Trash world

Most accounts of Agbogbloshie, the e-waste site in Accra, Ghana, persistently fail to sustain a proper conversation about how it and its counterparts across the global south operate.

Dagna Rams
24 June 2015

Ghanaians working in Agbogbloshie. Marlenenapoli/Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.Articles about Agbogbloshie often refer to it as “a vast, poisonous dump in Ghana” or “a global graveyard for electronic equipment”, where young people “trawl through the broken goods hoping to find something worth selling”. The purpose of these articles is unclear. To leave the reader with a sense of hopelessness? To suggest a simple, but rather unrealistic, solution of banning the export of e-waste from the west to the global south? 

The unintended consequence of such portrayals is that they imagine e-waste as both informal and illegal, with unmarked trucks coming under the cover of the night to dump the electronic refuse and young hapless slum-dwellers sorting through it in the day. It is true that the conditions in Agbogbloshie are undeniably difficult, but to call the e-waste a ‘dump’ or a ‘graveyard’ is to stop a conversation about how exactly it and its counterparts in other countries of the global south operate. Two features of the economy inevitably hide unexplored. 

The first fact that receives almost no attention is that all the scrap that comes to Agbogbloshie has to be bought first, not only from furtive importers of the electronic waste, but primarily from government institutions and private companies. Talk to the scrap dealers and you will soon realise that the majority have their businesses registered as companies in order to be able to participate in public tenders and auctions. “I recently bought a truck full of old motorcycles from the Ghana Police Service auction” one of the scrap-dealers told me while I was doing my research in the neighbouring slum.  

In fact, many of the cables that often feature in the photos of Agbobgloshie get here through public tenders organised by companies such as Vodafone Ghana and Electricity Company of Ghana. It is difficult to learn the exact sums exchanged in such tenders, as the prices are responsive to international markets and what the highest bidder is willing to pay. One of the scrap dealers I talked to mentioned that he recently bought some 7 tonnes of copper for 23,000 cedis (3,900 British pounds). The sums are often so big that a single scrap-dealer is unable to purchase them on their own: “we almost never have the street capital to do the business. We need to come together to share the costs”. 

The need to buy the scrap for recycling affects the profit margins that are made, which in turn affects the conditions of work. For example, quite recently the Blacksmith Institute has presented Agbogbloshie with wire-strippers, but arrive at any point in the day, and you will see them standing idle. “It’s not profitable to use the strippers. It takes time. We can't afford the time. Burning is much faster”, explains one of the scrap-dealers. It is precisely the lack of adequate attention to health and safety that makes recycling at the e-waste profitable. 

The second important consideration is that despite the fact that the scrapyard is integrated into the urban economy, its contribution keeps being under-recognized. Agbogbloshie is located on a piece of land that formally belongs to the National Youth Authority of Ghana. The Authority collects a small rent from the dealers, but at the same time they retain the right to evict them. The paradox is stark: as youth in Accra are the main group affected by the unemployment, the Authority otherwise charged with the responsibility of coordinating the National Youth Employment Programme rents its land to the scrapyard that directly provides employment to some 4,000 to 6,000 young men. The threat of evictions inevitably means that the place is makeshift, which stifles potential upgrades, such as the building of a health clinic in the area. 

What miserabilist accounts of Agbogbloshie, but also other e-waste sites in the global south, ultimately fail to discuss is how the conditions are persistently undermined by the economic exchanges that bring the waste to the ‘dump’ and the lack of land rights. The way we talk about the e-waste now suggests only one solution – ban the import of the e-waste – which is hardly realistic given that Agbogbloshie is now an important part of the national and international economy.

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