Dark side digital divide
As consumers, we have a seemingly insatiable appetite for every possible type of gadget and household appliance available – from sleek smartphones to curved TVs and cordless kettles. Similarly, businesses are arming themselves with the latest and greatest solutions as technology increasingly becomes a key differentiator. In many African countries, which are rapidly crossing the so-called digital divide, there is a voracious hunger for both new and second-hand goods – particularly as the middle classes swell in number and become more tech-savvy and globally connected. In a similar vein, fast growing African economies are investing in vast IT infrastructures and networks, looking to woo international investors and bolster growth with worldclass connectivity. ENTERING THE WASTE STREAM Yet there is a dark and insidious side to all this development and it comes in the form of e-waste – a problem that the United Nations, among others, has f lagged as a growing threat to both humans and the environment. E-waste is a term used to describe almost all types of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) that has or could enter the ‘waste stream’ – it covers TVs, computers, mobile phones, white goods (e.g. fridges, washing machines, dryers), home entertainment and stereo systems, toys, toasters, kettles (basically any household or business item with circuitry, or electrical components with power or battery supply).
According to the UN, the booming economies of West Africa, for example, are generating a significant increase in e-waste that is presenting mounting health and environmental risks. Domestic consumption makes up the majority, up to 85%, of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) produced in the region, according to the UN study, Where are WEEE in Africa. The study, which assessed the situation over two years in f ive countries – Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria – discovered that they produce between 650 000 and 1m tons of domestic e-waste each year.
“The volume of e-waste in Africa is growing, however, this is not necessarily due to the same reasons that have been discussed historically,” says Jean CoxKearns, global director of compliance at Dell Inc., a multinational technology company. “Historically, the volumes of e-waste arising in Africa were deemed