Managing Africa’s Electronic Waste

By Paul Ndiho
March 29, 2012
Hungry for information technology, but with a limited capacity to manufacture it, Africa has increasingly become the world’s latest destination for obsolete electronic equipment. Several African nations and a bevy of groups have agreed on a set of actions to better manage the electronic waste.
Old mobile phones, televisions, computers and refrigerators are among the most common kinds of e-waste worldwide– and in Africa the waste is piling up fast. Thousands of vendors are crowding into bustling markets across the continent where imported used electronics like computers, fax machines, cell phones are repaired and sold. But beyond the thriving storefronts and the mounds of refurbished wares, a darker picture is emerging. Up to 75 percent of the old electronics shipped to Africa are beyond repair.
Nigerian environmentalist Miranda Amachree says, Africans are increasingly responsible for a large amount of this waste, which can release harmful substances such as mercury and lead into the environment that damage human health.
“Electronic-waste is one of the highest volumes of waste streams we have in Nigeria because of the high use of telephone handsets, so many people have more than one handset.”

Many African countries also import e-waste. Together with rising domestic demand this means that the continent could generate more e-waste than Europe by 2017.
“Nigeria allows importation of used electrical and electronic equipment. Some of them they come and they are almost at the end of their life, so it becomes a problem for us in the country.”
To address the problems of e-waste, many experts and nations are focusing on the economic potential of e-waste to the African economy. Katharina Kummer Peiry, executive secretary of the Basel convention, UNEP observes that old electronics contain precious materials such as gold, silver and other rare earth metals.
“One tone of mobile phones, obsolete mobile phones that tone of mobile phones contains roughly 350 grams of gold… “If you consider the value of these materials, there you have the economic opportunities.”
During the first-ever pan-African forum on e-waste, held in Nairobi, Kenya last week, a call for action on Electronic-waste was issued underlining the possible economic benefits of e-waste.
“We at UNEP would like to see in this partnership that has been involving with more and more representatives from governments, but also from the private sector, from the manufacturers but also those who perhaps can be pioneers in bringing new technologies to processing that waste – really being a partnership that speaks to this notion of green economy where you turn a problem into an opportunity.”
The agreement also prioritized need to improve the collection, transport and storage of e-waste in Africa, since most it currently takes place informally at dumpsites or landfills.
A move towards a formalized sector, using international standards would limit risks to the environment and the health of people working at the dumpsites.
“Let’s start to see e-waste move away from informal recycling practices and to proper remanufacturing and to proper methodologies for recycling with the right kind of standards which is obviously protecting health and protecting the environment.”
Representatives from 18 African states, and multiple stakeholders issued a “call to action” that outlines 8 priority areas to improve the environmentally-sound management of this waste stream in Africa. They recognized that safe and sustainable recycling of e-waste provides an opportunity for green jobs and poverty reduction. Forum participants also noted the importance of having awareness-raising activities on environmental and health hazards linked to the unsound management of Electronic-waste.

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