In an industrial Nairobi neighbourhood, impoverished slum-dwellers scour piles of garbage to collect damaged and discarded gadgets, part of an initiative to recycle old electronics and transform trash into treasure.
Wearing T-shirts and flip flops and earning as little as 500 Kenyan shillings ($4) a day, the unlikely warriors are at the frontlines of a battle against a rapidly-growing environmental menace.
Obsolete, broken and unwanted, these discarded items reflect a global scourge, with the electronics industry now generating trash at a faster pace than any other sector, including textiles and plastics, according to the United Nations.
Although Africa has traditionally been a dumping ground for e-waste shipped from Europe and Asia, the continent is also increasingly dealing with huge volumes generated locally, driven by an insatiable appetite for smartphones, computers and household appliances.
But a handful of firms such as Sintmund Group, WEEE Centre and Electronic Waste Initiative Kenya (E-WIK) are fighting back against the swelling tide, looking for ways to repurpose electronic trash.
“We call it urban mining and do it for our environment,” said E-WIK chairman George Kimani.
‘End up in a river’
It is painstaking work.
At E-WIK’s facility in the Kenyan capital, dozens of employees carefully take apart motherboards, batteries, screens and cables, creating the building blocks for refurbished laptops that can then be sold to new customers.
“When you get a working computer motherboard, you look for a power supply, and from there you start attaching other components including a nice casing,” Kimani, a former car mechanic, told AFP.
In addition to buying trash from scavengers, E-WIK also collects discarded electronics from homes and businesses eager to dispose of them.
At a wildlife conservation area outside Nairobi, a decades-old Macintosh computer jostles for space with vintage typewriters and landline telephones, waiting for E-WIK employees to show up.
“I am so happy that they are taking it,” said Liesl Smit, a ranch office manager at the conservancy, as workers in green overalls loaded the “junk” into a truck.
“We are a conservancy. It is important for me and all of us here to know that the waste is disposed of responsibly… that it is not going to end up in some river or pollute wild spaces,” she told AFP.
The refurbished appliances — sold at bargain prices — have a huge market in Kenya — a country where 36 percent of the population lived in poverty in 2020 according to a government report –, with customers lining up to buy power inverters, televisions, refrigerators and much more.
“It is cheaper and often in your budget. There is nothing else,” said Nicole Awuor, a 28-year-old baker, who owns a recycled microwave and mobile phone.
E-WIK’s most expensive laptop costs just 15,000 Kenyan shillings ($131, 118 euros), a fraction of the price charged for a new model with similar specs.
“There is a ready market. We give them a guarantee that if it doesnt work properly, they can always come back to us,” said Kimani.
‘Driven by poverty’
But environmentalists caution that such efforts are no match for the scale of the spiralling crisis.
With only four recycling firms licensed in the country of nearly 50 million people, most of Kenya’s waste still ends up in junkyards where it releases lead, mercury and other deadly compounds that pollute the environment.
The total e-waste collected or recycled “is not documented and most of it” ends up in Nairobi’s Dandora dumping ground — a garbage heap the size of nearly 20 football fields — the ministry of environment conceded in 2020.
Furthermore, firms like E-WIK also lack the technology required to extract precious metals and rare minerals such as cobalt from the scrap they collect, losing out on the opportunity to recycle expensive raw materials.
And, although East Africa’s economic powerhouse touts its determination to protect the environment — a key contributor to its lucrative tourism sector — recycling initiatives are largely “driven by poverty”, said Richard Kainika, secretary general of the Kenya Association of Waste Recyclers.
“Waste pickers would not pick any piece of waste unless it has a tangible and instant value,” he told AFP.
Recyclers acknowledge the huge challenges they face, not least the fact that it is harder to repurpose newer gadgets, whose soldered components are more difficult to take apart and more complicated to repair.
“I like old television sets. They are more salvageable,” E-WIK employee Peter Mutonga told AFP.
“For these new models, just one small issue and they are spoilt.”