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News, 3/10/2014 | Embassy of Finland, Pretoria

E-Waste Evolution in Africa

By 2030 developing countries will be disposing around 400–700 million outdated computers per year, compared to 200–300 million in Western nations.

Photo: Anne Tarvainen
A mountain of waste. We are producing mountains of e-waste, the growth of e-waste especially in developing counties is exponential but in countries like South Africa e-waste is seen as opportunity. Photo: Anne Tarvainen

In the past two degades the global growth in electrical and electronic production and consumption has been explosive. 

Whilst our lives have been made easier with home appliances, information technology, multimedia tools and new electrical and electronic products being pushed into the markets with growing pace, the electronic waste (e-waste) has become the largest waste stream in the world.

It is estimated that by 2030 developing countries will be disposing around 400–700 million outdated computers per year, compared to 200–300 million in Western nations.

Despite the international treaty on hazardous waste movement the shipment of e-waste especially into Africa is still very much on the agenda.

Photo: Anne Tarvainen
Piles of electronic waste is converted to green economy and green jobs in South Africa providing also raw materials for new products. Photo: Anne Tarvainen

These shipments are often disguised under category of donations or used equipemnt.

Usually these equipments are at the end of their lifespan and only small percentage is used or refurbished for further consumption, instead they get dismantled for the valuables, often by children who get exposed to dangerous chemicals within these items.

E-waste as a source of minerals and income

As much as the e-waste can be seen as a challenge it is also an opportunity where a trash can become a treasure.

E-waste contains precious metals such as gold and silver as well as steel and aluminum, which are passed on to smelting plants or foundries to produce new alloys or pure metal.

Because of its economic value, e-waste and e-waste management is increasingly becoming an attractive business opportunity in Africa.

Another significant factor is job creation as it is economically viable to dismantle e-waste by hand and sorting materials into waste streams such as batteries, plastics, metals, circuit boards and monitors.

Once sorted by hand the mainstream waste is manually dismantled and further sorted and reclaimable elements are passed through to the next level of processing. Metals like steel and aluminum are stripped off while components containing aluminum, alloys of tin, zinc, copper, nickel or precious metals (including gold and silver) are shredded.

Another key factor in the successful e-waste management business is collection, one broken smartphone is waste but 100,000 of them in the same place is a metal ore, so organized collection and transport is vital and can create further jobs in the sector.

Capacity building

To assist in the capacity building, expertise and awareness on hazardous waste management in the 23 English speaking African countries the AI and The Finnish Environmental Institute (SYKE) have been jointly implementing a 3-year Basel Convention Regional Centre (BCRC) Support Programme that aims to increase knowlege of hazardous waste and its management.

This initiative is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland which also supports another regional BCRC Support Programme in Egypt.

Photo: Anne Tarvainen
Although manual labour is performing much of the tasks in sorting and dismantling of e-waste there is a need for further processes that require appropriate technology. Photo: Anne Tarvainen

The AI’s role is to help its member countries to build their own capacity through resource mobilization, expertise and spreading of information which is crucial for the countries themselves to adequately respond and to implement multilateral environmental agreements in the future.

A good example of AI’s activities was the 3-day Public Private dialogue held in South Africa in October 2014 where all the 12 African member countries were present as well as the private sector and local electronic recyclers.

This public private dialogue was a joint effort to develop and agree on a policy strategy for e-waste challenge in Africa.

The most important issue highlighted during the 3-day dialogue was the lack of legislation in all of the 12 member countires as well as enforcment of legistlation dealing with hazardous materials such as e-waste. 

However, there are countries such as Kenya where the government together with the producers such as well as an NGO-run e-waste collection initiative has developed a draft e-waste regulation and as such will pave the way for the rest of the continent.

Opportunity for Finnish innovations and expertise

What became also evident during the 3-day e-waste dialogue was the lack of tecnology in Africa to handle e-waste safely and effectively. Although manual labour is performing much of the tasks in sorting and dismantling of e-waste there is a need for further processes that require appropriate technology.

Photo: Anne Tarvainen
Finnpartnership Programme Director Siv Ahlberg visited South Africa in February 2014. Desco, South African e-waste recycling company was visited during Finnpartnership visit. Photo: Anne Tarvainen

This could be pontentially an utapped opportunity for Finnish e-waste know-how  and technology solutions.  

Finland has well establsihed electronic waste handling expertise, which could provide an economically significant export opportunities within the African continent.

Finnpartnership Programme Director Siv Ahlberg visited South Africa in February 2014 on the occasion of the African Energy Indaba Conference organised in Johannesburg.

Finnpartnership’s  Matchmaking Service helps companies and organisations in developing countries and in Finland in finding new cooperation opportunities and business partners.

During the visit, waste sector and e-waste offered the most promising opportunities with this regard.

Vuokko Laurila
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