. Originally initiated in 1992 and ratified by a number of countries including Britain, Belgium and several in Africa, it seeks to apply legislative restrictions on toxic waste dumping of all descriptions in less developed countries.

It was only a matter of time before used ICT was inked into the document. The new restrictions simply imposed that only fully-operational hardware gets shipped.

One problem here is that the repair shops and other business owners who make a living from repairing hardware potentially miss out on valuable income. But how can you define the difference between something broken that could be fixed, and something that’s unfixable junk? It’s a tricky distinction to put in place and thus necessitates erring on the side of caution. Even if it means loss of income for some people.

Another issue is this; while legislation is one thing, enforcement is another entirely. Several African countries, such as Uganda and also India banned the importation of used ICT altogether, including perfectly operational computers.

The unfortunate reality is, if you throw in a few unscrupulous companies and a stack of brown envelopes, it’s not long before things go horribly awry and eWaste dumping is a major problem, legislation or not.

IDG Connect spoke with the United Nations Environment Programme’s Tatiana Terekhova, the Programme Officer, Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions. She said that a “lack of coordination at the national level poses problems not only in the area of enforcement of eWaste related legislation, but also for the sound management of chemicals and waste in general.”

With so many moving parts in the operation, it will take a little more time, but matters seem to be improving. As Terekhova says, “in the case of illegal traffic of eWaste, cooperation between environment agencies, customs, port authorities, and port police is crucial and mechanisms for cooperation and information exchange must be strengthened.”

Around 2007 and 2009, many organisations such as Greenpeace and even the mainstream press picked up on the problem, posting heart breaking photos and damning articles on how ‘recycled’ ICT hardware was, in fact, being illegally dumped in countries which had no way to take care of it.

So, what’s happening now? Is it finally safe to recycle our used computers and other hardware? Or are we just washing our hands of the old pre-upgrade tech only for it to end up polluting the countries which desperately need help? Well, it depends who’s doing the recycling.

The current story: A dialogue with the front line

Fortunately, a number of charitable organisations are making sure not only that used computers find their way to people whose lives they can help flourish, but also that the junk is dealt with in a sustainable way. IDG Connect caught up several others on the front lines including the CEO of Computer Aid, Keith Sonnet.

“The legal obligation upon Western organisations like ourselves is that we can only export usable equipment, so we have licenses from the environmental sector that govern what we can send.”

When asked directly about the countries that have put an all-out ban on ICT importation, Sonnet stated that he felt the move was “...very short sighted”.

“Increasingly people need to have access to information technologies and have skills in computing in order to engage with their citizens”, Sonnet added, before going on to discuss a recent meeting in Africa with Computers for Schools, Uganda, an organisation that has effectively ground to a halt because of the restrictions.

The used machines that find their way into educational establishments can service countless millions of people in their average three to five year lifespan. That means organisations like Computer Aid, which has shipped almost 300,000 working computers to Africa so far, has potentially affected billions of lives over the years.

Sonnet said that, “something we do with our partners is to make sure that, at the end of the life of the equipment, it doesn’t get dumped.  At the time, there was no local recycling option, so Computer Aid partnered with Close the Gap, one more organisation tackling the eWaste issue, to set up the first recycling centre in Nairobi, Kenya”, a project called the WEEE Centre.

In addition to creating jobs for the locals, valuable materials from old hardware such as gold and other precious metals get recycled inside the country to provide it with income. Anything harmful gets shipped back to Europe and the West where it’s taken care of safely and in a way that doesn’t harm anyone’s environment with mercury and other toxics.

After the centre was established, Close the Gap invested heavily to start up WorldLoop so that the work could continue in other areas and is now taking the Kenyan blueprint to emulate in other parts of sub-Sahara Africa, provide start-up funds, technical training & business skills where needed. As more of these recycling centres become established around Africa, we can expect to see significant improvements in the eWaste issue.

Meanwhile, a number of global organisations such as the UN, IMF and the World Bank are insisting that less developed countries invest in their ICT agendas. But as Sonnet also pointed out:

“Those policies aren't going to work unless ordinary people on the ground have access to ICT and have the skills to use it. Unless there are low cost options to provide access to ICT, a lot of people are going to become disadvantaged.”

Perhaps as the issue gets properly addressed with initiatives such as the WEEE Centre, the countries banning importation of fully operational reused computers will reconsider the policy? And so more people in the West will recycle ICT hardware with the confidence it won’t end up poisoning people. Close the Gap managing director Olivier Vanden Eynde told IDG Connect:

“We wanted to show people that ‘reused’ should not be pasted with a negative connotation and be automatically viewed as eWaste.”

The Future: How all this benefits health, wealth & labour

So, what difference does having access to fully operational and reused ICT offer to the people of Africa? Well, for starters Close the Gap has found that pupils who receive ICT classes on computers not only gain university access more easily, but they also perform better in Africa’s labour markets.

Hospitals benefit, too. One example is the Tygerberg Hospital in Parow, Cape Town which caters for children between the ages of 14 and 18. With ICT donations, teachers give lessons to ensure that pupils keep up with the curriculum while they recover.

It’s no secret that there are many medical problems in Africa, and ICT charities such as these are helping to tackle them. One example is in International Centre for Reproductive Health (ICRH) in Mombasa, Kenya which is conducting research into reproductive health.

With ICT donated by Close the Gap and network infrastructure provided by Cisco, the medical centre is collaborating with other institutions to work on solutions for some of the country’s biggest health problems.

Close the Gap also partners with similarly minded organisations such as Affordable Computers & Technology for Tanzania (ACTT) on initiatives such as the E-motion project launched in January 2014. It’s essentially a mobile, solar-powered computer lab that gives ICT access to people of Tanzania that aren’t connected to the power grid.

While there’s been issues with eWaste dumping, the legislation of the Basel Convention and recycling centres founded by organisations such as Computer Aid and Close the Gap have put some solid measures in place to lessen the problem. As Nairobi’s WEEE Centre is the first of what could be many to come, the future is looking a whole lot more optimistic.

Yes, the eWaste dumping issue in Africa is heart breaking. And yes, the kind of “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism popular in the mainstream press for the purpose of selling publications will still likely surface from time to time and make it look like nothing is being done. Enforcing Basal Convention legislation may well prove an ongoing battle, too.

But if there’s a lesson to be taken away here, it’s that by recycling our old hardware with responsible, licensed organisations such as these, there’s no doubt that shipping your used ICT hardware to Africa could make a huge difference to many, many lives.



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Mark Mackay

Mark Mackay is a freelance journalist, traveller and entrepreneur working largely in the technology and digital marketing sectors.

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