The following is a lecture given as part of a course called: Anglais technique appliqué à la discipline (~Relevant technical English for Geography), part of the Master 2: Géographie des changements environnementaux et paysagers (~Geography of environmental and landscape change) at the Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès.
If I show you this word
What kind of pictures do you have in your head? What kind of landscape?
How many of you have seen a video or images like this before?
This picture comes from Greenpeace, it is of a famous dump site called Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana. In October 2014 I visited Kenya’s equivalent, Dandora, the biggest rubbish dump in Nairobi. The things I saw there are more dramatic than some of the photos I want to show you this morning but I argue that it is precisely this lesser scale, lower shock factor that means they escape our attention. The narrative for e-waste in the Global South is normally one focused on injustice (illegal shipments from Europe to Africa) unskilled, dangerous, dirty labour (like in this video). And because of that it focuses our attention on urban rubbish dumps where waste is already consolidated in cities.
This morning I would like to offer a counter to that narrative that takes us away from the city, the urban setting and takes us from big piles like Agbogbloshie or Dandora, to smaller ones in rural homes, in shops or in company warehouses. Rather than look at the work done to waste, as we saw in the video we are going to think about the work that makes waste in the first place. I will make three points that I want you to remember:
- E-waste is not immediate but takes a long time as people consider what to do with a broken appliance, or they use it for a different purpose.
- In the Global South e-waste very often passes through independent repair clinics, where ingenuity and technical skills are employed to extend the life of items.
- A lot of e-waste is not actually broken but is labelled as such, adding un-necessary volume to already struggling waste infrastructures.
So good morning everyone. My name is Declan Murray and I a social anthropologist and I am studying for my PhD in International Development at the University of Edinburgh.
I am on a research visit here in Toulouse this semester at LISST over in the Maison de la Recherche. I think Léa invited me to this lecture this morning because I am a native English speaker, but hopefully also because I am a half-decent researcher or at least am doing some slightly interesting research!
My project is investigating what is known as the off-grid solar sector in Kenya. The off-grid solar sector is a market and an industry that, with the falling price in silicon and improvements in lithium batteries has created opportunities to provide better, lower cost light and basic electricity to people across the Global South who are currently using candles, kerosene, or diesel generators. These are lanterns and home lighting systems that look like this.
Specifically, my research looks at the breakdown of these solar technologies, what happens when they stop working. I conducted my fieldwork over 18 months in Kenya
from July 2015 to January 2017. In that time I split myself across three locations: Bungoma, Bomet, and Nairobi.
In this lecture I’m going to take you to three of my fieldsites:
- the Home,
- the Clinic,
- and the Warehouse.
Over the next half an hour I want to suggest to you that there is more to study regarding e-waste than informal recycling in urban centres. I will argue that the rubbish dump landscape shapes our research landscape and our research landscape in turn shapes the responses that we put in place. Rather than respond to Agbogbloshie and Dandora with bans on the international trade of e-waste or restricting the use of certain hazardous substances in electronics (although both important issues). If we research e-waste differently, and interrogate the landscape we are presented with, it will in turn alter our responses to it. Might our resources and attention be better or equally spent looking at product design or business models so that local experts can repair and extend the life of products? Or in understanding how and why Kenyans, and other African populations, decide to throw away electronics in the first place? Start thinking of them as consumers and not just beneficiaries of electrical and electronic technologies.
11h40 – the home
I first spoke to Kenneth on the phone in May 2015 during a telephone survey I conducted of 262 users of these off-grid solar products. I spoke to him (and the rest of the survey sample) for a second time a year later which is when he agreed to let me visit him at home. So on the 6th May 2016 I went to visit Kenneth at his home near a small market centre called Sango in Bungoma County, in the west of Kenya. Kenneth came and met me in Sango on the main road, jumped in to the Land Rover I was driving and directed me 1km down another road. We parked the car, fully blocking the road, and made the last 400m on foot across Kenneth’s land, past his maize field and a few banana trees to where his houses are.
Brian’s son brought us out two white plastic chairs to sit on while he went back in to the main house to prepare it for my visit. Sure enough when we entered a few minutes later there was a series of solar lanterns on the table.
I asked Brian and Kenneth how they use their SunKing Eco and it was when Brian stood up on the coffee table
to hang the lantern from a wooden beam in the roof that I noticed there was another light already hanging there. I asked them about this one. Brian fetched it down to show me.
This was an old solar light that was not working and Brian’s younger brother had connected it up to a car battery to power the LEDs inside. Kenneth takes the green light back down the road to Sango,
to a shop
he owns there where he connects it to the mains electricity grid to charge this is also where he charges up the car battery that runs the other light, the yellow one.
I visited 6 other homes that week and while this was the only one where I saw a light being hooked up to a car battery, Kenneth’s family was not the only one to have found alternative ways of using their solar products: some used the panels to power radios, some borrowed panels from friends, some made their own stands or balanced cables precariously to get the light to charge.
Most Kenyans, and indeed most Africans, live outside of towns and cities in rural areas, even if the continent is urbanising rapidly, the continent’s average is 38%, live in towns and cities. These people then are living in houses that are off the electricity grid (which covers 36% of people in Kenya), and also off grids of water, roads, and of keenest interest to this lecture, waste. Instead people are tasked with dealing with their waste themselves at home. Generally this involves first putting stuff in a bin or basket of some sort, and then later burning that rubbish outside (packaging, paper, food waste). Bigger, unburnable or more durable items might be buried or disposed of in the latrine, normally outside (i.e. electronics).
However, most items are held on to in the home. In the telephone survey that had taken me to Kenneth in Sango over half, 58% respondents said they were holding on to their broken solar product in the home. The point is that by looking at e-waste at home, rather than just in the dump reveals a whole other series of stories and offers new images. How much of the stuff in the dump has already been re-used like Kenneth’s son did with that lamp? Or taken to charge via the electricity grid like Kenneth does in Sango? What I found in the Kenyan households is not dissimilar from work that Nicky Gregson has found with communities in north-east England. In her 2011 book Living with Things: Ridding, Accommodating, Dwelling, she says:
“appliance failure is not followed by ridding but by the continued accommodation of these things… There is no automatic trajectory of ridding that locates failed appliances as matter of rubbish value”
The point here is that looking at a common landscape between North and South, England and Kenya, we find more similarities in the production of e-waste than if we look at the end-stage, of the dump.
How many of you have got an old phone or laptop that is broken and is just sitting in your flat? Or maybe at your parent’s place?
11h50 – the clinic
Have any of you ever had an electronic device repaired? Maybe a phone? A laptop?
I ask because I spent most of my fieldwork working with such electronic repairmen in a town called Bomet in the south of the Rift Valley. One day in February last year I arrived to the clinic
and my boss and mentor Wilson
was throwing stuff off the shelves. Normally the day started with a little clean but this was usually no more that sweeping out the floor. Wilson asked me to put the stuff he was throwing and brushing to the floor into some plastic bags and then put the bags out the front of the clinic. Then a small time later a man arrived, he re-emptied the bags I had just filled and began to rifle through them.
I would later interview this man, Shadron, or Blackie as he was known colloquially because of his darker skintone than others in the town, and he told me he hadn’t called or been warned by Wilson, rather he just spends his days wandering around town and happened to see that we were clearing out the clinic. I ask Shadron what he was looking for. He told me he was recycling. “Do people do this in your country?” After, Shadron weighed what he wanted
in front of Wilson, paid 50 Kenyan shillings ($0.50) and went with it. Shadron put the bags of stuff he didn’t want up to a bin area by the road. Then, steadily at first, passers-by came to the rubbish area to take away their various bits and pieces. After the adults, it was the turn of the children. There was very little left.
The next time the county government employees came by the rest would be taken to the dumpsite on the far side of town. Every day sweep left bits that children might play with.
The point here is that it is not a simple process of steady accumulation. We had all that stuff together and then these people came to take it away with them. Small bits get scattered, don’t make it out the clinic, trodden in to the ground, fall off the truck, get washed into the drain and on in to the river. Some of it never makes it to Nairobi. It might go from the clinic back to the home. Although rubbish dumps are bad for local ecosystems we can to a degree plan around them, but when it is in such small quantities as here. There is little we can do in response. Especially if we are not including the repairman and his clinic in our discussions of e-waste. Rather than jump to how do we do recycling, think about how this stuff can be slowed or diverted from the dump. As I saw that day when Wilson and I cleared out the clinic, it already is. There is only a market for metals, the one that Shadron is part of. Plastics are not collected from Bomet. In August this year I went to the dump where those discs would have been taken and found plenty of plastic and glass bottles, readily recyclable and still amassed. Unlike at home other people are able to intervene because the waste visible, unlike when I bury or burn it in my own back garden. Josh Lepawsky has done important work challenging our understandings of electronic waste. In a 2011 article based on fieldwork in electronic repair shops in Bangladesh he tells us:
“when we follow the action of value capture and creation that surrounds rubbish electronics, certainty about end-points dissipate… To deal with such liveliness, [we] need to shift attention away from fabricated final stopping places”
12h00 – the office
“the majority of them we have stored them and sooner or later I’m sure we will have a discussion of what we intend to do with them. … We are storing them”
This is what Wilkinson, a manager at one of the manufacturers of these off-grid solar products told me when I interviewed him at his company’s HQ last summer. In December I spent a day with one of his colleagues at their workshop on the other side of the city. I sat with Nigel at his desk
and helped him test batteries on products that had been returned by users
We replaced batteries that were dead and let the dead ones drop to the floor
After lunch we changed jobs and went through to the warehouse to prepare a shipment that was due to go out that night. It was then that I noticed these boxes
Nigel explained to me that they had had a road accident and all of these boxes had been in the crash and now, whether working or not they were to be disposed. They were to be disposed along with all of these boxes, full of batteries we had thrown to the floor in the morning and other discarded components.
Technicians regretted throwing out working items or not fixing things for customers so at times will go against that. Is this an indication of a culture or an attitude that we should be embracing and facilitating rather than stamping out? Part of this was benevolent, they felt themselves more fortunate than the people in ‘the village’ and others spoke of it in a slightly more patriotic sense that it was in solidarity with their fellow Kenyans. The slow-moving nature of waste is not limited then to the home or the clinic. The added difference here is that much of this waste need not actually be waste. These could be working panels, or could be re-purposed or re-sold what makes them waste is not a material quality but rather an assigned status within the structure or setting that the materials or object are found. This idea of waste being created by its setting is something first espoused by British anthropologist Mary Douglas in the 1960s with her frequently cited phrase defining waste as;
“matter out of place”
A lot of what was in those boxes was still working it was only waste because the company couldn’t guarantee that it would perform to their usual quality standards. They didn’t want Wilson or Kenneth’s son to use it for fear of protecting their brand image and reputation in an increasingly competitive market.
I went back to Kenya in September this year, just before I came to Toulouse and I visited an e-waste recycling facility called the WEEE Centre.
The word WEEE is taken from an EU Directive of 2003. Funded by a Belgian NGO, lots of the solar companies, including the one Wilkinson and Nigel work for, have Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with this facility. I spent a day working there alongside Michael, Foster, and their colleagues. After a brief tour of the facility, I stood alongside Michael at his workbench
Where we were snapping, dismantling, unscrewing, levering, etc apart e-waste and separating all the parts in to these different boxes
Yet I was most intrigued in the afternoon when I got taken in to one of the store rooms
where I saw boxes and crates full of solar panels
and solar batteries
Have any of you been to a rubbish dump? Or a recycling plant like the WEEE Centre?
The reason I’m telling you about my day at the WEEE Centre is to try and highlight one of the idiocies or absurdities of the prevailing e-waste landscape that would have facilities like this take the place of the dumps at Agblogbloshie and Dandora. The image and conceptions of e-waste that we currently have levels the stories I have told you this morning about Kenneth at Home in Sango, the day Shadron came to the Clinic or the time I spent with Amos at d.light. The image is actual more dramatic than it appears because there is much more activity happening around this than we see, than I saw the day I went to Dandora or what you saw in that video at the beginning.
My PhD research then suggests that
- E-waste is not immediate but takes a long time as people consider what to do with a broken appliance, or they use it for a different purpose. Even at the WEEE Centre waste sits and waits for a long time.
- In the Global South e-waste very often passes through independent repair clinics, where ingenuity and technical skills are employed to extend the life of items. The work that Wilson and Nigel are doing is much more technical that Michael’s but it is not currently allowed in how we understand and so react to e-waste.
- A lot of e-waste is not actually broken but is labelled as such, adding un-necessary volume to already struggling waste infrastructures. The company warehouse and the WEEE Centre are evidence of this.
As development discourse moves more and more towards market-based approaches and this off-grid solar sector brings power and so more and more electronic equipment to rural areas of Africa, we must think of African populations not just as receivers but as producers of e-waste, as consumers, not just beneficiaries. This has consequences for research and means applying Gregson’s research to Kenyan households. Because when we have videos like the one I showed you at the beginning, we risk creating this divide between regions of the world, when actually how we deal with things is the same, we are just getting it out of the way. Kenya doesn’t have the infrastructure that the UK (or France) has, nor are the companies held to account.
So next time you come across images like we saw in that video, I encourage you to ask your own questions “where did this stuff come from?” “how did it get there?” “what about the stuff we don’t see?” “is all this stuff actually broken?” The e-waste problem could be bigger than we even imagine and could be different too, more multifaceted. And involves creativity and curiosity as much as to danger and desperation.
12h15 – questions
So we’ve got a bit of time for questions now but I want to ask the first one: if you were the AFD, the Agence Française de Développement where would you intervene first: the Home, the Clinic or the Company? And why?
Note: Some names have been changed.