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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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  • by Katatsumuri ( 1137173 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @10:52AM (#39010819)

    Used hardware is excellent value when you are on a shoestring budget. I think a lot of school kids and students in Africa would find it attractive. Yes, there are new tablets and notebooks available today starting near $100. But even that is a lot of money to some, and used tech can often be had for free, or the cost of shipping. Also, arguably you can often get much better used hardware for the same money. And tinkering with it also trains people to be hackers and know their hardware well. So, overall I think such reuse is good.

    A huge disadvantage is the environment damage when that hardware finally gets thrown away. Normal western schemes like including recycling in the price and handling it through dealers and agencies is hardly applicable here. There has to be direct financial incentive for both the old hardware owner and the recycling center to handle this properly. So maybe if EU really wants to help, they should try to organize a network of recycling shops. But this is probably more difficult than simply banning the export officially and ignoring the black market.

  • by Teun ( 17872 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @10:55AM (#39010827) Homepage
    A good example is the present Slashdot poll about 3D TV, I don't have 3D (nor HD) and is primarily because my present 10 y/o flat screen works fine and I won't buy a new TV till the old one has given up.

    The poll options given imply you'd buy an other TV just for the sake of some new and still to be proven tech.

  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @10:57AM (#39010841)
    The world's treatment of Africa has been 99% by greed, not good intentions. My friend was in the Peace Corps and realized partway through he was mainly there to pave the way for oil companies. Or the most despicable "resource" extraction of all, the slave trade. Estimates range from 10 to 28 million lives stolen. Good intentions indeed.
  • by Teun ( 17872 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:06AM (#39010883) Homepage

    Western liberal arrogance

    Liberal arrogance?

    If there is such a thing a Western arrogance towards Africa it would most likely be from the conservative (stagnant) side of the political spectrum.

    Europe has banned the export of any waste to any place, the ban is most certainly not limited to electronics and or Africa.
    This ban came into effect after many cases of dumping of dangerous substances with terrible consequences for the receiving countries and people involved.

  • by abarrow ( 117740 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:22AM (#39010979) Homepage

    I've lived, worked and even occasionally traveled there for fun. It seems like everyplace you go, any efforts, by anyone, to move the civilization forward are stymied by a history of internal conflict and corruption. Did European influence help or hurt? Impossible to tell, but it is what it is. In Angola, for example, the nationals decry (and so they should) the terrible oppression of Portuguese - it was a terrible time for them and Portugal should be ashamed of how they treated fellow human beings. But, but, Angolans will also tell you that the day the Portuguese left the infrastructure started to crumble, and hasn't been the same since. The capital city of Luanda looks almost frozen in time (if you don't look too closely at the crumbling brickwork and potholes in the street).

    Should the invasion of Africa by Europeans never have happened? Perhaps, but you can't change that now. Saying that external influences are raping the continent is just stupid - the smart countries are taking advantage of their natural resources as they have a right to do. In the case of oil, without exception the national oil company of that country is (actually has to be) a partner in the production, and tax rates are at least 50% on everything that is taken out of the countries. I fail to see how that is disadvantaging anyone.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:47AM (#39011127)

    ...will also tell you that the day the Portuguese left the infrastructure started to crumble, and hasn't been the same since.

    When the British left, the same happened to India. The British built some wonderful rail roads and now look at them.

    The trouble is that the countries mentioned have identified themselves as victims of Western colonialism and like all who identify themselves as victims are unable to move on.

    Although, India seems to be snapping out of it - in my humble Cowardly opinion ....

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 12, 2012 @11:58AM (#39011193)

    From what I've heard from TED talks and the like, most African countries don't have a government by/for the people - the colonial power structures *specifically designed* to pillage their resources for the enrichment of those in power never really went away, they just got taken over by the native bigwigs and whitewashed just enough to try to prevent a new revolt. Granted the whitewash tends to gets thicker with each change of power as the new guys try to look like they're an improvement over the old, but that's going to be a long slow road out of corruption.

  • But, but, Angolans will also tell you that the day the Portuguese left the infrastructure started to crumble, and hasn't been the same since. The capital city of Luanda looks almost frozen in time (if you don't look too closely at the crumbling brickwork and potholes in the street).

    But what have the Romans ever done for us?

    Should the invasion of Africa by Europeans never have happened? Perhaps, but you can't change that now.

    Perhaps, but it was inevitable. That's what happens to weak nations. Or in this case, a collection of weak nations either fighting one another or at least refusing to help one another. A lesson to all nations, to be sure.

  • by arcite ( 661011 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @12:00PM (#39011213)

    Ban the sale of reusable goods to countries fully capable of using them and force them to buy new stuff they cannot afford. This whole planet's gone mad, I tells ya', MAD.

    I'm beginning to regret knowing my grandparents. They taught me to fix what could be fixed and only replace what you finally cannot fix. I'm writing this on an old CRT monitor that a friend gave me because the image was getting too dark. I did a little research, found that changing out a single resistor would brighten up the image for another ten years or so and it's still working. Meanwhile, he's using a "new" LCD monitor that's starting to suffer pixel dropouts as it ages. When the power supply fan bearings get noisy, I replace the fan in the power supply. I've even replaced capacitors on motherboards and in power supplies rather than replace the whole unit.

    God, I hate using this term but if that isn't being green I don't know what is. In the old days it wasn't called being green. It was called being frugal (or, if you weren't Scottish in background, being cheap. :-)

    (I'm in Canada, btw, not Africa.)

    My guess is you have never seen how ewaste is 'recycled'; picture pre-teenage boys using the crudest tools (or their bare hands) to rip apart electronics, including monitors (that are chockful of cancer causing agents), pound the pieces into powder, then melt them down in makeshift smelters (no masks here, just breath in the fumes), then cook out the chemical elements. Most of these kids have brain damage from exposure. Most will get cancer and die painful deaths. Lets also not forget that while they surely get paid something for their labor, in all likelihood they are virtual child slaves. My guess is your sensibilities make you incapable of imagining the abject horror of their existence.

    Some perspective on the reality of the situation would be advised.

  • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @01:19PM (#39011739) Homepage

    Remember the slave trade?

    Who was providing the enslaved Africans? It wasn't, for the most part, whites - it was other Africans.

    As is always the case, Europeans didn't come into a virgin, unspoiled 'noble man' society - it easily triumphed over small scale tribal structures and put their own more efficient, but certainly at least as morally dubious, economic and political systems in place. It did not help the local populations that on abandoning the African states, the Europeans put about as much planning into as as starting out but that's human nature for you.

    Face it, humans aren't an especially morally appealing species. Africans were assholes to each other before the white man came and will be assholes to each other left to themselves. Pretty much like the rest of us.

  • by camperslo ( 704715 ) on Sunday February 12, 2012 @03:12PM (#39012505)

    I.T. is great, but I'd like to see some interest in raw electronics fostered too. I've wondered if some of what's considered obsolete or broken might be useful might be taken apart and used for educational or hobby purposes on a very low budget. For instance old PC power supplies usually contain some decent high voltage bipolar or MOSFET power transistors, a couple of big fairly high voltage electrolytic capacitors, various diodes, a heat sink, a fan, and other parts. Circuit boards from old monitors and television sets contain quite a few parts an experimenter might do some things with. Old VCRs have a transformer some can use. I once saw a swept-frequency spectrum analyzer built using the voltage controlled tuner module. Even dead household CFL lamps generally have a couple of small high voltage power transistors. I think it would be healthy for people to develop an interest in electronics, not just computers or programming. Turning people loose with some educational materials and sources of free parts would encourage people to be creative and experiment. Free parts can be used to build audio amplifiers and other things that experimenters might enjoy. While it is true that many components are available for very low prices from Asia, using recycled parts avoids having what little money the poor have leave their local economies. Sure, some old electronics is best ground up for extracting useful metals, but there's no reason that some useful parts shouldn't be pulled out first. Perhaps in other areas, it might even be worth encouraging the unemployed or those in some institutions to be a part of using recycled components and education that uses some of them as a resource. Being creative some ways of using these things can be found even when a commercial recycler wouldn't find it cost effective to pay people to pick parts. Of course precautions have to be taken, so that vulnerable people are not exposed to excessive risk from toxic materials or potentially imploding c.r.t.s. And people should know what they're doing before dealing with high voltages. A historic example of people that were generally creative and good at finding ways to recycle (call some cheap if you like) is ham radio operators that built projects. Who would guess that a transformer from a microwave oven could power a large transmitting tube (some of the tubes themselves being recycled from broadcast service)? Or that some of those PC power supply MOSFETs could develop significant power in low frequency transmitters? Some examples can be seen for free in back issues of Ham Radio magazine and others downloadable from []

    Of course some of the PCs can be part of that too, speedy and alive again once infected OSes are wiped and OSS put in their place. Certainly seeing what low cost systems and OSS could do was in part the drive that led to the Ubuntu distribution. For some uses Pentium IIIs may be a better choice than P4s, the later often having much higher energy requirements. Over time for a heavily used system the difference in energy cost may be substantial, and we shouldn't forget the cost extends to environmental concerns too.

Do not underestimate the value of print statements for debugging.