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Kenya takes on e-waste problem with new recycling hub

March 30, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
Used electronics are one of the fastest growing sources of waste globally, and it is estimated that 15,000 tons of used computers and mobile phones are shipped to Kenya every year. Today, Kenya is trying to get ahead of the problem, by building the country’s first electronics recycling hub.
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MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: A busy stretch of road on the outskirts of Nairobi, running right past an unremarkable looking building except there is no other building like this in East Africa. That truck is hauling e-waste, tons of it.

Coming here for processing at a plant built especially to deal with e-waste.

AMINA ABDULLAH, KENYAN PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND NATURAL RESOURCESWe are serious; we are serious about waste in general.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Amina Abdullah heads Kenya’s special environmental committee.

AMINA ABDULLAH: We want to make sure that it’s sorted out and we, we’ll be able to be ahead of the situation before it poisons our rivers and our people.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Used electronics are one of the fastest growing sources of waste globally. In Africa two countries feature as dumping hot zones: Nigeria and Ghana.  There are also ‘suspected’ e-waste dump sites in a number of other African countries. Kenya is one and it is urgently trying to enact legislation to target disposal of used electronics.

It is estimated that 15,000 tons of used computers and mobile phones are shipped to Kenya every year, flooding in from the West, especially the U.S., adding to the e-waste generated by the new electronic goods that Kenyans are already buying.

This first electronics recycling hub is funded by Kenyan investors, the German Development Bank, HP, and a private businessman with a lot of experience in this field.

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ROBERT TRUSCOTT, CEO, EAST AFRICAN COMPLIANT RECYCLING: Some of the laptops, they contain a fluorescent tube in the back which is used as a backlight and that contains mercury so that needs to be removed carefully.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Robert Truscott has been dealing with electronic waste for many years, in the United Kingdom.

ROBERT TRUSCOTT: The importance of this is, goes far beyond Kenya. This is about proving a concept, an economic, social and environmental concept that works. And it’s really envisaged that this model can be replicated in similar countries in Africa.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The plant is staffed entirely by Kenyans—most had never heard about e-waste before they started working here.

And there is plenty to keep them busy. No shortage of packed containers arriving.

Processing e-Waste, helping the environment is a big part of what they are doing here, but it’s not the only thing. The idea is to also get people to start thinking about e-waste as a resource.

AMINA ABDULLAH:  Waste has always been seen as waste. Nobody’s looking at it as income generating.

ROBERT TRUSCOTT: In Europe the word waste is fast disappearing and it’s being replaced with another word…resource.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: It begins, with the collectors—private individuals hunting for discarded electronic products.  In Mukuru slum a group of women work at it every day.

It is not easy, long hours, scorching sun. And lately they are finding they are not the only ones looking for e-waste. Informal collectors are snapping it up too.

It can take days to gather one load. They carry it to Mukuru’s collection point. It is sorted and weighed. But they get cash right away.

Joycy Nyawira says she regularly makes 5000 shillings a month…nearly $60 —more than most in the slums and enough to support her three children.

JOYCE NYAWIRA: God is good because at least I usually get daily bread from this place.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: This collection container in Mukuru also one in Mombasa are sponsored by Dell. Dell worked with the government in writing the legislation aimed at electronic waste. The laws are expected to come into force in September.

AMINA ABDULLAH: The regulation we are producing deals with the fact that if you are bringing to the country, if you are a producer of an electronic gadget and you sell it to Kenya you will need to have the responsibility of dealing with it once it becomes obsolete.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: So Dell, or any of the big computer corporations will be responsible for disposal in Kenya if they have an office here. If they don’t, they’ll have to ensure their distributors comply with the law.

JEAN COX KEARNS, DELL:  A lot of old electronic products and new electronic products actually is in Africa and other developing countries and Dell has a responsible commitment to the product that we put on the market and so we want to help to collect that product when its end of life.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Across the border, in Uganda, there is intense interest in what’s happening in Kenya because a few years back Uganda enacted strict laws banning the importation of used or second hand products, especially computers.

ISAAC NTUJU, UGANDAN NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT AUTHORITY:  This is dumping because it has been used, half of its valuable life it was used in the west then the end of life is in Uganda and disposal is in Uganda which, ideally, is not fair.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Kampala, like Nairobi is turning into a major tech hub here in Uganda. Go to Kampala’s tech strip and its all brand new products. No ‘used’ deals here. But developments in Kenya may lead to change.

This is the largest waste dump in Uganda, it serves the capital city of Kampala—but of all the waste that comes here only a fraction of it is e-waste.

Dumps like this aren’t really prepared to deal with all the obsolete electronics and that, it seems, is what people are waiting for.

OBED LUTAKOME, MANAGER, KAMPALA LANDFILL SITE: The only way we can manage electronic waste is actually if people knew how they can benefit or the final point where the e-waste can go.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: No surprise then that the Ugandans are talking to the Kenyans about e-waste and the possibility of profiting from it.

ISAAC NTUJU: We could either send to the refurbishment facilities in Kenya or replicate what our brothers in Kenya are doing within Uganda.

AMINA ABDULLAH: I look forward for more plants to come up in the region, so that we, all  our neighbors, because you know we have a lot of cross country rivers and lakes so if they dispose badly we may still be effected by the products they have disposed wrongly.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: And that fits with the broader vision about how to manage e-waste in this part of the world.

ROBERT TRUSCOTT: It’s really our wish our hope that we create an east African common approach, ideally with harmonized legislation, ease of moving waste between boundaries within Africa.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The model for managing e-waste in Africa and making money doing it, busy day and night—proving—with a lot of hard work—it can be done.