‘Serious contamination’ threat from Africa’s mounting e-waste

In Nigeria, men burn broken computer equipment to collect reusable metals like copper.
The truck driver kept his hand on the horn, but resorted to shifting into first gear and used the full weight of his container truck to force his way through the over-crowded and narrow market street.

But the truck’s rattling bulk, over-charged exhaust, and zealous horn only added extra rhythm to the cacophony of hawkers, hagglers, trucks and generators. This was just one of the many deliveries this morning for the big importers of Lagos’s second-hand electronics Alaba market. “A lot of people are interested in buying computer — just to know what is going on in the world,” explained Gabriel Okonkwo, as he watched his latest shipment arrive. The doors of his container were thrown open to reveal an Aladdin’s cave of second-hand treasures — computers, stereos, printers and televisions. All were quickly passed down to a mob of eager hands, where they are quickly sold to the local electronic stores. Nigeria is desperate for cheap electronic goods to try and bridge the digital divide with the West. It is estimated five hundred containers of second-hand electronics are imported to Nigeria every month. It is also estimated that three-quarters of these imported products are broken beyond repair. The figures come from a US-based Environmental group — BASEL Action Network — who warns that the broken electronics discarded at local dumpsites are a mounting environmental disaster. At one of the local dumpsites, young boys sift through the electronic waste looking for anything of worth. Cables and wires are burnt to get at re-usable metals like copper wire, a practice which releases toxic metals and chemicals harmful to the local population. “If you don’t control it, there will be serious contamination and exposure of large populations to heavy metals from e-waste. Because it’s a huge volume of waste we’re talking about. And it’s spreading,” explains Oladele Osibanjo, the director for BASEL Nigeria. The irony is that many of these electronics were discarded by their original owners in the West for recycling. But not all second-hand computers shipped to Nigeria end up on the dumpsites. Traveling to northern Nigeria, we visited the Iya Abubakar Resource Center’s IT training course — attended by students, businessmen, and women. The Centre imports computers, but from charities like Computer Aid in the UK, to ensure they are reliable.

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For Aisha Hussain, the Center’s director, it would be a waste not to use the business and education opportunities provided by the second-hand computers. “Once you empower someone you do not consider it as waste,” she explained. “You empower the person socially, financially — that shouldn’t be referred to as waste because you’ve given that person a life.” The Nigerian government has ordered a crackdown on the importation of harmful and waste electronics, and is supporting plans to build a recycling plant in the region. Over-seeing the re-sale of his small mountain of televisions and computers, Gabriel Okonkwo is aware of the environmental problems but insists business must be taken into account.

“Both of them have to come hand-in-hand so we can live. If I don’t do business I will die, and if the environment is bad I can die,” he explained. “So I have to do business in a way that will not affect the environment.” CNN Business Traveller airs from Wednesday, April 8 at the times below: (ALL TIMES GMT) Wednesday, April 8: 0830, 1730 Saturday, April 10: 0730, 1800 Sunday, April 11: 0430, 1730 Monday, April 12: 0300