From words to action, almost

With a dedicated day-long workshop last week in Nairobi, Kenya and a webinar on the topic earlier this month, the question of solar waste is rising up the off-grid agenda.  Yet the need for collaboration between companies appears a barrier to meaningful action.

Last week I was in Kenya for a workshop hosted by the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association, CDC and M-Kopa (19th April).  A few weeks before that there was a webinar also organised by GOGLA on the same topic (5th April)

Opening last week’s workshop, GOGLA Programme Manager for Quality and Consumer Protection, Drew Corbyn told those gathered that the “tide is turning” with regards to the industry moving from words to action in addressing solar waste.  He referred to a well-attended session on the topic at January’s Global Off-Grid Solar Forum in Hong Kong.  Another of the opening speakers, Jesse Moore, Managing Director and co-founder of M-Kopa, also spoke of the day and the workshop as a pivotal moment in the history of the sector.  Eight years ago when M-Kopa ran its first pilot, Moore said investors were already asking about waste.  However, much like I was told repeatedly in my fieldwork, Moore told them: ‘we will deal with it later’.

During the webinar earlier in the month e-waste expert Federico Magalini had told the industry, as he had in Hong Kong, that it was in their best interests to act collectively.  Although everyone at the Nairobi event agreed now is the time to act, no longer the future, it became clear during the day that companies are not willing to collaborate on product design, repair and servicing, or takeback and collection in order to address the problem, despite the possibilities that collaboration in each of these areas presents to lower costs.


The workshop

Representatives at the workshop ranged from across the Atlantic to over the Pacific: USAID, DFID, the region’s only e-waste recyclers, a handful of manufacturers and a few other individuals were in the room.  Although we heard at several points during the day of increasing interest from governments in this issue (notably in Rwanda) there was sadly no representative from the Kenyan government there, despite having been invited.

After the opening from Corbyn and Moore, discussion was opened to the floor.  To steer the discussion Corbyn offered the room three ‘routes to compliance’ that Magalini had presented at the end of the webinar on the 5th April:

  • Individual responsibility – individual companies reach separate agreements with recyclers to take their waste
  • Voluntary take-back – companies work with waste management provider who negotiates with the recyclers
  • Mandatory take back – an industry organisation collects industry waste and can use larger volumes to secure better prices

However, the conversation was immediately hijacked with one attendee, playing Devil’s Advocate, asking: why bother?  The point the questioner was making was whether or not there is enough evidence to convince a wider audience of the importance of tackling solar waste.  There were murmurs of agreement around the room especially when it was pointed out that there were some notable absences as far as manufacturers went (d.light for instance, were not represented).  This call for more information would recur at a couple of other points in the day.

There were three other recurrent themes.  Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG)/Solar Home System (SHS) providers as distinct from those who manufacture or distribute only pico-solar products (PSP) was one of them.  PAYG companies are well-placed to service products and are already doing so while SHSs have an economic value in recycling due to their copper cables and, in some cases, lead acid batteries, but the lithium batteries of PSPs make them expensive to recycle.  To group the two market segments together then, SHS with PSP, is not straightforward.  A second distinction was stressed between those products certified by Lighting Global and those without.  The workshop was a gathering of exclusively certified actors, members of the Lighting Global-GOGLA community – but who will deal with the waste of non-certified products?  The third theme was the difference between warranty returns and those products returned out-of-warranty.  One manufacturer admitted they have no idea where their out-of-warranty systems are – even locating waste is an issue.  From the beginning, the optimism expressed by Corbyn and Moore was facing challenges.

The rest of the workshop was split in to two exercises: one mapping out the actors and links in the chain needed for effective management of solar waste, and the other breaking that down in to five smaller groups to focus on: reducing waste, accessing waste, collecting waste, recycling waste and an industry strategy for solar waste.


Mapping the solar waste chain

In the first of the two exercises, incentives quickly emerged as a key discussion point.  How do we incentivise customers to give up their waste?  How can we engage with the informal sector?

Participants raised ideas about deposits and discounts, and offered comparisons with the 2017 plastic bag ban and glass bottle collection systems in Kenya.  Although, points were made here about how to deal with part-returns of products (when bits are missing) or damaged returns (that may be un-refurbishable or impossible to recycle).  There were also concerns about what to do when companies go out of business or leave a particular country, or indeed when the products are not used in the location where they were bought.  The central problem remained however, how to convince consumers to give up their waste? It was mentioned that even if more evidence was collected regarding the impacts of current disposal practices or inaction on say food or water supplies, or human health. these might not be the right ‘triggers’ for consumers.  The conclusion?  We need more research.

The ‘trigger’ question also applies to the informal sector.  The informal sector’s role in e-waste recycling in countries like Kenya was recognised as a challenge.  Thankfully some nuance was offered with a couple of participants articulating the need to differentiate between informal repair, informal collection and informal recycling as very different practices often occurring in different places and being done by different groups and individuals.  One point I did not feel was given enough attention however was that most informal recycling occurs in urban centres, yet the off-grid solar market is overwhelmingly concentrated in rural areas.  Here the issue is less a need for more research but perhaps better communication of existing research, including my own.


Five things

At the end of the second exercise, participants came back together to agree on some action areas to send forward to GOGLA’s Sustainability Working Group.  They were:

  • To reduce waste manufacturers wanted more guidance on what constitutes responsible product design and which materials are valuable to recyclers.
  • To improve access to waste participants voted for more research on what ‘triggers’ will encourage users (and informal repairmen) to give up waste
  • On the collection of waste it was suggested that an awareness campaign might be the one area where companies could easily collaborate because there is no informational risk or data sensitivity. This could be informed by research on the human and environmental impacts of existing or improper disposal practices.
  • In terms of product refurbishment and recycling fears of sharing return rates and product failure points across manufacturers make action tricky. It was suggested an alternative for now was for GOGLA to collect and anonymise waste volume forecasts to help recyclers plan for the future.
  • As for an industry strategy attendees seemed to be split between those who didn’t want to ‘wake the sleeping dog’ and those who wanted, as Magalini had recommended in the webinar, to pre-empt implementation of legislation (which in Kenya is still pending)


Corbyn closed the workshop, as Magalini had the webinar, by stressing that this is not a competitive area for the industry.  Drawing from his experience of wider e-waste legislation around the world Magalini had warned in his webinar of the risks of un-harmonized regulation across borders, legislation that favours one fraction of e-waste over others, or systems where governments (rather than companies) decide how waste levies are spent.  Collaboration can avoid these problems yet when a representative of Mobisol, arguably the market leaders in matters of sustainability, asked the room in Nairobi if we were competitors or collaborators, the question was met with silence.

In his opening remarks Moore (M-Kopa) had said that: “Today in a way feels like the culmination of that future promise.” his company used to make to investors.  However, it seems further pressure is needed from investors (and e-waste experts) to make more manufacturers engage more closely with solar waste.  The promise is still some way from being fulfilled.

From words to action, almost

La ville en rose: My term in Toulouse

A short reflection on my time in Toulouse – the pink city – where I have spent the last three months trying to roll my R’s and forget my H’s on an Erasmus placement.


The office

When I first arrived in Toulouse at the start of October I tweeted this photo:

Now, at the end of December I am not sure if I did ‘break its back’ but better to aim high, right?

For the last three months I have been a visiting researcher at Université Toulouse II – Jean Jaurès.  I still don’t completely understand the French university system (numbering universities, special schools for certain subjects, minimal entry requirements) nor do I know much about Jean Jaurès (leader of the French Socialist Party in the early 20th Century).  What I do know is that my office was in a department called the Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire Soldiarités Sociétés, Territoires (LISST) where there was no undergraduate teaching but a motley gang of researchers and PhD students from anthropology, geography, and sociology.  I shared the office with Dr Yann-Philippe Tastevin, who was my supervisor for the semester.

– –

When I got back from Kenya in January with itchy feet, and perhaps a bit of fear facing The Write Up, I asked one of my Edinburgh supervisors, Dr Jamie Furniss, if he had any colleagues I might be able to go and work with in France (Jamie had done a post-doc in Lyon and also contributed to a museum exhibition in Marseille).  So we sat down together and flicked through a special edition of the journal Techniques & Culture that he had co-edited (with Yann-Philippe) called Réparer le monde.  After reading the Introduction to that issue and then seeing that this ‘Yann-Philippe’ figure had worked on the breakdown, repair, and reinvention of rickshaws in India, Egypt, and Congo I immediately said to Jamie: “Let’s try him”.

And so, a few emails, and several months, later, my rucksack and I found ourselves in Toulouse: aviation capital of Europe (Airbus is headquartered in the city) and rugby capital of France (Stade Toulousain have won the French league 19 times!

– –

Toulouse days started with an eight kilometre cycle from the flat where I was staying to the university campus in the south-west of the city.


Although this was a bit longer than my Edinburgh commute I only got wet once, the cars were more accommodating, and the roads a million times better than Edinburgh’s!

– –

On Thursday mornings I attended Yann-Philippe’s Master’s course: Anthropologie du développement et des pays émergents (Anthropology of development and emerging countries).  This was a three-hour class that saw students present a summary of an article Yann-Philippe had assigned them (many of which came from Réparer le monde) and then try to link something of the article’s style, subject, or method to their own dissertation projects that they will work on from January 2018.  The second half of the class was perhaps more interesting for me as Yann-Philippe told wonderfully honest stories of his own research experiences and offered very frank reflections on the rollercoaster that is ethnographic fieldwork.


After class Y-P and I would amble off for a lunch en anglais to discuss my research.  Yann-Philippe’s English is definitely better than my French but he kindly entertained my efforts the rest of the week and appreciated his Thursday English lessons.  The most notable outcome of these discussions was a restructuring of my thesis to make the reading of it fit one of my arguments.  If I am arguing that waste is everywhere, and is not just at the end, then why, asked Yann-Philippe, have one waste chapter and relegate it, to the end?!  It was a fair question.  In response I have now split that chapter, previously Chapter 8, to a series of sub-chapters (4b, 5b, and 6b) that will tie the waste produced to its location.

Lunch was either in the state-discounted university restaurant or, just like in Edinburgh, at the buffet of some obscure seminar or meeting.  Noticeably tastier than the tuna mush we offer in Edinburgh, the most noticeable difference was the presence of wine, even on a Thursday in November, or rather, especially on a Thursday in November!  Following all that with an obligatory communal coffee meant that no lunch break ever last less than an hour and a half.

Wine was also prominent in monthly laboratoire apéros (short for apéritif) which, although great fun, were another cultural thing I didn’t quite understand.  In the dictionary an apéritif is a pre-dinner drink, normally an alcoholic one.  And these aperos were scheduled to start at 6pm, an appropriate pre-dinner time, I thought.  Yet whenever I arrived at half 6 or so I was always the first one there, with some people not showing up until half 8 or later!

Et après?

During my stay Yann-Philippe was busy, first working on a big funding application for a project that will involve working on the end-of-life of aeroplanes(!) and then on a presentation for a conference in Japan.  However the plane project could involve a post-doctorate, we will have to wait and see!  And for the Japanese event at the start of December, I was able to help Yann-Philippe translate a presentation from French in to English.  If not the planes post-doc then Yann-Philippe is also looking to follow the chain of borehole rigs that he has worked on in India to their Kenyan buyers and users so there could be another chance to collaborate there.  In any case, post-doc or project aside my French is better than it was and the sunsets over the Garonne, the starling tornadoes over the quayside, the golden trees over the Canal du Midi, and the minimal rainfall all made the visit more than worthwhile.



I am grateful to Dr Jamie Furniss for initiating this visit, and to Dr Yann-Philippe Tastevin for agreeing to it.

La ville en rose: My term in Toulouse

Writing to keep warm

Every year the Centre of African Studies (CAS) at Edinburgh takes its PhD students away for a three-day writing retreat.  Earlier this month I went for the first time, and, despite the stories I’d heard beforehand, we actually did get some writing done!

I can’t remember the last time I went on a school trip: the bus, the packed lunch, the giddiness, the freedom.  Contrary to such collective joy much of the PhD journey is sole, alone, independent.  The thought then of going on a department writing retreat (read: school trip) at the start of December was quite exciting.  I say it was a school trip, the bus was Mike’s car, the packed lunch was a ready-made thing from Sainsbury’s and the giddiness was driven more by fear of not finishing our PhDs than freedom from our parents.  I was however still sat on the back seat; Mike was at the wheel and Maurice was on the decks.  But rather than telling jokes and trading Pokemon Cards, conversation revolved around Mike’s six-month old baby and Maurice’s recent investment in the bitcoin bubble.

The Burn

About three hours driving later, and no doubt a $2,000 increase in the value of Maurice’s bitcoin holdings, we arrived at The Burn.  The last, and only other, writing retreat I have been on was also with Mike and Maurice, but in Zanzibar.  This was a bit different.  The Burn, a stately home, is in Glenesk, a convenient 6 miles off the A90 that joins Dundee and Aberdeen. Built in 1796 the house was left to the London-based Goodenough College (a residence for international postgraduates) in 1947.  Nowadays it is a popular destination for academic groups from across the world to come and study or holiday, or both.  Arriving down the gravel drive, under some impressive trees and alongside a wall so old that it needs other mini-walls to support it, we pulled up outside the house.


To the right in the above photo is the putting green(!), around the corner to the left the croquet lawn(!!) and out the back – a tennis court!!!  A noticeable degree or two colder than Edinburgh however we quickly made for inside.  Although not that much warmer, the inside of the house didn’t disappoint in terms of grandeur.  After assembling in the hall our first stop in the Cluedo-like layout was the lounge for a welcome briefing.  Next we were shown to the masterful bedrooms on the first floor with slightly less wonderful mattresses.  Then, after a brief stroll along the burn that gives the house its name (I would’ve called it a river but then maybe The River isn’t quite so charming a name) it was down to business.  Writing.

75 minutes writing

The retreat was led by Pete Kingsley and Andrew Bowman, both staff members at CAS.  The format they chose was a series of silent writing sessions lasting 1 hour and 15 minutes each.  The idea, borrowed from Rowena Murray at the University of the West of Scotland, is that approaching each writing session you are bursting to go and indeed ending each one you are even ready to continue.  This means that the time allocated to writing is exactly that, writing-time.  And it’s a good job as well because the internet in the house was rubbish.

Rather rebelliously I went against the plan agreed with my supervisors (to re-draft Chapter Two) and made a start on the Introduction to the thesis as a whole. Feeding off the intellectual energy in the room I managed to make good progress over the retreat.


Outside of the writing sessions our time was spent eating meals that almost matched the size of the house.  Meals which, continuing the school trip theme, were, in Mike’s words, ‘just like school dinners’.  And so in the evening, after third helpings of steak pie and apple crumble, some of the party moved back to the lounge for a film while others climbed to the second floor for winner-stays-on on the table tennis table.  The only downside was that this division of interests left the bar so empty that one night it was shut by 9pm(!)

Next year

So after 8 sober writing sessions it was time for lunch on the last day.  And, as we finished our chicken nuggets and chips, a few of us were joking about who would be sat there next year.  Already in my fourth year I’m hoping it won’t be me.  To this end we have decided to continue the writing sessions back in Edinburgh with a weekly stay-at-home retreat.  Although definitely not in as glamorous a setting, we’re hoping the morning get-togethers will be just as productive and, with any luck, maybe even warm!







Writing to keep warm

Solar what? Asking questions of product design in the off-grid sector

At the end of last month the Not Just Energy Futures research group hosted a takedown event to update the Off-Grid Solar Scorecard.  Here’s a wee write-up of what happened.

Going to GOGLA

The keener of you might remember reading a post here about the Off-Grid Solar Scorecard – a website that tracks sustainable design in this sector.  The website had a soft launch at the end of 2015 following events in Nairobi, Kenya and Bhubaneswar, India.


After the GOGLA-IFC event in Dubai, we were confident the initiative was known amongst some of the sector but we knew that if it was really to going to affect change in the industry then we needed recognition from more widely known organisations.  One of our target endorsers to this end was the UK Department for International Development (DFID).  When we approached DFID however they said they could only back the project if it first had GOGLA approval.  So, in May of this year I went, on behalf of the Scorecard team, to Paris for GOGLA’s Annual General Meeting (AGM).


In order to vote on GOGLA approval, members requested more information on the origins and objectives of the scorecard – an entirely reasonable request.  However, some members were less keen on the public element of the Scorecard and wanted it to work instead as an internal device.  Bringing the Scorecard in-house would mean members could know how they were scoring each year and their relative position to other members but neither they nor anyone else would know how other manufacturers and products were performing.

Reflecting on this, it did not take us long to decide that this was not what we wanted the Scorecard to become.  The public, crowd-sourcing nature of the scorecard was at its heart.  Visibility was the tool that would hopefully encourage manufacturers to incorporate repairability, recyclability and serviceability in to their product design.  We decided then that the Scorecard would remain an independent initiative.  Individual companies would be welcome to sign up as supporters thereby distinguishing themselves from their rivals if they regard sustainability as an important part of their brand or business.

The Edinburgh Takedown

With new companies emerging all the time and existing ones always introducing new products it is vital to the success of the Scorecard that it stays up to date.  So on my return to Kenya in August and September (blog post on that to follow) I bought up another set of products for us to take apart and add to the website.  This time we aimed to get more of the Lighting Global certified products to complement the non-certified ones we had focused on previously.  This was good for me as I am currently working on Chapter Two of the thesis where I discuss how quality standards and impact metrics embrace some responsibilities (long, bright light) and neglect others (long, replaceable life).

And so on Monday 27th November with the help of the new Not Just Energy Futures research group (namely: Megan Douglas, Flavia Howard, Silvia Pergetti, and Rishab Raghuvan) we took over the uCreate Studio at Edinburgh University (a multi-purpose makerspace) and set about scoring some solar.


Lots of bashing, prising, and snapping later and we had scored the following 9 products by the end of the day:

  • d.light S2
  • d.light S20
  • d.light S300
  • Leilang
  • Niwa Multi 100 Plus
  • Niwa Uno 50
  • Omnivoltaic ovPilot X
  • Sunlar SK-R02
  • Sunpower

Going alone

The Edinburgh day was the first time a takedown had entered data directly in to the website.  As a result, we came across lots of problems such as missing drop-down menus and not very user-friendly filters.  Similarly, the group had several questions on definitions of what constitutes a “surface-mounted component” and what counts as a “specialised tool”.  There is then, more work to be done.  To do this work and keep the Scorecard up to date we are looking to have somebody work full-time on the site from January.  Initially this will just be for 3-6 months.  It’s just a shame I haven’t finished my thesis yet and can’t apply for that position myself.  Talking of the thesis, I should get back to it!

But first, to finish, we are now gearing up to re-present the Scorecard at the delayed IFC-GOGLA conference that will take place in Hong Kong next month.  This time, rather than run a side event to discuss the Scorecard the website will be on display in the exhibition alongside Solar Cardboard, a sustainably designed prototype product that emerged from the Circular Solar project of 2016 (also mentioned in that previous post).


>photo of the latest Solar Cardboard design to come<


So if you’re reading this and going to be in Hong Kong, why not come along, see which products score well and see what a truly sustainable solar lantern could look like.

If you would like to organise your own takedown to help populate the Off-Grid Solar Scorecard, please do not hesitate to email me at


Solar what? Asking questions of product design in the off-grid sector

Changing e-waste research so that we might change the e-waste landscape

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

kenya stars


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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Changing e-waste research so that we might change the e-waste landscape

A day in the clinic


Arrived at the clinic


W arrived with the StarTimes decoder from yesterday, he had taken it home to test it: it was pausing during the loading process

W swept out the clinic, not been done for a few days


Wilson went to Royal Hotel for breakfast

Couple of people poked their heads in clinic and left


W came back with an inverter, dabbing wires on to contacts, eyes scanning over various parts of the system, turning head to listen for any sounds of life, counting legs on IC to see if it will fit, comparing two boards (one from another inverter), the original is eating power or moto, fair bit of fiddling on this, bit of glue on corner of circuitboard to stick it in place, repair took 1 hr

Hii ni mali bwana, usiende na hii – W to John about paper with betting notes on

Rests solder gun on head of pliers

Boda driver who asked about laptop yday returned with it.  After a little fiddling and removing battery and replacing it again H tells him to come back in 30 mins, customer says he’ll return in an hour, H wants to leave it to charge for a while


Home theatre system (DVD player w/ inbuilt speakers) brought in, W pressing buttons repeatedly, tapping disc drive, helping disc to spin, customer had taken it to a previous fundi, both H and W working on this at counter, W closed it all up and working on a different normal DVD player, which also belonged to this customer, customer waited

Heat of Amboseli next door, one customer even commented on such earlier

H left and came back with Happy Chappy, who said he has a spare inverter, Chappy said ‘wewe ni fundi unajua jinsi ya kuimprovise kitu’ so look for me a new housing, his inverter still not working, W wanted to test it before he went with it, W blames squeeze of nyumba for choma choma, looking at circuitboard from all angles, wires changing colour, attaching new grey wire to end of the red, blue to the yellow.  Imekuwa?


Laptop guy (boda) came back, H not here

Young mechanic from along the road came with a motor part needing soldering, paid 20shs

Guy from the first inverter this morning back to collect, paid 150

W tidying up a little

Breeze of ashes through from Amboseli

Mr Rubber Tyres came back, He came looking for his headphones brought in yday as H and W weren’t here, he would just take them as he knew a Somali guy who would do it for him.

Bii BBOXX came back again W looking for his TV and working on it, playing around with various motherboards, searching through a pile of flatscreens under counter, trying a Samsung screen in the BBOXX casing, problem had been it was just showing white, W ult says have to confirm somewhere about a motherboard, said something around 2000 or 2500shs

Man came with wife, rare female presence, and left a simu, asked price, told 100, think he has been before, wears a red baseball cap

H back with two screwdrivers, had been up at a garage working on a car radio, I need to go with him on some of these trips

Village fundi from towards Mulot came again


Big speaker that’s been sat outside past few weeks is steadily getting damaged as kids play with it, people sit on it, touch it, hit it, pick at it, it gets moved in and out every day etc

Mr Startimes back for decoder, W applies solder paste and hot air tool to circuitboard, switching it on and off while thinking, later after lunch he advises customer to speak with a Startimes dealer about a replacement, guy leaves saying ok let me return to work and I’ll come in the evening

Another man brings in an inverter, solar peke yake kwa muda itakuwa weak, says W, therefore after 3 mths you have to take it to charge, Customer sent away as W said problem was with battery not inverter

Really hot from Amboseli – sheet metal wall

Quick bit of betting advice for a friend


Laptop guy returned, said maybe he would try Kanuli, or just send the boy (his son whose laptop it is, to Kericho with it, where he goes to school)


Red cap back for his phone, W had done this, Red cap picked up a piece of wood from outside to put in the back next to his battery to hold it in place, I’ve seen this before, sometimes card or paper – get photo next time

Woofer in Ampex style not working, replaced the blown piece (which was?), but singing badly so told to go and get an IC from Olesoi, customer reluctant to go, paid 150 for ~1hrs work

Phone fell in maziwa, usual brush of mafuta, then customer and girlfriend/wife trying a smaller Nokia battery in his bigger Android phone at counter, while W on a TV at bench, W says the phone needs flashing, go up opposite Cactus Hotel, ngapi? W says to speak with him

Back on to Bii’s TV, power cable in mouth to free up hands, I’ve not followed this repair closely but it’s taking a long time


Narrow space to work when back of woofer still connected to inside

Happy Chappy back sent to buy a 064 IC from Highway

Dispensing advice to another fundi over the phone

Sent customer to go and get credit, saf, gave him 20

Lady brought in a bulb to be soldered, paid 20, I failed, so W had to do it, W closed it back up by bashing the back of the bulb with the handle of the screwdriver, not neat or graceful

Someone else came for betting advice


Woman brought in a phone that had fallen, I had a go at it but failed, again.  W drew blood on his thumb from tweezers, then running the hot air tool over it, W explains it’s dead, he’s done everything he can, woman folds a piece of paper to hold battery in place in her other phone, she leaves with it

W running palm over Bii’s TV screen

Someone came asking for a new DVD lense, W said to bring the player and he would fit it, the guy said it was at home, W said his were second hand, sent him next door to get a new one, the guy then returned asking him what number he needed, W told him

Mr Startimes collected his decoder

W asking for two more weeks on Bii’s TV

W hasn’t really had a break yet today


Another friend came for betting advice, he copied down from the notes


Startimes back, told he should’ve brought it here first not to the fundi, now its been opened they won’t do anything, W says they’ll give you a new one because they want customers too (monthly payments) he waited for at least half an hour before being told to come back at 11am tomorrow.  Sticker across the join (common warranty device)

H not been here much today

Home theatre system from morning is back because not reading USB, “hajui technical things like pressing play”, but also reads STOP when you put it in, until you press play and then it starts, thought STOP meant it wasn’t working


Didn’t lock because Mama Sewer still working

A day in the clinic

Disruptive renovation – Reducing e-waste in Africa through repair

At an innovation summit in Nairobi in 2015, tech investor, Ory Okolloh spoke of her concern over the fetishising of entrepreneurship in Africa:

“It’s almost like it’s the next neoliberal thing like, ‘Don’t worry that there’s no power because hey,  you’re going to do solar and innovate around that.’ … I don’t see any entrepreneurship summit in Europe telling them you know, ‘Go out there and be entrepreneurs.’  And the same people who    are pushing this entrepreneurship and innovation thing are coming from places where your roads work, your electricity works, your teachers are well paid. …  You turned on your light and it came on. No one is trying to innovate around your electricity power company. So why are we being made to do that?”


The problem – Losing power, making waste

A lot of the discourse around today concerning the digital revolution and its disruptive innovations is about connections: smartphones enable us to stay connected around the world, around the clock; the sharing economy is increasing interactions between people as peers; and online learning is transcending borders.  Yet in this horizontal landscape we sometimes forget that not everyone is connected.  Although mobiles and laptops are battery-powered they still need, at some point, to be connected to electricity.  And it is then, in thinking of that static, somewhat older technology: electricity, that we might remember the 1.2 billion people worldwide who are still living without it.  53% of whom are living in Africa, south of the Sahara.

There are very few areas that have escaped the trend of 21st century disruptions and the un-connected, un-electrified regions of Africa are, as Okolloh articulated, no exception.  Thanks to the falling price of silicon, and rapid advances in battery technology, young entrepreneurs in Berlin, London, and San Francisco have created an industry that makes and distributes solar lanterns and home systems.  These are products, often portable, that use a small (<100 watt) solar panel to charge a battery which in turn powers anything from a few light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to mobile phones, radios and on to televisions.  The next generation of products, currently under development, is set to include energy-efficient fans and refrigerators.  Such electrical improvements to life are doing wonders for gender equality (girls can go to school and women to work now household tasks can be done after-dark), health (less toxic kerosene fumes in the home and a lower risk of house-fires) and income (users save on average $70 a year).

Where then is the problem?  What within this existing innovation needs disrupting?

The problem is twofold.  First, increasing access to energy also increases access to appliances.  The practice of buying, consuming and using more increases the amount of waste we make; in this case the amount of electronic waste [see Image 1, above].  The booming solar sector is introducing a whole new suite of electrical and electronic appliances to regions where there is no adequate or suitable waste management facilities.  The second part of the problem is that the companies are coming closer to consumers.  In the past, companies sold their stuff in the capital city, into existing retail networks.  But now, solar brands are bringing a relationship as well as a product.  Doing direct sales, complete with financing, means manufacturers are now present at the village, even household, level.  This proximity of the company to the user is squeezing the repair worker, whose business was previously built on the absence of manufacturers from the places their products were in use.  More closed technologies (harder to open-up) and warranty systems, protect intellectual property and brand reputation but they simultaneously exclude repair workers.  While no doubt bringing benefits, the arrival of these solar companies also threatens the stability of local repair economies.  Unless that is, their arrival could somehow be escorted by the previous generation of pioneers – the repairmen.

The solution – A spares and repairs franchise

In many of the more successful disruptions of recent years (e.g. Whatsapp, Airbnb, and Uber) there has been a backlash: Uber drivers complained of hidden costs, Berlin banned Airbnb and Whatsapp was criticised for its data policies.  Indeed, so recurrent are these backlashes that France has even coined the term ‘uberisation’ to refer to such disruption.  Solar Spares will minimise the chance of any backlash through greater consultation with the target market.  This bottom-up approach has been favoured in the development sector for years now, through community-led projects and participatory planning.  Therefore, if our double-pronged problem (more appliances tied to extended payment plans) is occurring in African societies, then it is in those societies that we must find the answers.

My solution, based on 18 months living, working, and researching in Kenya, is a business supplying spare parts to support the existing network of repairers across sub-Saharan Africa.  I am proposing a change in the very nature and purpose of business – not to sell more but to make things last for longer, to reduce waste.  Repair businesses are generally reluctant to buy and hold new spare parts.  Instead they rely on unclaimed or unrepairable items which they cannibalise (their words) to retrieve replacement parts when needed.  When this stock cannot provide, the repairmen send their customers to a retailer to buy the new battery or cable, returning with it and then making their money on the labour charge.  Solar Spares will do two things:

  1.  Supply the solar retailers with spare components
  2.  Alert nearby repair clinics where they are available

But would this solution work?

In a word, yes.  The repairmen are already flexible; they have been adapting to technologies as they go along over the years, moving from surface-mounted technologies like the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) televisions to today’s flat-screen Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) monitors.  Further, given that the repairman is already present in the villages and towns that outside companies find notoriously difficult to reach he can offer a quicker turnaround time, for a lower cost.  Previously, as volumes of a particular product increased in the local market, repair workers sought out the spare parts they need.  However, today’s unique product designs and business models mean this historical development will not occur, hence the need for this disruption.    The best innovations are often not new in themselves but new in their delivery.  This is not a new idea.  My idea is more of a renovation than an innovation: it breaks the status quo by bringing an older (African) tradition to bear on a new market.

The impact – Integrating with existing companies

Very few of the existing solar companies are making money, as is common with start-up led industries.  They are pre-occupied with establishing brand image and market share.  The self-employed repairmen’s brand, on the other hand, is himself.  Working on a day-to-day basis, without the luxury of financial backing, if he doesn’t make money, he doesn’t eat tonight.  What is a tough decision for the international company, to take on a new business function, is a natural one for the specialist, incorporate a new product.  Working with Solar Spares could set a trend that inspires the bigger companies to follow; perhaps even employing or partnering with the repair specialists in the future.  The repairmen could help manufacturers improve product design or connect companies with local waste brokers.  Leading brands like Fenix International and BBOXX Limited are already exploring these areas.  They are aware that marketing their environmental conscience to include the whole lifecycle of the product could further differentiate themselves from competitors in what is already becoming a crowded marketplace.

Is that all Solar Spares will do though?

Well, no.  Knock-on effects could extend to the angel and impact investors by adding product longevity, waste volumes or recycling rates to their metrics.  Indeed funds such as Bamboo Energy Finance and Persistent Energy Capital have already expressed their concern over disposal in the sector where they are putting their money.  Policy leaders might even re-think their approach towards the informal sector in general; re-framing repairmen as entrepreneurs with skills to be harnessed, not illegal businesses to be fined or punished.  Otherwise, if it is left too late, these small-scale artisans across Africa, not wanting, or not being able, to reinvent themselves as salespeople (the main jobs on offer to locals in this industry) will be sized out, and then, as they disappear, the e-waste they are already repairing that the solar companies are not (i.e. phones, TVs, DVD players) will appear in ever greater numbers in rural areas.

Without an app, big data or even a website, this retrograde innovation could appear luddite and out of place in a region that has become known as the ‘Silicon Savannah’.   Yet there are opportunities to collaborate with existing programmes and schemes to make Solar Spares, more digital in the future.  The Kenya Renewable Energy Association already has a USSD platform running to help users locate legitimate solar suppliers.  They have told me they are interested in building Solar Spares into a future version of the platform.  Similarly, across the ocean in India, Urjaa Samadhan is piloting an SMS system to connect solar users with repair workers, this too could be developed to include the provision of spare parts and components.


At a recent Royal African Society event in Edinburgh, titled Africa in 2017, Kenyan doctor-turned-artist Njoki Ngumi called for Africans to stop sleepwalking towards a Northern Dream.  Ngumi, like Okolloh, was arguing that the future of Africa doesn’t have to be that of the Global North.  Africa does not need to go the way of disposable technology and contracts with companies rather than the state.  New technology doesn’t have to mean new cultures, economies or networks displacing those that are already there.  With Solar Spares, we can challenge things, we can change things.  We can renovate the future of technology in Africa.

Note: This essay was originally submitted to the Wings of Excellence Essay Competition at the 47th St Gallen Symposium.

Disruptive renovation – Reducing e-waste in Africa through repair

The Charity Business – is it changing international development?


Good afternoon everybody.   For those of you that weren’t here last week, my name is Declan and I’m a third-year PhD student in International Development.  Jamie has asked me to give the lecture this week as some it runs quite close to my own research interests concerning what are known as humanitarian goods or development technologies.

In the humanitarian context of a conflict or natural disaster these objects might be shelters, food supplements, water filters or solar-powered lanterns.  And, as you’ll remember from last week the basic needs that are not met in humanitarian contexts are often similarly absent in everyday life for large numbers of people and so are also found in what we might typically call international development.

In both settings, the humanitarian and development, the increasing use of these products as solutions has brought with it a greater role for and presence of private businesses: the companies that manufacture and distribute the objects themselves.  Referred to variably as business-for-development, business-in-development or market-based approaches to development this newer sub-field of development manifests itself in three main areas: labelling regimes that show us where products come from and how they were made, perhaps even by who; social enterprises, businesses that promise ‘more than profit’ or offer social impact alongside their financial one; and CSR or Corporate Social Responsibility where businesses run socially-minded projects or campaigns alongside or in addition to their main business function.

What I want to suggest in this lecture is that this ‘charity-nexus’ is blurring the boundaries between the private and third sectors.  Despite being designed and marketed to stand alone as portable things to be rapidly deployed and used without installation or much instruction, I will argue that the objects these companies are selling remain dependent on, and are perhaps even constituted by, social relations.  What really excites me is that as anthropologists we can look at and study these objects through those relationships and across supply chains to reach a more critical understanding of what these items do beyond providing warmth, nutrition, light or hydration.

So the question we are discussing today and in Wednesday’s tutorial is this:

How is the expansion of the ‘charity business’ – social enterprise, corporate social responsibility, fair trade, the commercialisation of NGOs etc – changing our society’s engagement with the theme of international development?


In order to cover these three areas:

  • social enterprise
  • corporate social responsibility, and
  • fair trade, or labelling initiatives more generally

I’m going to use the story of consumer goods company, Unilever.


Now a $57 billion dollar company with 400 brands present in around 190 countries Unilever started life making soap near Liverpool.

In a great book about Unilever’s founder William Lever, Roger Hutchinson describes the location of the company’s first purpose-built factory:

“In 1887 it was an unpromising windswept area of marshland on the eastern coast of the Wirral peninsula” A “reach of sodden fields and clutch of ramshankle shanties named Bromborough…  A year later, the shanties and cabins and the very placename itself were quietly removed, and Port Sunlight … slid optimistically onto the map.”


Hutchinson’s description sounds remarkably similar to a passage in Rapley’s introduction to ‘Understanding Development’.

Lever, a nonconformist Christian, set up Port Sunlight with an Art Gallery, a hospital, a school, a concert hall, open air swimming pool, church, and a temperance hotel to ensure that his workers would be healthy and productive.  It was an improvement project not dis-similar to those we think of in development.

Lever wasn’t the only industrialist to offer such extensive provision to his workers, however.  Across the 19th century there were other British philanthropists, also nonconformist, like Robert Owen at New Lanark Mills or confectioners George and Richard Cadbury at Bournville or Joseph Rowntree at Haxby Road in York who set up similar model villages.

Today, we often think of philanthropy as being ‘benevolent’; people doing good to help others, altruistically.  However, for many of these nonconformist Christians, philanthropy was something more utilitarian.  Lever himself said that:

“There could be no worse friend to labour than the benevolent, philanthropic employer who carries his business on in a loose, lax manner, showing ‘kindness’ to his employees; because, as certain as that man exists, because of his looseness and laxness, and because of his so-called kindness, benevolence, and lack of business principles, sooner or later he will be compelled to close.”

For the William and his brother James, business principles were key.  Profits came first.  While they would be fed, housed and educated the soap workers at Port Sunlight had no collective rights or self-determination.  The model was about working hard for God’s glory, being kind to the workers was simply a means towards that end.

Over the next three decades the Lever Brothers company grew from being just a soap factory at Port Sunlight to include a fishery business on the Scottish isles of Harris and Lewis, before later merging with a Dutch margarine company, Margarine Unie, to become Unilever.

Labelling and certification

As Unilever continued to expand, the company moved further and deeper in to the soap supply chain in search of raw materials at a better price.  Such moves took Lever inevitably to Africa.  Requiring palm and coconut oil to make the Sunlight Soap Lever acquired land in Congo in 1911, bought out the British Niger Company in 1920 and, after a visit himself to Kenya in 1924, a tea estate.  Unilever’s first.  It was in a town called Kericho in Kenya.

Adopting a plantation style approach Unilever’s workers lived on-site next to the fields where they would pick the tea by hand.  In Port Sunlight working conditions were important for Unilever in order to maximise productivity and so profit.  The same motives stood in Kericho but didn’t result in any swimming pool or concert hall.  This was for two reasons.  One was that the tea-pickers were accustomed to ‘lower’ standards of living, especially with regards to electricity and water.  This meant there was less expectation on Unilever to re-build Port Sunlight in Kenya.  There would be no Port Kericho.  Providing housing and a salary was sufficient.  The second difference was that there were several Christian missions already offering the educational and recreational services Lever was running in the UK.  What is more, even if Lever had wanted to provide a swimming pool there were no water pipes to fill it, nor electricity pylons to light the concert hall.

During the colonial era, the prevailing norms allowed for, what today would be considered exploitation.  Lever was not a humanitarian; his Christianity supported differentiation between races.  However, after the horrors of the Second World War a more secular mission of progress emerged.  For Peet and Hartwick ‘progress’ became the God of the age.  In the post-colonial era pressure started to mount on foreign companies in countries like Kenya and elsewhere to offer better pay and protection to their workers.  At the same time newly independent countries set about truly establishing their independence through infrastructural state-building projects.   There have been several studies that show how the process of electrification especially is central to the building of the state and franchise.  Big dams in particular were sought after to show state power.

In the 1980s and ‘90s this concern for protection of workers spread to the natural environment and for the first time a broader consensus that we could not keep growing, progressing and accumulating endlessly without negatively impacting the planet.

In 2007 the Kericho Estate that Lever had bought over 100 years earlier was given the Rainforest Alliance certification, one of several corporate schemes that have emerged in response to pressure from enivronmental movements and activism.


According to the Alliance itself:

“certification encourages farmers to grow crops and manage ranchlands sustainably in three ways – environmental protection, social equity and economic viability… Your choice of Rainforest Alliance Certified Lipton Tea supports farmers working to improve their livelihoods and those of their families while protecting the planet for the future.”

Having the certification means Unilever met over 100 criteria in those three areas (environmental protection, social equity and economic viability).

Today Unilever employs over 9,000 tea pickers.  On the company website it says that:

“In Kericho, Unilever provides workers with pay and working conditions significantly      above the agricultural workers’ norm – approximately two and a half times the statutory minimum agricultural income in Kenya. Unilever also offers housing, annual leave pay,   transport allowances, paternity and maternity leave, free health care, nursery and primary school education, clean potable drinking water and free meals during working hours. As with any society where work and private lives are tightly intertwined, there continue to be particular challenges that we are working hard to address.”

There is, however, no way for us to know here about the quality of these services.  The number of NGOs and other groups working to improve health, education and nutrition in Kenya suggests that the efforts of Unilever, or other multinationals, are not necessarily adequate.

International labelling programmes, like Michael argues, mean countries “cede their right to determine their own corporate practices” government autonomy is reduced while corporate autonomy blossoms.

Do companies use labels to support tea farmers or to gain a competitive advantage on the supermarket shelf?

And then if I buy Fairtrade, do I still need to give to Oxfam?  Are businesses taking away from support for charities?

What does it mean for those who are not certified?  Why do we certify some goods and not others?

Solar lanterns is one set of humanitarian goods that also have labels, but these are less for the consumer and more for institutional buyers – to win contracts from aid donors or other private businesses.  Already being assumed a green good, solar lantern labelling does not reflect sustainability but product quality and again seems to serve the company more than it does the consumer.

Corporate Social Responsbility

Even today in 2017 the electricity grid does not cover all of Kericho County in Kenya.  The government released new electrification figures last July that estimated coverage at 56% nationwide, this is a big jump from the last World Bank verified figures in 2012.  I visited Kericho in 2014.  Although I was staying in a grid-connected hotel, the power went out while we were having dinner.  At the time I was working for a company called BBOXX who manufacture, distribute and finance solar home systems.  These are packages that contain a small solar panel, a battery, 2 to 4 lights and often a radio or television.  My boss at the time, an Indian-Kenyan called Anshul, was always talking about how we needed to target the tea plantations and that he was attending a tea convention in Nairobi or speaking to such-and-such a tea brand.  Solar lanterns, or in our case, home systems, represented a much cheaper way for tea companies to provide electricity to their workers and could also be used within their CSR strategy, alongside the labelling, to demonstrate their social consciousness.  For solar companies, like the one I was working for, they represented another market opportunity and they would also benefit from the more established image of brands like Lipton, PG Tips or Yorkshire Tea.

In the same year, Unilever’s premier, and original, soap brand, Sunlight, launched this campaign:


d.light were one of our competitors at BBOXX and had been one of the first companies to sell this particular kind of humanitarian good in developing countries.  Indeed, in 2010, one of their products featured as the 100th object in a British Museum exhibition called the History of the World in 100 Objects.

Unilever doesn’t yet own any solar brands but the former Director of Unilever went to run d.light Africa the company making the solar lights you saw in the video.  When I interviewed him in October 2014, Dave told me that he was only able to set up that partnership because of his personal connections to the company.  In his overview and critique of CSR in developing countries Bryane Michael finds that this use of existing relationships is common in CSR initiatives.  CSR suits the needs of the company otherwise they would not do it and it does not always create new partnerships but instead leverages existing ones.  Despite giving it prominence, the hashtag for this campaign was on TV, radio, billboards, Twitter and supermarket shelves, the provision of solar lighting is not what Sunlight, or Unilever does.  It is an out-sourcing, although given prominent appearance and noise, it is always secondary or peripheral to a company’s main mission.  It does however, once again distinguish the brand from competitors, it distinguished d.light from BBOXX.

The questions to ask though with CSR are whether unelected corporate teams will provide the right goods in the right areas?  What if Sunlight provide their free lights in the same town where my former employer, BBOXX, is operating?  And given that CSR is often short-lived, if we leave lighting provision to a one-off project, what happens when those lights stop working?  Or the individual who has that relationship moves jobs, or the funding for the CSR budget is cut?

To quote Michael one final time:

“The adoption of social objectives by companies is not as new as the ‘corporate social responsibility’ label suggests. Instead, it touches the 80-year debate between capitalism and socialism.”

We could even go back further to the C19th and ask whether the work of Lever and the other industrial philanthropists was its own form of CSR?  The label or the terminology or the appearance then, might suggest novelty but historical or anthropological insights can help us uncover existing connections and continuities.

The social enterprise

The full name of the company Sunlight partnered with for the #BrightenUpALife campaign is d.light design.  Design has been a big part of this off-grid solar sector.  And remains linked to CSR with foundations like the Shell Foundation running awards and grant programmes to support these companies.  Ashden, part of the Sainsbury’s family of charitable trusts has supported several of the solar companies that I am studying.  Indeed in 2010, d.light, the ones from the video, won the Ashden Award for India.


Peter Redfield makes the argument that fulfilling the development dream now involves accepting putting our faith in design rather than revolution or any political forms of social engineering.  He says that design has emerged as “a space for good will and progressive dreams after failure of modernity revolution to solve things.”  It fills the aspirational vacuum left by politics.  Design can also be appreciated and awards given in an easier way than a specific project, how do you put a project in a museum exhibition or on a stage at an awards ceremony?

Rather than ask what is the social enterprise?  We might want to ask what is new about the social enterprise?  Businesses have always created a need for a product and espoused their positive impact – Sunlight advert would target women and make claims on health, tug on our emotions.  They also get funding from USAID, DFID and UN  agencies too.  How different are these enterprises from the development projects pursued earlier?  Products treated the same way countries have been previously, so has anything fundamental changed or just the appearance and language but not its workings or worldviews or beliefs?  What does it mean to invest in products and put design on a pedestal?  Is the focus on the use and user of the object or on the object itself?


In her No Nonsense Guide to International Development Maggie Black puts it quite clearly:

“Some kinds of gadget, medicine, or piece of kit may have wide-scale application.  But true development is about people, and social beings do not function mechanistically”.

If development is about improving the human condition, can we be rely on technology, or the market, alone to do that for us.  Or rather should we analyse the magic bullets that gadget capitalism is offering us?

Cowan and Shenton start their genealogy of development in 1945 and efforts to ameliorate the chaos apparently caused by progress through the establishment of the Bretton Woods institutions.  This might be true if we look at development as being led by those actors and characterised by multilateral interventions, however what we are seeing now requires a longer historical lense that acknowledges the earlier arrival of the social business of Lever, Owen, Cadbury and Rowntree even if they didn’t use that label.  And again it is in going behind labels, both academic and commercial, that we can find the broader impacts of CSR or social enterprise.

Labelling: Does labelling create a form of citizenship in which participation is principally economic?  We can care by buying more.  We can give by getting something too.

CSR:  What does it mean for the state development if vital services and infrastructure are provided by private companies rather than the government?  What are the environmental consequences too of introducing more things and stuff in to regions where there is no adequate waste infrastructure?  What does it do for local inequalities if a short-lived CSR programme means I get a solar lantern and you, my neighbour (who doesn’t work on the tea plantation), don’t?  Similarly these goods are of limited capacity: the Lifestraw Family only offers me 10 litres  and these solar products don’t let me run a fridge, and offer light for about 4 hours.

Social enterprise: Although access to new technologies might have its benefits how much choice is there when these projects come through one company?  How many jobs are created if these are international companies providing goods manufactured elsewhere?  And if jobs are created, what kind of roles are they?  What kind of skills do they develop?

This afternoon, I have given a story of one company in one country but we could also apply this to brands like TOMS or Brewgooder or other humanitarian objects like mosquito nets and clean cookstoves.


They each put products to fore as solutions, objects (or labels on objects) that hide or hold a whole suite of concerns, but that doesn’t fit with tenets of marketing and advertising where a message needs to be simple and personal.

Anthropology can study objects and supply chains; following objects and how the anthropological study of objects can be of use to development.  But also, as I hope I have shown looking back to William Lever in the 19th century, a need for an historical perspective: what Watts calls the archaeology and genealogy of development.

Next week, Jamie will be back and I believe the question is:

 Is development an ethnocentric concept?

I would encourage you to think about how value chains, labelling regimes and CSR might help us answer that question.  Might anthropological pursuit of these humanitarian goods and development technologies reveal ethnocentrism inside?  Are they a way to circumvent or side-step that criticism by applying a neutrality or universality to technology?  The solar lantern just works, and it works wherever in the world.  But if we look closer might we find inscribed in it particular understandings of what light should be used for, by who and for how long, how it should be bought and sold etc?

If I have never used a water pump or relied on a solar lantern, are these humanitarian goods then just another reminder, a material symbol of the divide that remains between societies like ours in the UK and Esther (the girl in the video)’s in Kenya, despite efforts to bridge the gap.

The Charity Business – is it changing international development?

The Respondent Scale

When doing fieldwork, like any other project, there are people who help us and people who don’t. Here, I introduce a five-type scale ranging from the respondents to the refusers.

1. The All-out-hero
This creature is a rare thing but if you find one, like the snitch, you better hold on to it. In Kenya they tend to live in rural environments but occasionally inhabit cities too.


I was fortunate during my fieldwork to stumble across a few All-out-heroes. Mr S. is a case in point. I never met Mr S. but was directed to him by another contact (a Type 2, below). Mr S. had been a missionary in Kenya in the 1980s and had known Harry Burris – the pioneer of domestic solar power in the country. I emailed Mr S. a few days in advance of travelling to the general area where I had read, and been told by others, that Burris had lived. I barely expected a reply, let alone one within 24 hours describing at length and in great detail how Mr S. had met Burris walking the road in rubber tyre sandals and that over a chai Burris had passionately converted him to the appropriate technology movement (constructred locally using available resources) that would define the rest of Mr S.’s own career. Information-wise Mr S. probably won’t feature much in my final thesis but the energy and enthusiasm of his fond memories inspired me just when I needed it. What a hero.
2. The Decent Person
The modal group of respondents are found in this category. The Decent People respond to your emails, answer your calls, arrive on-time for meetings, listen to what you have to say and think about their responses. Should you need a Decent Person to introduce you to someone else, they will. Should you need them to verify something in a follow-up, they will. Because they’re Decent People.

(c) SolarAid

I encountered many Decent People last year but Mr B. comes to mind as a good example. Given that Mr B. is at a government institution I assume he gets lots of requests for interviews or access for researchers, indeed I had even got his contacts from an Edinburgh Masters student who had spoken with him a few months previously. But Mr B. didn’t make me feel like I was the latest in a line of wide-eyed information-seekers. Like Mr S. I was amazed by Mr B.’s responsiveness, I contacted him and we met within the week. When another meeting needed the room we were in, rather than cut it short Mr B. led us to another space downstairs, and when that too needed to be used by colleagues he offered to finish the exchange over email, which he did. Mr B.’s department frequently travels to the field to conduct site visits and public consultations. He has nicely invited me to attend these. Hopefully I can do so in my final fieldwork trip.
3. The ‘Here you go, now cheerio’
This type is particularly common in the corporate world. Having agreed to meet you at the scheduled time, the ‘Here you go, now cheerio’ will often give you a prepared or rehearsed set of information and although promising to ‘stay connected’, as the door closes you will never hear from them again.

(c) MIchael Ramoneda

I met a fair number of these in 2016 but one who proved particularly awkward was Mr O. The reason it was awkward for Mr O. and I is that we happened to live near each other, and that was also near his office. Mr O has been working in the technology sector in East Africa for well over 10 years, part of which involved an e-waste company in Uganda! I was then a bit daunted before we met. In the end the meeting went well. Following his high-level perspective I wanted to speak with the hands-on team that Mr O. supervises however. So when I sent over the interview transcript, as is my practice, I asked Mr O. this. And then, a week or so later, I asked again. Silence. Over the subsequent weeks when we bumped in to each other at the supermarket, in the cafe, outside the cinema and on a rooftop bar either he or I would bring it up again. My Inbox, however, remained quiet. This stalling risked making Mr O. a Type 5. But at least he had given me something, unlike his neighbours lower down on the scale.
4. The Patroniser
The Patroniser knows best and better than you what your research project looks like, what information you need and from where and whom you can gather it. Not only that but their time is more valuable than yours, because, let’s face it, you’re just a researcher, and in many cases, worse than that – a student!


This category was luckily the least common. One who does fall in to it is Mr D. Mr D. works for one of the big solar companies in Kenya. Wanting to avoid ‘Here you go, now cheerio’s and Patronisers, who tend to cluster at the higher, management level of organisations, I usually sought (horizontal) access through All-out-heroes and Decent People. So, when a friend of mine and a colleague of Mr D. showed me around the company warehouse and introduced me to the workshop manager, I thought I was in. Everyone I met that morning was at least a Type 2. However, by 9.30am, as I was settling in to my stool, observing technicians diagnose returned systems, I became aware that calls were being made. My friend handed me the phone. Mr D. was on the line. He told me to leave the facility but led me to believe that I could return once we had the proper permissions in-place. I was disappointed then when, a few days later, Mr D. sat me down at the company ‘campus’ and, in a roundabout way, told me that this was the end of the line. Rejection is fine but I think it can be done without talking down to someone.
5. The Time-Waster
Half the time, this species appear to all intents and purposes to be Decent People. Unfortunately, it is very hard to spot that they are indeed a Time-Waster until it is too late. Answering occasional emails or calls makes you think they are interested, while offering plausible reasons to delay or cancel meetings keeps you trying. Until, you realise they were playing you all along.

(c) k–

I had the misfortune of coming across several Time-Wasters during my research, particularly in Nairobi. One stand-out figure is Mr M.. Mr M. is the manager of an important waste organisation. We actually met back in 2014 and have retained loose contact since. This contact mainly revolved around me bringing him new clients; introductions that I thought would buy me social capital if nothing else. Alas, for unknown reasons, it didn’t. Instead, like Mr M’s counterparts in government, I was left embarrassed at empty offices or waiting for hours in front of a closed door. The thing is, so key is the work of Mr M. and his team that I will need to try again when I am back in Nairobi – wish me luck! And yes, I will take a book this time.

The Respondent Scale

A researcher’s ode to Kenya


I won’t miss mosquito nets getting stuck to my face and feet,
I won’t miss the midday heat,
I won’t miss being folded on to the back row of the matatu,
But, dear Kenya, I will still miss you.

I won’t miss powercuts and watercuts and washouts,
Nor the seasonal news of northern droughts,
I won’t miss personality politics and uniforms asking for ‘a little something’
But, dear Kenya, I think I’ll be back.

I won’t miss straggly dogs and dangerous drivers,
I won’t miss being asked to sponsor me this, promote me that,
Or being continually conspicuous.

Why then will I come again?

I will miss White Caps, mental maps, nyama choma and madondo
The 7 o’clock silence for habari za leo,
The beats and skins of the public buses,
The conductor at the junction with his hat, cane, and coat
Drumming up passengers for the flight in to town.

I’ll miss the Crazy Business District at lunchtime,
The evening energy at the end of the day,
The morning mist at dawn,
The smoke of burning plastic and roasted corn.

I’ll miss people calling just to say ‘Hello’
I’ll miss no-one saying ‘No’,
Fruit sellers with their solars at the roadside,
The bodas and bicycles and old men in suits,

I’ll miss the crowds round the morning newspaper stands,
Daily debates at the shoe shiners,
The khat boys at base and the kids’ constant games.

But most of all I will miss people’s pride and people’s plans,
People’s interest in what I am doing and why,
So, Kenya, thanks, and for now, good-bye.

matatu ~ public minibus
nyama choma ~ barbecued meat
madondo ~ bean stew
habari za leo ~ daily news
boda ~ motorbike taxi

A researcher’s ode to Kenya