Take back and recycle to stem the tide of e-waste in Kenya

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Nairobi (AFP) – Throughout the Kenyan capital, they can be seen carefully examining piles of rubbish. These Nairobi scavengers are not looking for clothes or food there, but rather they are looking for e-waste to sell to a few Kenyan companies that recycle these products.

Abandoned or broken electronic objects have become a global disaster. According to the United Nations, the electronics industry generates waste at a faster rate than any other sector, including textiles and plastics.

Africa has long been inundated with e-waste from Europe and Asia, and is now also facing huge amounts of homegrown craze for smartphones, computers and home appliances.

In Kenya, four companies – Sintmund Group, WEEE Center, Sinomet Kenya and Electronic Waste Initiative Kenya (E-WIK) – are trying to stem this electronic tide by extending the life of these products.

– ‘Not in a river’ –

At E-WIK’s Nairobi headquarters, dozens of employees have carefully disassembled motherboards, batteries, monitors and cables, which will make up remanufactured laptops and then resold.

“When you have a computer motherboard, you look for a power source and from there you start assembling other components,” says George Kimani, president of E-WIK and former auto mechanic.

Disassembled motherboards are sorted from computers and electrical equipment by a local NGO E-Waste Initiative Kenya (E-WIK) in Nairobi, December 3, 2021. Ed Ram AFP

In addition to purchasing waste from waste pickers, E-WIK also collects discarded electronic devices from individuals and businesses.

Liesl Smit, who lives in a private nature reserve near Nairobi, collected an old Macintosh computer, old typewriters, and landlines.

“I am so glad they took them away,” says the backup farm manager, while E-WIK employees load her things into a truck.

“We are a nature reserve. It is important for me, and for all of us here, to know that waste is disposed of in a responsible manner, (…) that it will not end up in a river or pollute wild spaces,” she explained.

good market

The market for refurbished devices – at unbeatable prices – is huge in Kenya, a country where 36% of the population was living in poverty in 2020, according to a government report.

Nicole Orr, a 28-year-old baker, actually bought a microwave and a recycled cell phone. She asserts for one reason: “It’s cheaper and often within your budget.”

Used remote controls are ready for sale at the local NGO booth of the Electronic Waste Initiative Kenya (E-WIK) in Nairobi on December 3, 2021.
Used remote controls are ready for sale at the local NGO booth of the Electronic Waste Initiative Kenya (E-WIK) in Nairobi on December 3, 2021. Ed Ram AFP

The most expensive E-WIK laptop costs 15,000 shillings (118 euros), which is a high price compared to a new model with similar characteristics.

“There is a market,” Kimani asserts. “We guarantee them that if it doesn’t work properly, they can always come back to see us.”

But these initiatives remain insufficient given the enormity of the task.

The volume of e-waste collected or recycled “does not count and most of it ends up” at Dandora, a landfill the size of 20 football fields in eastern Nairobi, that was approved by the Environment Ministry in 2020.

Additionally, companies like E-WIK lack the technology to extract precious metals and rare metals, such as cobalt, from the collected waste and thus lose the opportunity to recycle valuable raw materials.

‘out of poverty’

Kenya, whose lucrative tourism sector depends on preserving its natural parks and stunning beaches, regularly insists on its determination to protect the environment.

But rather than being encouraged by the state, current recycling initiatives are above all “poverty-driven”, as the Secretary-General of the Kenya Waste Recycling Association, Richard Keneka, asserts.

Old laptops are stacked on shelves at a local NGO workshop for the E-Waste Initiative in Kenya (E-WIK) in Nairobi on December 3, 2021.
Old laptops are stacked on shelves at a local NGO workshop for the E-Waste Initiative in Kenya (E-WIK) in Nairobi on December 3, 2021. Ed Ram AFP

“The pickers will not collect this waste if it does not have a tangible and immediate value,” he told AFP.

Recyclers also point out the difficulties in reusing modern products, whose welded components are more difficult to disassemble and more complicated to repair.

“I love old TVs. They are much easier to repair,” confirms Peter Mutunga, employee at E-WIK: “For new models, there is one small problem and they are done.”

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