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Stash or trash: Despite control measures, Nigeria still top e-waste destination

By Nigerian journalist Kolawole Talabi, first published in Premium Times.

His name could have been given fortuitously almost three decades ago. But beyond chance, Victor Amienwanlan, 28, has had to fight to claim his place in this world.

I first met him at one of the branches of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Italy — in the city of Bologna to be precise. He serves as one of the volunteers at the church, performing a wide range of functions including but not limited to logistics and bible teaching. His peculiar way of vocalising the common Christian refrain ‘Hallelujah’ is rather amusing. He always goes: “A-Lei-Loo-Jar!”

One Sunday morning last spring, I walked into the church as Mr. Amienwanlan, an Esan from Edo State, was giving one of his biblical lessons. He was narrating his own story as an adjunct to the main teaching for the service. It was then I learned that he used to be a refugee. As he told his story, I was drawn to the harrowing experience he endured and wanted to know more. His is one story of endurance and inspiration, the kind that sometimes makes it into Hollywood. I was convinced his experience would benefit thousands of African youth seeking greener pastures in Europe.

Benin City to Bologna via Benghazi

Famous for its bronze artifacts, some of which are currently being held in European museums, Benin City is one of the greatest achievements of Africa in the second millennium of the Common Era. Like many African polities, the city and the empire that grew around it suffered foreign incursions and subjugation towards the end of the nineteenth century when British troops invaded, looted and destroyed a civilization that had existed for hundreds of years. Benin City has since risen from the ashes of British brutality to become the capital of Edo State, one of Nigeria’s 36 subnational divisions.

Mr. Amienwanlan spent parts of his adulthood in Benin City where he studied accounting at an extension school of Olabisi Onabanjo University. Upon completing his studies, he took up a job at a UBA bank office where he served customers receiving funds via Western Union for three years. He soon became friends with a Nigerian woman who lived in Libya and frequently sent money back home to her family in Benin City. Sometime in 2014, the woman promised to help him emigrate to Europe where it was hoped he would get a better job. Over the course of few months, arrangements were made for him to make the big move.

As part of the travel logistics, he took a bus to the northern State of Sokoto from where he crossed the border to Niger, one of Nigeria’s northern neighbours, through the bush, effectively evading the checkpoints of the Nigeria Immigration Service. The woman had also arranged for a company of traffickers to move him through the Sahara Desert. The stint operates like a relay. Once he arrives at a destination, he is instructed to contact someone who takes him in and moves him through the desert before handing him over to the next go-between. Mr. Amienwanlan recalled surviving on just sugar and water as he traversed the desert.

Victor’s voyage.

In Niger, he was put on a bus heading to Agadez where he bought a local SIM card to stay in connection with his traffickers. The trip took two days. Upon arrival in Agadez, he was taken to the house of an Arab man where he met two other Nigerians attempting to cross the Sahara to Europe.

“He brought out a gallon of water which we paid for,” Mr Amienwanlan said. Next, they were placed in the back of a Toyota Hilux van. About 60 persons were packed in the vehicle like sardines for the long journey through the wilderness. “We were told to wear a mask,” he recalled.

“We paid for the mask to protect our faces from the sand. We drove for about one week in the desert. We saw a dead person in a well. We saw skeletons during our stops.” Victor said he paid around 10 Libyan dinars (N2,500.00) for the mask.

Upon arriving in Libya, he recalled being locked up in a holding cell with about 70 other persons of different nationalities. They were fed bread occasionally. “I was locked up for a month in a small cell. In fact, it’s a prison, on a farm where people cannot find you,” he said.

Eventually, he left the ‘prison’ and travelled to Benghazi, Libya’s second city where the Nigerian woman who helped him cross the Sahara took him in for almost four months. She provided Mr Amienwanlan with basic lodging — he had to learn welding to fend for himself during his sojourn in the Libyan port city. Having earned enough cash to make the journey across the Mediterranean, he bid his hosts goodbye and took a boat towards Italy. “I spent four days on the sea and the boat was leaking.” Despite the mishap, he chose to stay on the boat even when a Tunisian ship came to rescue them. Eventually, he reached Italy where the local police brought them to the refugee camp.

At the refugee camp, he met with a Jehovah Witness adherent who told him his options for survival in Italy were limited to one of three livelihood alternatives: begging, e-waste trade or internet fraud. He chose the only decent of the three options: to barter in e-waste.

From refugee to retailer

He left the refugee camp having satisfied rigorous Italian procedures of ascertaining his residency suitability. At the beginning, he would go from street to street to pick up electronic equipment that locals had left at their doorsteps, but his face soon became familiar and people wishing to dispose their e-waste would call on him to take delivery of the used items. He upgraded his business; he got a bicycle and his operations ran even more smoothly. Once he collects a considerable volume of used electronics, he puts them inside a used car and ships the merchandise to Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital and busiest seaport.

About 7 per cent of used electronic and electrical equipment (UEEE) imports into the Port of Lagos between 2015 and 2016 came from China, a published report says. The study was co-authored by the Basel Convention Coordinating Centre for Africa (BCCC Africa) and the Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Programme of United Nations University (UNU). This is in violation of international and national protocols on the disposal of e-waste, some of the most injurious to human health. Under the Basel Convention, the shipment of e-waste is prohibited but merchants (exporters and importers alike) continue to bypass the laws.

UEEEs of various types for sale in an alfresco market in Lagos, Nigeria (Credit: Hamed Adedeji).

These UEEEs are shipped as carry-ons with automobiles. According to the study, 70 per cent (41,500 tons) of the e-waste shipped to Lagos in the two-year period arrived inside vehicles. Yet another consignment arrived in containers. Of the 18,300 tons of UEEE per year shipped in containers, roughly 29 per cent originated from ports in EU countries; 24 per cent originated from China and 20 per cent from USA. By weight, LCD-TVs and flat panel monitors made up the largest category (18 per cent) of imported UEEE of which more than half of these were found to be non-functioning e-waste.

The second largest category, (Cathode Ray Tube) CRT-TVs and CRT-monitors (14 per cent), are banned from importation into Nigeria. Under the Basel Convention, only UEEE that is functional and for reuse may be shipped. In Nigeria, the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) is the government organ saddled with the responsibility of ensuring a clean and healthy environment for Nigerians. Under NESREA’s broad oversight remit is the control of e-waste, either those generated locally by companies and households or brought in from overseas by merchants of garbage.

Its website further reveals: “It also has the responsibility to enforce compliance with provisions of international agreements, protocols, conventions and treaties on the environment to which Nigeria is a signatory.”

Established in 2007, the agency is headquartered in Abuja, the purpose-built federal capital, but maintains branch offices in strategic locations across the country including Lagos. NESREA carries out its duties through different protocols and procedures such as the Environmental Import Clearance (EIC) regime, which ensures that banned and restricted chemicals, end-of-life electrical or electronic equipment and hazardous wastes are not imported into the country. NESREA requires importers of its regulated items to do an initial registration which costs N115, 000 (around $320). Renewals costs N50, 000 (around $140) per year.

Despite the availability of these protective measures, e-waste has not ceased from entering Nigeria’s territory. It is a problem today. It was a problem in the past. If drastic actions are not taken, it will continue to be a problem in the future.

History of toxicity

Koko is a town, a river port located in Delta State, in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region. Its coordinates are as follows: 11°28N 4°29E and it is situated in Warri North Local Government Area. In Nigeria, a local government area (LGA) is an administrative division of the 923,768 km2 federation. There are currently 774 constitutionally recognized LGAs in Nigeria and Warri North Local Government Area is one of these. Although Koko is a small township of about 30,000 inhabitants, it is largely peopled by the Itsekiri ethnicity whose population is around 1 million, spread across the Niger Delta region.

Itsekiris are traditionally engaged in fishing, farming and trading. They were among the first people in the region to engage Portuguese traders, long before Britain colonized the territory. In his 2014 book, The Fortunes of Africa — A 5,000-Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour, Martin Meredith notes that “British officials recognized the authority of a line of Itsekiri kings.” Those royal persons were even granted the titular designation of governor. In 1884, the Itsekiri governor Nana Olomu signed treaties with British Consul Edward Hewett for the purpose of bringing his jurisdiction under British control.

As was the norm of British colonizers, trade disagreements between them resulted in military action and the exile of the Itsekiri king to the Gold Coast, another colony, now the independent nation of Ghana.

The area in which Koko is located has thus seen many foreign actions, even worse in the recent past. One of these was the 1988 dumping of toxic waste by an Italian company, a situation that raised global awareness on how corporations in the rich world are using the territories of poor countries as dumping grounds.

Nigerian students in the small Italian town of Pisa read local news reports that hazardous waste from different European countries had been shipped by an Italian company and dumped in Koko. The students sent the news materials to the Nigerian press.

At that time, Nigeria was under military dictatorship of General Ibrahim Babangida, but the government took immediate action. Eventually, Italy was compelled to remove the hazardous materials from the dumpsite and sent back to Europe.

In a New York Times article published on July 17, 1988, James Brooke wrote, “In this African delta port, where children run barefoot through oil palm plantations and men pilot dugout canoes through mangrove swamps, the arrival of a ship from Europe has often meant disruption. Two local place names recall the first contacts with Europe. Escravos and Forcados are the Portuguese words for slaves and indentured. Today, a collection of steel drums stacked behind a villager’s family compound here speak of the latest trade with Europe — 10,000 barrels of toxic waste.”

The Brooke report went further to describe several cases of illegal dumping of dangerous substances by foreign companies in the United States and western Europe on the continent of Africa. The media storm it generated led to a snowball of international actions including the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, simply known as the Basel Convention. On March 22, 1989 the treaty was opened for signing and it entered into force on May 5, 1992. Today, 187 countries have signed or are party to the convention.

The United States of America is the only major power that is yet to ratify the agreement. Other holdouts are mostly poor countries like Haiti, East Timor and South Sudan as well as Pacific Island nations such as Fiji, Tuvalu, and Solomon Islands.

Damaged dumpster or digital dustbin?

Although Mr. Amienwanlan is now gainfully employed in a factory in Italy, he still runs the e-scrap business, sending regular shipments of dumped electronics and consumer goods to Nigeria. He says business is good, in part, because many Nigerians live below the poverty line and thus, UEEE offer them a chance to buy modern luxuries that otherwise would have been out of their economic reach. A simple case of the law of demand and supply. Europeans, awash in wealth, can easily dispose old and not-so-old electronics in place of newer, shinier versions while some Africans, mired in poverty, are only too grateful they have options.

But the problem is not just a function of high-school economics. It’s also a systemic one. It’s no longer news that the world has gone digital. The benefits that the internet age brought is not without unintended consequences including mountains of e-waste.

Agbogbloshie, a wasteland on the edge of Ghana’s capital city, Accra is one of the biggest testaments of the reckless consumerism of electronics that has taken over the global community. The advent of mobile phones and computers have made communication easier, connecting more and more people, yet leaving the environment in a sorry shape once these tools get broken.

Used washing machines and gas burners at a store in Lagos, Nigeria (Credit: Hamed Adedeji).

According to a 2019 report by the United Nations, the volume of trashed electronic waste is estimated at 50 million tons and this figure is expected to double by 2050. Sensing a looming crisis, some governments and several civil society organizations have been raising awareness and working to find a solution to the crisis. Riding on the crest of this movement is the campaign on the ‘Right to Repair’ — essentially proposals that will compel manufacturers of electronics to make their products last longer and easier to fix if or when they break down. Some EU countries are beginning to understand this is a crisis that needs attention.

Interestingly, the Right to Repair movement has gathered momentum and has drawn entrepreneurs like Ugo Vallauri, an Italian expat in the United Kingdom, founder of The Restart Project and a fellow of the Shuttleworth Foundation. The Restart website succinctly explains what the project aims to do: “[It] is a people-powered social enterprise that aims to fix our relationship with electronics.” Started in 2013, the project has executed over 12,000 repairs directly or organised as part of the same community. It has achieved some success too: 55% of electronics brought in have been repaired while 20% are broken but are source of spare parts.

“The Restart Project is about helping people rethink the way they consume, and we use the insights we collect for legislation at European levels, to force manufacturers to do better,” Ugo Vallauri said over Skype in August 2019.

Other stakeholders take a more commercial approach to the problem of electronic waste. In Italy, some associations and companies work to recycle metals from these products and find uses for remnant byproducts, thus aiding their re-entry into the value chain in a process otherwise call the circular economy.

StenaTechnoworld Srl is the Italian subsidiary of Stena Technoworld, one of Europe’s largest e-waste treatment companies with head offices in Sweden. The Italian subsidiary operates two treatment centres, dealing with all types of WEEE, but mainly specializes in cooling appliances and LCD screens. The business climate is not particularly exciting given the high costs of operating these recycling facilities. In fact, the company made a loss in 2018 possibly due to economic externalities such as the decision by the Chinese to stop the importation of e-waste.

NIMBYism comes to China

Whereas StenaTechnoworld made a paltry profit of €1.8 million in 2017 and €3.2 million in 2016, future profit margins are susceptible to rising operational costs and China’s ban on plastic fractions from e-scrap. Up until 2017, China was the world’s largest importer of e-waste, relieving the global community of its burden of electronic garbage. The about-face from Beijing is no surprise. Economic growth spurs domestic consumption which in turn creates an aura of cosmopolitanism. China has indeed come of age in terms of productivity. Once the sleeping giant of Asia, it has overtaken the likes of Korea and Japan in GDP metrics.

According to a 2018 report by the Brussels-based Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), the Asia-Pacific region generated almost 16 million tons of e-waste. Leading the group are China with 5.9 million tons, Japan with 2.6 million tons and India with 1.5 million tons. But the BIR report reveals much more. In 2003, China’s 1.2 billion people produced 1.7 million tons of e-scrap, thus yielding 1.4kg/person. China has since emerged as the world’s second largest generator of electronic waste even though the per capita waste created is still meagre when compared to other Asian countries.

This trend indicates that China’s continued economic rise despite the current trade war between Beijing and Washington will not only lead to an increase in the quantity of e-waste. Per capita waste figures are expected to grow significantly as well.

Global E-Scrape generated and estimated in six geopolitical regions.

Prosperity provides protection. This is the summary of the reasons the Chinese government gave when it announced the ban on foreign e-scrap. The rich loves its digital wants but hates its electronic waste. As China’s volume of generated e-waste grows, it is expected that the volume sent abroad to emerging countries where labour costs and lax controls allow unscrupulous merchants and syndicates to operate will only increase. The ban by China has since increased shipments to other Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia. But these jurisdictions are also putting regulations in place to fight off such polluting inflows.

In the UNU report cited earlier, China’s aggregate of imported UEEEs examined in the Port of Lagos is second only to that of the EU, a direct consequence of the region’s reluctance to process its own e-scrap waste at home. NESREA says it lacks the capacity of enforce its own rules on the importation of e-waste into Nigeria amidst the issue of overlap of institutional roles. First, the agency’s duties are curtailed by the lack of data. “The quantity of UEEE shipped into Lagos from China…cannot be estimated by NESREA as the Agency does not get the manifest of shipments,” a NESREA spokesperson said.

In the past two years, NESREA says it only inspected about 150 containers at the four terminals of the Port of Lagos. The scale of the containers in comparison with the availability of inspection personnel makes proper controls of e-waste from abroad a herculean task for Nigerian officials. Despite the logistical challenges it faces, the Agency discovered three containers of WEEEs including batteries, computer motherboards, scrap electronics panels, and cables that had been imported into Nigeria in 2018. The consignment was repatriated back to Malaysia on August 28, 2018.

Three-Year Financial Statement of StenaWorld Srl. (Credit: Matteo Civillini).

One man’s trash is another’s stash. In Nigeria, recycling companies are beginning to spring up in response to the increase in e-waste generated domestically and those imported from abroad. E-Terra is one of Lagos’ recycling companies. It currently has 35 people on its payroll, up from 25 the previous year. The company also processes about 40 tons of waste yearly. On a tour of its facility, it was revealed that E-Terra recently signed a partnership agreement with Envirobat, another recycling company in Spain. The agreement could ensure a transfer of technical know-how that will enable E-Terra to recycle batteries.

When asked about the payoffs of their business, E-Terra’s facility manager, Patrick Inoh said, “We have a local market where precious metals like iron, copper, aluminium are sold. There are vendors who take these metals from us, at a cost, and sell to the local iron and aluminium smelting companies.”

Solar solutions, polluter problems

The growing threat of climate change has necessitated that countries undergo energy transition by replacing fossils with renewables. The quest to reduce carbon emissions is at the forefront of the drive to install solar panels, both on rooftops for household usance and on large-scale industrial sites. The compelling argument that solar energy is a non-polluting source of cheap and clean power drove many Italian homes to install these panels in the 90s and 2000s. Designed to function for around 25 to 30 years, an increasing number of these solar modules are coming to the end of their life cycle.

The EU categorizes these used solar panels as e-waste and they fall under the WEEE Directive, which has been ratified by member states. The Directive requires manufacturers of the modules to collect and dispose them at the end of their life cycle. In the past months, Italian authorities have raised alarms about the involvement of criminal groups in the disposal of solar panels. The danger inherent in the lack of treatment of used modules is like other e-waste — their component hazardous materials enter the environment, thus polluting poorer communities in faraway places such as Africa.

“Our ongoing investigations are showing us that criminal enterprises are very interested in taking exhausted solar panels, which have a specific life cycle. They issue a false declaration of underperformance and in that way the solar panels are not treated as ‘waste’ anymore but as second-hand products that can be sold in other parts of the world. We are observing several trafficking routes going to countries in Africa or Asia,” Angelo Agovino, the chief of Italy’s environmental police reported to parliament in March 2019. More shipments of 1,000 tons of solar panels were found at Genoa port, bound for Africa, two months later.

Fabrizio Longoni, the president of CdC RAEE, the public authority in Italy that is tasked with the responsibility of optimizing the collection and treatment of waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) has a markedly different opinion on solar panels being shipped to West Africa.

“There is a real second-hand market for the solar panels,” Longoni says. “Why is the panel good for African countries? Because in fact it is an energy generator that does not need to be attached to the grid. They don’t care that it is low performance. If you buy it at a very low price it is useful, and it could last another ten years. This is not a waste but a reuse. We do not know how much this market is worth in numerical terms.”

Giuseppe Piardi is a key stakeholder in the Italian recycling industry. Besides the irritating bureaucratic red tapes for which any official government business in Italy is renowned, Piardi says cost drivers are by far the most important factors affecting the sustainability of e-waste processing enterprises in his country. “We have a very expensive bureaucratic system. It has been assessed that the compliance costs for a plant that follows the rules range from 50 to 80 euros per ton of WEEE. On refrigerators, we receive an average fee of 50 euros per ton, which is zeroed only by compliance costs.”

Some NGOs differ in their approach to the issue. Declan Murray, a University of Edinburgh researcher and blogger, has assisted CLASP, a Washington DC-based non-profit organization working “to mitigate the growing energy demand from the use of appliances, lighting, and equipment in the developing world” to organize the Global LEAP Solar E-Waste Challenge. Around $1.6 million in funding was earmarked by the organizers for competitors of the challenge and winners were named in Nairobi, Kenya in July 2019. Murray served as a technical adviser for the project, deciding on categories, criteria and other matters.

“The idea of the programme is to highly raise it as an issue but also start demonstrating solutions,” he said over Skype. “It also serves as a pilot funding for some organizations to start collecting solar waste.”

In Germany, I have observed how consumers are able to return plastic bottles in exchange for vouchers at retail stores. Apple does something similar with its range of products. If you make it, you must take it back once it’s broken. That’s a tenet which manufacturers of digital devices, and by extension various producers and businesses must be compelled to live by. It’s the 21st century; the capacity to achieve these goals are available. What we need is the courage to do them.

Victor not victim

Mr. Amienwanlan plans to return to university for graduate studies. His success might inspire others, especially youths, not to give up.

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