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It's Not All Waste: The Complicated Life of Surplus Electronics In Africa 236

retroworks writes "Today's Science Daily reports on 5 new UN studies of used computer and electronics management in Africa. The studies find that about 85% of surplus electronics imports are reused, not discarded. Most of the goods pictured in 'primitive e-waste' articles were domestically generated and have been in use, or reused, for years. Africa's technology lifecycle for displays is 2-3 times the productive use cycle in OECD nations. Still, EU bans the trade of used technology to Africa, Interpol has describes 'most' African computer importers as 'criminals,' and U.S. bill HR2284 would do the same. Can Africa 'leapfrog' to newer and better tech? Or are geeks and fixers the appropriate technology for 83% of the world (non-OECD's population)? "
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It's Not All Waste: The Complicated Life of Surplus Electronics In Africa

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  • Local Cost (Score:4, Informative)

    by CambodiaSam ( 1153015 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @10:55AM (#39010829)
    I've seen Cambodia's IT infrastructure improve over the last several years, but they still rely on much older, used equipment as their primary source of hardware. The most basic factor is cost. For someone earning about $100 a month (generally considered middle-class and able to reasonably sustain a small family), the prospect of a brand new computer, phone, or other device is unthinkable. Even a PC setup with monitor, UPS, keyboard, and mouse will run you $250. It'll be about 4 years old, but it runs Windows XP or Vista quite well because of lack of service packs. Plus, it's fully loaded with software since the concept of copyright hasn't been fully embraced.

    I guess if you could bring low cost, reasonable electronics to the developing world they would embrace it instead of used equipment. I'll let you know when I see it for sale on the streets of Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. For now, it's all used PCs (mostly Dell and HP) and Nokia phones.
  • by mehrotra.akash ( 1539473 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @10:57AM (#39010849)
    Even when tilting the balance heavily in the favour of new technology, (say, Atom at idle vs a P4 at medium load), it takes atleast 2 years of 10-12 hours/day running to recover the costs
    And my 2 year old N79 lasts 4-5 days on battery, not many Androids can (I know new ones have a lot more features,etc but both accomplish the basic requirement of a phone with the capability to browse the net, take pics, play games, watch videos,etc)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 12, 2012 @10:59AM (#39010857)
    So tell us, what do believe is the correct course of action? Leave them all to kill each other over millennia old tribal conflicts? Leave people like Mugabe running the show?

    Almost without exception, every African country has slid backwards at an alarming rate since they were granted independence from the European countries who conquered them. It's almost as if they want to be illiterate, sick, poor, violent idiots. Look at South Africa over the past twenty years for a great example: most native South Africans are fleeing as fast as they can, because it's turned from being one the richest African countries to a violent AIDS infested backwater [wikipedia.org] with masses of poor unemployed people who do nothing but rob, kill and rape while the ANC dominated government congratulate themselves on how great things are since whitey left.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:15AM (#39010931)

    I spent 2 months in Swaziland, Africa in 2005 with some missionaries there. It was shocking how expensive new tech was there (3-10x more than USA). Internet in the entire country was 28.8 dialup to a geosync satellite backhaul to Johannesburg. My missionary friend's internet + cell phone bill was in the neighborhood of $500.

    I knew it was bad before I left so I downloaded as many security/OS/application updates and free applications and took them with me. I spent a good bit of time just going around to missionary, pastor, and college computers installing service packs, Windows updates, antivirus, etc because they were YEARS out of date.

    The best PC I saw was about 1/2 the spec of the $1200 laptop I took with me, and once when we needed to burn a dual layer DVD, I found only one vendor with one model that was incompatible with my laptop's burner. They had so many computers that were 1-2 generations old that I was in shock. And they were desperate for more. One Swazi came up to me begging to get a 286 laptop working. I tried but there was nothing I could do. The college had some spare parts and wanted me to build a PC from them. In the process I discovered old Dells (dunno about new ones) required proprietary power supplies, and so I had a perfectly good Pentium 4 that was unusable other than a dead p/s I couldn't replace in Africa. So instead, I was able to get a 386 or 486 running with a 3GB hard drive but it wouldn't fit in the Dell case. They were so desperate for it to run that they had a missionary build a case out of wood so I could install the motherboard into it and have another computer for the students.

    The whole time all I could think was that I had thrown away computer stuff that was so much better than this that it was embarrassing. If only I was back in the US, a $50-100 PC would blow away pretty much any tech I saw in the hands of a regular African. I'm shocked at the subject of this article... African people do realize the huge educational/connectivity/jobs divide that is only growing and want desperately to catch up. What is needed is a way to make it easier/cheaper to send old tech to Africa... not harder! They have to start somewhere, and this also keeps it out of the landfill that much longer.

  • by mehrotra.akash ( 1539473 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:37AM (#39011077)
    So, just change the capacitors as they blow
  • by arcite ( 661011 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:47AM (#39011133)
    I've worked and lived in several African countries for almost ten years now. I've helped set up computer labs, including one that was self-sufficient with solar panels located way off the grid. There is no shortage of old computer parts, they are shipped in by the cargo container. Much of the parts are broken down to get at their base elements to sell for scrap. I'm sure everyone is aware of footage showing young men ripping apart and melting computer components and poisoning themselves in the process.

    I am well aware of charities out there who like to package up used computers and sent them off to Africa, the truth is, the computers are old and mostly useless. It's not that people aren't appreciative, but realistically, setting up a refurbished CPU, monitor, keyboard, powersupply, stabilizer, ect... it takes a lot of work. It also takes maintenance and training. It takes a lot of money to do all this. Furthermore, once a computer lab has been set up, it must be made sustainable, it needs security, someone to look after it. All of this entails an infrastructure of some kind.

    This is why, it is very easy to donate computers, or to even set up computer centers and labs, but it is much harder to make them a success within a community.

    It's actually much cheaper just to source a brand new dell laptop from a local supplier than to ship in in from half way around the world. Many companies, even a few African one's have localized hardware and special low-cost versions that do not sacrifice much performance and still offer the latest technologies. A low cost laptop/netbook/smartphone uses several MAGNITUDES less electricity than a bigbox cpu. Electricity is the biggest problem, or lack of it. Anyway, the economies of most African nations are growing at 5-10%, there is a lot of money to be made in IT. There are African multimillionaire being made in every African country due to the IT boom

    I'm rambling now, but back to the e-waste, it's a huge problem, but on the other hand, if someone were to set up a properly functioning e-waste recycling business and properly employ the young men, give them training, and safety equipment, they could do a lot better for themselves.

  • by Katatsumuri ( 1137173 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:51AM (#39011157)

    Yes, I was fooled by the slashdot summary (yeah, yeah), which said "EU bans the trade of used technology to Africa".

    Some sources for those interested in the actual legislation:

    Summaries of legislation: Waste electrical and electronic equipment [europa.eu]
    "The European Union (EU) is taking measures to prevent the generation of electrical and electronic waste and to promote reuse, recycling and other forms of recovery in order to reduce the quantity of such waste to be eliminated, whilst also improving the environmental performance of economic operators involved in its management."

    Business Link: Exporting WEEE [businesslink.gov.uk]
    "You should export waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) only if you are sure that it will be recovered or recycled safely in the receiving country."

    So yes, exporting old hardware for reuse is okay. My apologies to EU.

  • by decora ( 1710862 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:56AM (#39011183) Journal

    as soon as we can print out our own chips, none of this will matter.

    you know the 'Arab Spring'? Well, most of it was in Africa. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya - all African countries. The guy who started Ubuntu? African. These folks are on the forefront of tech, they just have been barred from access to capital by corruption.

  • by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @01:07PM (#39011645) Homepage Journal

    The image of USA and Europe (or simply the developed world) that the rest of the world gets is that stuff like big TV's, big houses,big fridges,big AC's,etc are common and affordable at the lower middle class level as well.
    Is that false?

    Yes, this is false. The median income of a household member in the US in 2006 was $26,036. This doesn't leave a lot for luxuries. And that's median. If you considerer "lower middle class" to be around the 33th percentile, the income per household member drops to less than $14,000 per year.
    So no, expensive plasma TVs are not common outside bars and the homes of the more affluent.

    Yes, most people have TVs and even cable TV, because they'd sacrifice a lot to have that. Even if it was bought at a thrift store. They're conditioned to having them. But the majority of TVs in the US are 4:3 CRTs. For those who can't afford cable, with a converter for digital->analog broadcast.

    If you want to see a 3rd world country, come to the US, and visit the 80% of it that still doesn't have cell phone coverage, or the east side towns where people live from hand to mouth. It's a quite different picture frow what Hollywood and Fox shows.

  • by nbauman ( 624611 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @01:10PM (#39011665) Homepage Journal

    Environmental lead, from paint and gasoline, was doing so much damage that it showed up in lower scores in children's IQ tests, which correlated statistically with their body lead levels. There's lots of solid science behind it.

    If you knew some chemistry you'd understand why the people who do are horrified by this waste disposal.

  • by Sarten-X ( 1102295 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @03:07PM (#39012451) Homepage

    I volunteered in Ghana in 2009. I set up a lab with 19 computers at a school. Today, 5 still work.

    I agree completely. I spent much of my time rearranging parts to even get Linux booting, and security training was ridiculously difficult. I was fortunate that the school had a good reputation in town, so there was already community support, and therefore less risk of theft.

    As mentioned, one of our biggest problems was infrastructure. Our electricity supply was decent by African standards, but it took three tries before the room was wired correctly. Switching hot and ground wires is a rather painful problem.

    Waste never appeared to be a big deal. In the area I was in, there were enough salvagers that anything thrown out was taken to a local shop where they used soldering irons to remove components, then those components were kept to fix broken devices. I never saw the melting over fires or the piles or toxin-containing waste, but I was in a fairly wealthy area of one of the wealthiest African nations.

"Pull the wool over your own eyes!" -- J.R. "Bob" Dobbs