Stash or Trash: Does Africa have a taste for the World’s e-waste?
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By Kolawole Talabi
HIS name, Victor, could have been given fortuitously almost three decades ago but beyond chance, Victor Amienwanlan, 28, is an Edo State native of Esan origin who has had to fight to claim his place in this world. I first met him at one of the branches of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Italy — in the city of Bologna to be precise. He serves as one of the volunteers at the church, performing a wide range of functions including but not limited to logistics and bible teaching. His peculiar way of vocalizing the common Charismatic refrain ‘Hallelujah’ is rather amusing. He always goes: “A-Lei-Loo-Jar!”
One Sunday morning last spring, I walked into the church as Mr. Amienwanlan was giving one of his biblical lessons. He was narrating his own story as an adjunct to the main teaching for the service. It was then and there I learned that he used to be a refugee. As he told his tale, I was drawn to the harrowing experience he had endured and wanted to know more. His is one story of endurance and inspiration, the kind that sometimes makes it into Hollywood. I was convinced his experience would benefit thousands of African youths seeking greener pastures in Europe.
Benin City to Bologna via Benghazi
Famous for its bronze artifacts, some of which are currently being held in European museums, Benin City is one of the greatest achievements of Africa in the second millennium of the Common Era. Like many African polities, the city and the empire that grew around it suffered foreign incursions and subjugation towards the end of the nineteenth century when British troops invaded, looted and destroyed a civilization that had existed for hundreds of years. Benin City has since risen from the ashes of British brutality to become the capital of Edo State, one of Nigeria’s 36 subnational divisions.
Mr. Amienwanlan spent parts of his adulthood in Benin City where he studied accounting at the extension school of Olabisi Onabanjo University. Upon completing his studies, he took up a job at a UBA bank office where he served customers receiving funds via Western Union for three years. He soon became friends with a Nigerian woman who lives in Libya and frequently sends money back home to her family in Benin City. Sometime in 2014, the woman promised to help him immigrate to Europe where it is hoped he would get a better job. Over the course of few months, arrangements were made for him to make the big move.
As part of the travel logistics, he was to take a bus to the northern State of Sokoto from where he crossed the border to Niger, Nigeria’s northern neighbor, through the bush, effectively evading the checkpoints of the Nigeria Immigration Service. The woman had also arranged for a company of traffickers to move him through the Sahara Desert. The stint operates like a relay. Once he arrives at a destination, he is instructed to contact someone who takes him in and moves him through the desert before handing him over to the next go-between. Mr. Amienwanlan recalled surviving on just sugar and water as he traversed the desert.
In Niger, he was put on a bus heading to Agadez where he bought a local SIM card to stay in connection with his traffickers. The trip took two days. Upon arrival in Agadez, he was taken to the house of an Arab man where he met two other Nigerians attempting to cross the Sahara to Europe.
“He brought out a gallon of water which we paid for,” Victor said. Next, they were placed in the back of a Toyota Hilux van. About 60 persons were packed in the vehicle like sardines for the long journey through the wilderness. “We were told to wear a mask,” he recalled. “We paid for the mask to protect our faces from the sand. We drove for about one week in the desert. We saw a dead person in a well. We saw skeletons during our stops.” Victor said he paid around 10 Libyan dinars for the mask.
Upon arriving in Libya, he recalled being locked up in a holding cell with about 70 other persons of different nationalities. They were fed bread occasionally. “I was locked up for a month in a small cell. In fact, it’s a prison, on a farm where people cannot find you,” Victor Amienwanlan said.
Eventually, he left the ‘prison’ and travelled to Benghazi, Libya’s second city where the Nigerian woman took him in for almost four months. She provided Victor with basic lodging — he had to learn welding to fend for himself during his sojourn in the Libyan port city. Having earned enough cash to make the journey across the Mediterranean, he bid his hosts goodbye and took a boat towards Italy. “I spent four days on the sea and the boat was leaking.” Despite the mishap, he chose to stay on the boat even when a Tunisian ship came to rescue them. Eventually, he reached Italy where the local police brought them to the refugee camp.
At the refugee camp, he met with a Jehovah Witness adherent who told him his options for survival in Italy were limited to one of three livelihood alternatives: begging, e-waste trade or internet fraud. He chose the only decent of the three options: to barter in e-waste.
He left the refugee camp having satisfied rigorous Italian procedures of ascertaining his residency suitability. At the beginning, he would go from street to street to pick up electronic equipment that locals had left at their doorsteps, but his face soon became familiar and people wishing to dispose their e-waste would call on him to take delivery of the used items. He upgraded his business; he got a bicycle and his operations ran even more smoothly. Once he collects a considerable volume of used electronics, he puts them inside a used car and ships the merchandise to Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital and busiest seaport.
About 7% of used electronic and electrical equipment (UEEE) imports into the Port of Lagos between 2015 and 2016 came from China, a published report says. The study was co-authored by the Basel Convention Coordinating Centre for Africa (BCCC Africa) and the Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Programme of United Nations University (UNU). This is in violation of international and national protocols on the disposal of e-waste, some of the most injurious to human health. Under the Basel Convention, the shipment of e-waste is prohibited but merchants (exporters and importers alike) continue to bypass the laws.
These UEEEs are shipped as carry-ons with automobiles. According to the study, it was revealed that 70% (41,500 tons) of the e-waste shipped to Lagos in the two-year period arrived inside vehicles. Yet another consignment arrived in containers. Of the 18,300 tons of UEEE per year shipped in containers, roughly 29% originated from ports in EU countries; 24% originated from China and 20% from USA. By weight, LCD-TVs and flat panel monitors made up the largest category (18%) of imported UEEE of which more than half of these were found to be non-functioning e-waste.
The second-largest category, (Cathode Ray Tube) CRT-TVs and CRT-monitors (14%), are banned from importation into Nigeria. Under the Basel Convention, only UEEE that is functional and for reuse may be shipped. In Nigeria, the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) is the government organ saddled with the responsibility of ensuring a clean and healthy environment for Nigerians. Under NESREA’s broad oversight remit is the control of e-waste, either those generated locally by companies and households or brought in from overseas by merchants of garbage.
Its website further reveals: “It also has the responsibility to enforce compliance with provisions of international agreements, protocols, conventions and treaties on the environment to which Nigeria is a signatory.”
Established in 2007, the agency is headquartered in the city of Abuja, the purpose-built federal capital but maintains branch offices in strategic locations across the country including the port of Lagos. NESREA carries out its duties through different protocols and procedures such as the Environmental Import Clearance (EIC) regime, which ensures that banned and restricted chemicals, end-of-life electrical or electronic equipment and hazardous wastes are not imported into the country. NESREA requires importers of its regulated items to do an initial registration which costs around $320. Renewals costs $140 per year.
Despite the availability of these protective measures, e-waste has not ceased from entering Nigeria’s territory. It is a problem today. It was a problem in the past. If drastic actions are not taken, it will continue to be a problem in the future.
A Brief History of Toxicity
Koko is a town, a river port located in Delta State, in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region. Its coordinates are as follows: 11°28N 4°29E and it is situated in Warri North Local Government Area. In Nigeria, a local government area (LGA) is an administrative division of the 923,768 km2 federation. There are currently 774 constitutionally recognized LGAs in Nigeria and Warri North Local Government Area is one of these. Although Koko is a small township of about 30,000 inhabitants, it is largely peopled by the Itsekiri ethnicity whose population is around 1 million, spread across the Niger Delta region.
Itsekiris are traditionally engaged in fishing, farming and trading. They are among the first people in the region to engage Portuguese traders, long before the British colonized the territory. In his 2014 book, The Fortunes of Africa — A 5,000-Year
According to a 2019 report by the United Nations, the volume of trashed electronic waste is estimated at 50 million tons and this figure is expected to double by 2050. Sensing a looming crisis, some governments and several civil society organizations have been raising awareness and working to find a solution to the crisis. Riding on the crest of this movement is the campaign on the ‘Right to Repair’ — essentially proposals that will compel manufacturers of electronics to make their products last longer and easier to fix if or when they break down. Some EU countries are beginning to understand this is a crisis that needs attention.
Interestingly, the Right to Repair movement has gathered momentum and entrepreneurs like Ugo Vallauri, an Italian expat in the United Kingdom, founder of The Restart Project and a fellow of the Shuttleworth Foundation. The Restart website succinctly explains what the project aims to do: “[It] is a people-powered social enterprise that aims to fix our relationship with electronics.” Started in 2013, the project has executed over 12,000 repairs directly or organized as part of the same community. It has achieved some success too: 55% of electronics brought in have been repaired while 20% are broken but are source of spare parts.
“The Restart Project is about helping people rethink the way they consume, and we use the insights we collect for legislation at European levels, to force manufacturers to do better,” Ugo Vallauri said over Skype in August 2019.
Other stakeholders take a more commercial approach to the problem of electronic waste. In Italy, some associations and companies work to recycle metals from these products and find uses for remnant byproducts, thus aiding their re-entry into the value chain in a process otherwise call the circular economy.
StenaTechnoworld Srl is the Italian subsidiary of Stena Technoworld, one of Europe’s largest e-waste treatment companies with head offices in Sweden. The Italian subsidiary operates two treatment centres, dealing with all types of WEEE, but mainly specializes in cooling appliances and LCD screens. The business climate is not particularly exciting given the high costs of operating these recycling facilities. In fact, the company made a loss in 2018 possibly due to economic externalities such as the decision by the Chinese to stop the importation of e-waste.
NIMBYism comes to China
Whereas StenaTechnoworld made a paltry profit of €1.8 million in 2017 and €3.2 million in 2016, future profit margins are susceptible to rising operational costs and China’s ban on plastic fractions from e-scrap. Up until 2017, China was the world’s largest importer of e-waste, relieving the global community of its burden of electronic garbage. The about-face from Beijing is no surprise. Economic growth spurs domestic consumption which in turn creates an aura of cosmopolitanism. China has indeed come of age in terms of productivity. Once the sleeping giant of Asia, it has overtaken the likes of Korea and Japan in GDP metrics.
According to a 2018 report by the Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), the Asia-Pacific region generated almost 16 million tons of e-waste. Leading the group are China with 5.9 million tons, Japan with 2.6 million tons and India with 1.5 million tons. But the BIR report reveals much more. In 2003, China’s 1.2 billion people produced 1.7 million tons of e-scrap, thus yielding 1.4kg/person. China has since emerged as the world’s second largest generator of electronic waste even though the per capita waste created is still meagre when compared to other Asian countries.
This trend indicates that China’s continued economic rise despite the current trade war between Beijing and Washington will not only lead to an increase in the quantity of e-waste. Per capita waste figures are expected to grow significantly as well.
Prosperity provides protection. This is the summary of the reasons the Chinese government gave when it announced the ban on foreign e-scrap. The rich loves its digital wants but hates its electronic waste. As China’s volume of generated e-waste grows, it is expected that the volume sent abroad to emerging countries where labour costs and lax controls allow unscrupulous merchants and syndicates to operate will only increase. The ban by China has since increased shipments to other Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia. But these jurisdictions are also putting regulations in place to fight off such polluting inflows.
In the UNU report cited earlier, China’s aggregate of imported UEEEs examined in the Port of Lagos is second only to that of the EU, a direct consequence of the region’s reluctance to process its own e-scrap waste at home. NESREA says it lacks the capacity of enforce its own rules on the importation of e-waste into Nigeria amidst the issue of overlap of institutional roles. First, the agency’s duties are curtailed by the lack of data. “The quantity of UEEE shipped into Lagos from China…cannot be estimated by NESREA as the Agency does not get the manifest of shipments,” a NESREA spokesperson said.
In the past two years, NESREA says it only inspected about 150 containers at the four terminals of the Port of Lagos. The scale of the containers in comparison with the availability of inspection personnel makes proper controls of e-waste from abroad a herculean task for Nigerian officials. Despite the logistical challenges it faces, the Agency discovered three containers of WEEEs including batteries, computer motherboards, scrap electronics panels, and cables that had been imported into Nigeria in 2018. The consignment was repatriated back to Malaysia on August 28, 2018.
One man’s trash is another’s stash. In Nigeria, recycling companies are beginning to spring up in response to the increase in e-waste generated domestically and those imported from abroad. E-Terra is one of Lagos’ recycling companies. It currently has 35 people on its payroll, up from 25 the previous year. The company also processes about 40 tons of waste yearly. On a tour of its facility, it was revealed that E-Terra recently signed a partnership agreement with Envirobat, another recycling company in Spain. The agreement could ensure a transfer of technical know-how that will enable E-Terra to recycle batteries.
When asked about the payoffs of their business, E-Terra’s facility manager, Patrick Inoh said, “We have a local market where precious metals like iron, copper, aluminium are sold. There are vendors who take these metals from us, at a cost, and sell to the local iron and aluminium smelting companies.”
Solar Solutions, Polluter Problems
The growing threat of climate change has necessitated that countries undergo energy transition by replacing fossils with renewables. The quest to reduce carbon emissions is at the forefront of the drive to install solar panels, both on rooftops for household usance and on large-scale industrial sites. The compelling argument that solar energy is a non-polluting source of cheap and clean power drove many Italian homes to install these panels in the 90s and 2000s. Designed to function for around 25 to 30 years, an increasing number of these solar modules are coming to the end of their life cycle.
The EU categorizes these used solar panels as e-waste and they fall under the WEEE Directive, which has been ratified by member states. The Directive requires manufacturers of the modules to collect and dispose them at the end of their life cycle. In the past months, Italian authorities have raised alarms about the involvement of criminal groups in the disposal of solar panels. The danger inherent in the lack of treatment of used modules is like other e-waste — their component hazardous materials enter the environment, thus polluting poorer communities in faraway places such as Africa.
“Our ongoing investigations are showing us that criminal enterprises are very interested in taking exhausted solar panels, which have a specific life cycle. They issue a false declaration of underperformance and in that way the solar panels are not treated as ‘waste’ anymore but as second-hand products that can be sold in other parts of the world. We are observing several trafficking routes going to countries in Africa or Asia,” Angelo Agovino, the chief of Italy’s environmental police reported to parliament in March 2019. More shipments of 1,000 tons of solar panels were found at Genoa port, bound for Africa, two months later.
Fabrizio Longoni, the president of CdC RAEE, the public authority in Italy that is tasked with the responsibility of optimizing the collection and treatment of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) has a markedly different opinion on solar panels being shipped to West Africa.
“There is a real second-hand market for the solar panels,” Longoni says. “Why is the panel good for African countries? Because in fact it is an energy generator that does not need to be attached to the grid. They don’t care that it is low performance. If you buy it at a very low price it is useful, and it could last another ten years. This is not a waste but a reuse. We do not know how much this market is worth in numerical terms.”
Giuseppe Piardi is a key stakeholder in the Italian recycling industry. Besides the irritating bureaucratic red tapes for which any official government business in Italy is renowned, Piardi says cost drivers are by far the most important factors affecting the sustainability of e-waste processing enterprises in his country. “We have a very expensive bureaucratic system. It has been assessed that the compliance costs for a plant that follows the rules range from 50 to 80 euros per ton of WEEE. On refrigerators, we receive an average fee of 50 euros per ton, which is zeroed only by compliance costs.”
Some NGOs differ in their approach to the issue. Declan Murray, a University of Edinburgh researcher and blogger, has assisted CLASP, a Washington DC-based non-profit organization working “to mitigate the growing energy demand from the use of appliances, lighting, and equipment in the developing world” to organize the Global LEAP Solar E-Waste Challenge. Around $1.6 million in funding was earmarked by the organizers for competitors of the challenge and winners were named in Nairobi, Kenya in July 2019. Murray served as a technical adviser for the project, deciding on categories, criteria and other matters.
“The idea of the programme is to highly raise it as an issue but also start demonstrating solutions,” he said over Skype. “It also serves as a pilot funding for some organizations to start collecting solar waste.”
In Germany, I have observed how consumers are able to return plastic bottles in exchange for vouchers at retail stores. Apple does something similar with its range of products. If you make it, you must take it back once it’s broken. That’s a tenet which manufacturers of digital devices, and by extension various producers and businesses must be compelled to live by. It’s the 21st century; the capacity to achieve these goals are available. What we need is the courage to do them.
Victor not Victim
Mr. Amienwanlan plans to return to university for graduate studies. His success might inspire others, especially youths, not to give up.
Disclaimer: Although support for the investigation came from the Wits Africa-China Reporting Project and the Money Trail grant of Journalismfund.eu, the funders had no editorial oversight whatsoever in the course of the reportage. Matteo Civillini, an Italian reporter, also contributed to the investigation.