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How toxic e-waste from high-income countries booms in Nigerian market

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By Jennifer UGWA

In this report, Jennifer Ugwa writes about illegal importation of damaged and obsolete cooling appliances into the Nigerian electronics market and its impact on environment and health.


Fourteen months after Juliet Moses bought a secondhand refrigerator from Alaba International in Lagos, the biggest electrical and electronic market in West Africa, she returns for another one. Her previous purchase is clearly malfunctioning. 

“I woke up one day only to realise that the food I had stored in the freezer had gone bad,” says Moses, a housekeeper. “Only the top half of the refrigerator was working, and the freezer wasn’t working.” 

Moses had bought the refrigerator for N60,000 ($154.63), a price higher than a new one of similar size at the time. She is convinced that a secondhand refrigerator from America and Europe is more durable than new but substandard products sold in Nigeria, mainly from China. 

But purchasing a reliable secondhand product in the market is a gamble.  “We buy untested from suppliers in Europe. So we sell untested to make a profit,” says Chijioke Igbokwe whose shop Moses has come to buy another refrigerator. 

In his shop at Fridge Line in Alaba International, arrays of imported second-hand electronics like refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines and cookware are on display. For a moment, he haggles over a double-door Samsung refrigerator with a customer and eventually settles for N120,000 ($644.33). 

Alaba electronics market (front view) Photo credit_ Jennifer Ugwa
Alaba electronics market (front view) Photo credit_ Jennifer Ugwa
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Last September, Igbokwe received a 40-foot container with nearly 200 pieces of used electronics from Europe and within a few months, he had sold most of the appliances. He says he spent about N4 million ($10,309.28) on shipment to Lagos port, adding that he spent additional N5 million ($12,886.6)  to clear the goods from the port. 

Port of Lagos Apapa, photo credit_ Jennifer Ugwa
Port of Lagos Apapa, photo credit_ Jennifer Ugwa

The importation of electrical, electronic equipment or used EEE is not prohibited in Nigeria. In 2019, the country’s imports of EEE amounted to about US$3.72 billion, according to the United Nations import and export database, COMTRADE.

But importing end of life (EoL) and damaged equipment, known as electronic waste or e-waste, is illegal. Under section 67(1) of the National Environmental Regulations, the offence is punishable with a fine of N5,000,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding ​​two years or both.

The Basel Convention treaty which Nigeria has signed discourages e-waste trade because of toxic materials and heavy metals in used electronics that are harmful to health and the environment. 

Almost three decades after the treaty’s ratification and national regulation, approximately 15,700 tonnes of damaged EEE enter the country annually, according to a United Nations funded report

The report found that over 2,300 tonnes of damaged refrigerators and 1,500 tonnes of air conditioners were shipped into Nigeria from high-income countries in Europe, Asia and America illicitly. 

A compressor dump.
A compressor dump.

In the past decade, despite national and global conversations about the danger of dumping e-waste in low-income countries, lax regulation and enforcement have made Nigeria an attractive destination for toxic e-waste.

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BUY DIRECT BELGIUM, LONDON USE HERE, UNTESTED at wholesale price,” middlemen and sales agents yell at prospective customers, at the UPA open field, also an offloading site for incoming second-hand electronics at Alaba International.

Containers offloading sector. Photo credit_ Jennifer Ugwa
Containers offloading sector. Photo credit_ Jennifer Ugwa

Sweaty brawny men pull truckloads of used appliances from shipping containers.

Transactional arrangements in this place are different from inside the market: no room for haggling; prices are lower; deals are brokered briskly; electronics sold ‘untested’ without proof of functionality or warranty. 

The second-hand electronic market is unregulated, and without official business accreditations, there are no consequences.

Despite these odds, consumers hustle and jostle to grab the electronics like pressing irons, mini-fridges, humidifiers, hair rollers and electric kettles from an assembly of offloads.

Used EEE are often imported under the guise of reusability. But this is not always true, and shoppers know this. 

“There is a disadvantage in this kind of deal,” says Kingsley Okoroji, a Nigerian who ships second hand electronics from Ireland. “The firms sell a mashup of damaged and functioning EEE, and I don’t buy damaged goods. But I know that other buyers get from them.”

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Okoroji explains that used electronics pickers in Europe have certain ways they go about it.

The first port of call for collectors is the Dublin weekend markets. The market is a  treasure trove for e-waste collectors, especially Okoroji, who frequent these locations.

The next avenue is a direct collection from shopaholics always ready to dispose of appliances to make room for new upgrades. Making deals with contractors charged with changing, refurbishing, and disposing electronics for public and private organisations like hotels, hospitals, schools, and businesses. 

With about  N8-15 million ($2,067-$38659.8), depending on the size and type of the electronics, Okorogi says he could get a hoard ready for shipping within two months.

Once the cargo is assembled in his storage facility, a shipper is contracted to take the electronics to Nigeria, where he has a receiver waiting in Lagos.

 

The alternative for shipment is to either package the equipment in a container or conceal them within automobiles rolled on into shipping containers.

For example, a bill of lading issued by Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A, an Italian- Swiss International shipping line, obtained by this journalist to transport used EEE from Dublin to Lagos, declared a consignment of used EEE as personal effects. 

By declaring possible non-functional secondhand products as personal properties, exporters avoid scrutiny at seaports. 

Kingsley declined to share contacts of the recycling firms that imports to Nigeria or their middlemen. 

However, the two-year UN tracking report points to Germany around 20 per cent, the UK 19.5 per cent, Belgium 9.4 per cent, Netherlands 8.2 per cent, Spain 7.4 per cent, China and USA ties at 7.3 per cent followed by Ireland at 6.2 per cent for contributing to about 85 per cent of second-hand products in Nigeria.

My guide leading the way to Alaba cooling appliance offloading site. Photo credit_ Jennifer Ugwa
My guide leading the way to Alaba cooling appliance offloading site. Photo credit_ Jennifer Ugwa

Nevertheless, importing second-hand cooling appliances and clearing port checks may be less fraught for importers playing their cards right with law enforcement agencies.

SANDBAG BARRICADE AND ARMED MILITARY MEN are signs you are approaching a restricted zone — Area B Police Station on Marina Road Apapa, 11 kilometres to Nigeria’s biggest seaport complex.

An employee of the Nigeria Shippers Council (NSC), who pleaded anonymity for this report, was at the station on behalf of a client whose consignment was impounded along Apapa-Oworonshoki expressway leading to Ikeja, Lagos capital.

The seizure was a collaborative effort between the Customs Federal Operation Unit and the police. But this is not because the container full of used EEE didn’t pass a functionality test. It was the refusal of the shipper to “settle the boys”. 

“Settle the boys” is a street vernacular for bribery in Nigeria.  

“The client has ‘settled’ Customs officers and need to take care of the police,” said the man, who stipulates, at least about N400,000 ($1,030.92) was paid to secure the release of the cargo.

While at the station, this journalist found that the owner of the impounded consignment had hired a moving van owned by a police official. The police officer also arrived at the unit to collect a three-day release fee, N250,000($644.33), when his truck wasn’t relieved at the agreed time.

My NSC contact tells me that contracting an officer’s vehicle provides some immunity and less scrutiny due to the ‘supposed’ camaraderie between security operatives.

“It is a strategy that will reduce fewer questions about what you are carrying because right now, the content is not the issue. It is the settlement,” he explains.

Under the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), an agency charged with ensuring a cleaner and healthier environment for Nigerians, importers of used EEE must register with the agency and import after obtaining a clearance permit.

Adefemi Adegbite, former Deputy Director, Department of Pollution Control and Environmental Health under the Ministry of Environment, says that even with the Basel Importers Form, “the Nigeria porous borders is a disadvantageous factor”.

Adegbite, who bowed out of office last November after more than a decade of public service, is convinced that despite the existing strategies to curb e-waste imports, “Nigeria lacks the infrastructures, legal framework and policy to manage e-waste.”

IN ALABA ELECTRONICS HUB, DATED REFRIGERANTS—non-combustible gases in refrigerators or air conditioners that help make substances get cold— are still on sale.

A Seimens toxic R12 fitted refrigerator from Germany on sale at Alaba International Electronics Hub. Photo credit_ Jennifer Ugwa
A Seimens toxic R12 fitted refrigerator from Germany on sale at Alaba International Electronics Hub. Photo credit_ Jennifer Ugwa

Findings by this journalist reveal that product specifications of popular cooling system brands like — Haier, Siemens and LG— at Alaba still have R-12 and R-22 refrigerants containing Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) that are harmful to health and climate because they deplete the ozone layer, which shields the earth from ultraviolet radiations of the sun, and exacerbates global warming.

These toxic inorganic gases, when exposed to air, can exist for a very long time— 12 to 100 years— in the stratosphere. Over time, the result of this reaction can cause skin cancers, eye-related diseases, and a weakening of the immune system.

“Chlorofluorocarbons exposed in an uncontrolled environment form leachates that can change the alkalinity and acidity of the soil, accumulate in the plants and affect the productivity of crops,” says Nwani Christopher, a Professor of Environmental Biology and Molecular Toxicology at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

“They stay trapped in the atmosphere and naturally, will mix with rain flowing into water bodies. Freshwaters are the habitats for living organisms like fish and crabs, and for sustenance purposes, we eat these aquatic creatures.”

Christopher, whose works on the physiological impacts of hydrochlorofluorocarbons on the body system, say that the chemical compounds cause cancer, liver failure, and kidney blockage in Nigeria.

Second hand air conditioners in a showroom at Alaba electronics hub. Photo credit_ Jennifer Ugwa
Second hand air conditioners in a showroom at Alaba electronics hub. Photo credit_ Jennifer Ugwa

“The Okro on your dinner table may be cultivated on contaminated soil, and let’s not forget that millions of people in rural dwellings drink directly from streams,” he says.

The Montreal Protocol, a landmark international treaty to phase out numerous chemical substances responsible for ozone depletion, halted R-12 production in 1996, while R-22 was phased out in 2020 in developed countries; the deadline for developing countries is  2040. 

The refrigerants were replaced with environment-friendly compounds without chlorine and minimal ozone depletion potential and global warming potential.

However, these models imported into the Alaba Electronics hub from the developed nations come fitted with this toxic R-12 and R-22 refrigerants.

The informal sector recycles about 99 per cent of e-waste in Nigeria through non-eco-friendly processes and has less than a dozen certified recycling outfits. It is a no brainer that the country is inadequately equipped to manage environmental contaminations from exposures.

The “dumping of e-waste in developing countries by the western nations is one of the avoided topics within the sustainability dialogue. It is disregarded as a priority,” says Chris Wright, Director Climate Tracker, a global climate change reporting organisation, in an interview with this journalist. 

“What happens to electronics waste in developing countries will be considered illegal in developed countries,” says Wright.

In 2014, China attained the first phase of its HCFCs reduction target, almost three years ahead of schedule, a lauded feat compared to her technologically advanced counterparts.

However, it is estimated that the Nigerian electronics market hosts over 50 per cent of HCFC R-22 units assembled for international brands like Haier, Gree and Daikinowned by Chinese and Japanese companies.

Also, the highest import of used EEE in containers to Nigeria comes from China. Functionality testing samples revealed that electronics containing hazardous substances like R-12 and R22 are among the products with the highest non-functionality rates and the highest import volumes.

But China is not the only source; dangerous refrigerants manufactured in the United States of America, Korea, Thailand, and Belgium are also available in the Alaba Electronics hub.

(Nigeria's refrigerant imports from top 10 trading partners (2014-2018 credit: CLASP)
(Nigeria’s refrigerant imports from top 10 trading partners (2014-2018 credit: CLASP)

Apart from the associated environmental and health dangers, old cooling appliances also have low energy efficiency. 

Nigeria does not generate sufficient electrical power for its population. An energy efficiency survey revealed that electronics like LG, Samsung, Haier from Asia consume more electric power and are among the top single-use for electricity in Nigeria apart from lighting. 

This means higher electricity costs for the end-users. For a nation riddled with electricity grid failures, patronage of second-hand products is not cost-effective and discourages sustainable development obligations.

And there are far-reaching implications.

FROM THE RICKETY WOODEN BRIDGE  leading into the mud-covered flea and scrap market, piles and pieces of damaged EEE dot the swampy street leading up to a livestock bazaar.

In this report, Jennifer Ugwa writes about illegal importation of damaged and obsolete cooling appliances into the Nigerian electronics market and its impact on environment and health.
In this report, Jennifer Ugwa writes about illegal importation of damaged and obsolete cooling appliances into the Nigerian electronics market and its impact on environment and health.

Alaba- Rago, meant to be an extension of Alaba electronics, hosts the worst trough of e-waste. The densely populated scrap site is also home to over two hundred scavengers, informal recyclers and their families living in the shanty dwellings within the market.

Sanusi Sanni, 21, works as an e-waste scavenger for almost five years, ditching cobbling to join the informal recycling sector to provide for his increasing family of five. 

With over 80 million Nigerians living in extreme poverty, surviving on less than N800 ($2) daily, Sanni’s considers his weekly income of N3500-14,000($9-260) from the sale of recovered metals good business. 

“Breaking the refrigerant compressors and separating the insulating foams with a hammer and plier is more profitable. I can sell the copper and also the aluminium. “I sell some as parts to the people making the new one,” he boasts.

But Sanni and the other scavengers sifting through stacks of electronic waste at the scrap site without protective gear are ignorant of how dangerous their work is.

According to the global health body, the World Health Organisation (WHO), informal recyclers at Alaba-Rago aiming to recover precious metals expose harmful substances-heavily present in the e-waste-including lead, into their systems, the soil and surrounding water bodies. 

Khadijah, Sanni’s wife, sells chilled ‘kunu’ — a local beverage from fermented guinea corn — in condemned refrigerators filled with bags of ice in the market.

Meanwhile, the WHO also linked spontaneous abortions during pregnancy to exposure to toxic e-waste, which puts Khadijah who is still within the childbearing age at risk.

Despite the widespread availability of second-hand electronics  in Nigeria and the nation’s delay in ratifying regional e-waste transboundary treaties, Miranda Amachree, director of enforcement at NESREA, says there “must have drastically declined of the imports of electronic wastes because of the regulations and monitoring systems in place.” 

The assertion of the Director — who also submits that the agency could not intercept all damaged equipment — will be verified in 2022 through the results of an ongoing project between the agency and the Global Environmental Fund. 

Meanwhile, Chijioke still makes a living out of selling cooling systems in the Alaba electronics hub, oblivious that some of his products pose serious climate change, health and environmental hazards to his customers. 

This report was developed with support from the Money Trail Project. Additional research by Leslie Olonyi. Jennifer Tweets @Jennifer_fact

If you or someone you know has a lead, tip or personal experience about this report, our WhatsApp line is open and confidential for a conversation

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1 COMMENT

  1. A good report and investigative. Nigeria is never ready to address such challenges because the corrupt government agencies in place to check importation and smuggling are always there to erode away the relevance of any regulation.
    Beyond all the reports come to think of it, how can a debtor nation block any importation from China? How can a nation that’s no clear direction confront USA or UK on stopping the illicit business of e-waste to Nigeria?
    Our leadership is just sick somewhere.

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