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.
For just 500 shillings a day (less than €4), these men in T-shirts and flip-flops are on the front lines of the battle against the growing threat to the environment.
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 frenzy of 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 carefully take apart motherboards, batteries, monitors and cables, which will make up reconfigured 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.
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.”
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 says. “We give them a guarantee 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.
With only four licensed recycling companies in this country of nearly 50 million people and the economic powerhouse of East Africa, most waste often ends up in landfills where it releases lead, mercury and other toxic substances.
The volume of e-waste collected or recycled “does not count and most 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.
“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.