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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2009 > June-July 2009 > The Rise of the (fallen) Machines

The Rise of the (fallen) Machines

Electronic waste management in Kenya

Tuesday 21 July 2009, by Muriuki Mureithi

Moore’s Law, meet Murphy’s.

E-waste is an unknown phenomenon hardly making the headlines, but with the increasing volumes of e-waste generated and the poor means of disposal, it is a disaster waiting to happen.

Kenya has had no choice but to increase its use of computers to be competitive. A national survey conducted by Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTAnet) in 2008 found that Kenya generates up to 3,000 tons of e-waste from PCs annually— and this figure is increasing.

The enormous challenge however is the lack of a national framework to manage e-waste, thus exposing the nation to environmental hazard. Without a national framework for the disposal of e-waste, it is dealt with in all manner of ways including burning it in open dumpsites, dismantling it to recover parts under unsafe procedures, and disposing of it as general waste.

The effect of the hazardous material may take a long time to be noticed, however some of the effects were already manifesting themselves; according to a UNEP report, a 12-year-old girl living near the largest open air dumping site on the outskirts of Nairobi was found to have lead-levels that were twice the international norm. The UNEP report maintains that children acquire these levels of lead from the inhalation of fumes from open burning dumpsites, from hazardous dust on vegetables, or from dust on the ground. The study also noted that claims of poor health by workers in the recycling industry were prevalent due to the unsafe methods of dismantling computers.

Among those dismantling computers to obtain parts for resale, for example capacitors, transistors, batteries, network cables, etc, no measures were noted to reduce the health risks to workers. Indeed, workers complained about the smoke from open burning of e-waste, the radiation from monitors, the smell from laser printers that is thought to be hazardous, and the lack of protective gear for handling equipment. The study notes that the long-term impact from the improper handling of e-waste on underground water sources and the air need to be addressed.

The primary reason for concern is that the amount of equipment entering the market through formal and informal channels is increasing. Over a period of four years, the number of PCs in Kenya increased at rate of 60 percent per year; growth propelled by the necessity of launching Kenya into the information society. But the study also found that most of the electronic equipment in offices is old, with 50 percent being over 5 years and in need of being disposed of shortly. Currently, there are many government initiatives to increase the use of computers in schools, businesses, as well as homes. Indeed, the government has eliminated taxes on computers in a bid to make them more affordable.

The importation— and donations— of second-hand computers from developed countries (mostly Europe and the US) has also contributed to the boom; the survey found that they comprise 45 percent of all Kenyan computers. However some of the second-hand imported computers could not function upon arrival. The high level of demand for computers, both locally assembled and imported (and the high level of obsolescence amongst second-hand products) resulted in levels of e-waste that the country does not have the capacity to safely handle.

The study noted that Kenya does not have a comprehensive policy and regulatory framework for e-waste disposal— only the ministry in charge of ICTs (information and communication technologies) has a policy framework for the disposal of ICT equipment. The ICT regulator equally requires licensed operators to demonstrate a capacity to handle e-waste from telecoms equipment. Unfortunately, computers (and their importation) are not licensed and the relevant ministry does not have a mandate for oversight. Neither does the ministry responsible for the environment have a policy, but it is in the process of developing one— and not a moment too soon.

There is a ray of hope; Computers for Schools Kenya (CFSK), a civil society organization working with partners in Europe, is showing the way. CFSK imports second-hand computers from Europe and refurbishes them before donating them to schools. When the computers break down and can no longer be used, CFSK takes back the equipment, dismantles it, and sells some of the parts to local companies. The hazardous material that the CFSK and the country do not have the capacity to handle is then shipped back to their European partners for safe disposal. CFSK is now expanding operations to handle e-waste from local corporations. While this is a positive first step, what is needed is a supporting policy and regulatory framework for it to be effective on a large scale. A case in point is the introduction of an Advance Recycling Fee, which is common in developed countries to support the safe disposal of e-waste. It is possible in Kenya too— indeed a quarter of the study’s respondents were ready to pay for discarded equipment to be collected and recycled properly. What was lacking was a framework for collecting the fee. As well as awareness of the importance of responsible e-waste management, this is what Kenyans need.

Muriuki Mureithi was one of two lead researchers of the KICTAnet study. He is also the CEO of Summit Strategies Ltd, an information and communication technology consulting firm based in Nairobi.

Photo: AvWijk / wikimedia