Throughout the Kenyan capital, they can be seen carefully inspecting piles of rubbish. These Nairobi scavengers are not looking for clothes or food there, but electronic waste to sell to the few Kenyan companies that recycle these products.
For barely 500 shillings per day (less than 4 euros), these men in t-shirts and flip-flops are on the front line of a battle against a growing threat to the environment.
Obsolete or broken, the electronic objects discarded have become a global scourge. According to the UN, the electronics industry generates waste at a faster rate than any other sector, including the textile and the plastics.
Long inundated with e-waste from Europe and Asia, Africa is now also facing huge volumes generated locally by the frenzy for smartphones, computers and Appliances.
At Kenyafour companies – Saintmund Group, WEEE Center, Sinomet Kenya and Electronic Waste Initiative Kenya (E-WIK) – attempt to stem this electronic tide, by extending the life of these products.
At the E-WIK premises in Nairobi, dozens of employees carefully dismantle motherboards, batteries, screens and cables, which will constitute refurbished laptops then resold.
“When you have a working computer motherboard, you search for a power supply and from there you start assembling other components”explains George Kimani, president of E-WIK and former auto mechanic.
In addition to buying 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, has gathered a old Macintosh computerretro typewriters and landline telephones.
“I’m so happy they won”entrusts this person in charge of the ranch of the reserve, while employees of E-WIK load its objects in 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 responsibly, (…) that it will not end up in a river or pollute not wild spaces”she explains.
The market for refurbished appliances – whose unbeatable prices – is huge in Kenya, a country where 36% of the population lived in poverty in 2020, according to a government report.
A 28-year-old baker, Nicole Awuor has already bought a microwave and a recycled cell phone. For one reason, she says: “It’s cheaper and it’s often within your budget”.
E-WIK’s most expensive laptop costs 15,000 shillings (118 euros), a derisory price compared to that of a new model with similar characteristics. “There is a market. We give them the guarantee that in the event that it does not work properly, they can always come back to see us”assures Kimani.
But these initiatives remain insufficient in view of the magnitude of the task.
With only four licensed recycling companies in this country of nearly 50 million people, East Africa’s economic powerhouse, most waste often ends up in dumps where they release lead, mercury and others toxic substances.
The volume of electronic waste collected or recycled “is not listed and most” end up in Dandora, a landfill the size of 20 football pitches located in the east of Nairobi, conceded the Ministry of Environment in 2020.
Moreover, companies like E-WIK do not have the technology necessary to extract the precious metals and rare mineralsas the cobaltcollected waste and thus lose the possibility of recycling valuable raw materials.
Kenya, whose lucrative tourism sector is based on the preservation of its natural parks and heavenly beachesregularly insists on its determination to protect the environment.
But, rather than being encouraged by the state, recycling initiatives existing are above all “motivated by poverty”underlines the secretary general of the Kenya Association of Waste Recyclers, Richard Kainika.“Garbage pickers wouldn’t collect this waste if it didn’t have tangible and immediate value”.
Recycling companies also point out the difficulties in reusing recent products, whose welded components are more difficult to dismantle and more complicated to repair.
“I like old TVs. They are more (easily) salvageable”underlines Peter Mutonga, employee at E-WIK: “On the new models, one little problem and they’re screwed.”