A glimmer of hope comes to Agbogbloshie, but is this the relief Accra residents desperately need?
Last updated: 12 April 2019 11:46 PM (GMT)
By Muntaka Chasant | 2414 words | Reading time: 9 min
Scrap worker at Agbogbloshie, Accra, Ghana/ March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
A Glimmer of Hope Comes to Agbogbloshie
Accra, March 27 - The German government and Ghana’s Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation (MESTI), have jointly inaugurated a health post and training workshop inside the Agbogbloshie scrapyard to help tackle the impact of e-waste in Ghana.
Launch of Agbogbloshie Technical Training Centre at Agbogbloshie, Accra, Ghana/ 27 March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
Dignitaries gathered in this highly toxic environment to open a small facility that would provide Agbogbloshie residents with frontline medical access, and also serve as a training center for the dismantling and recycling of e-waste.
Agbogbloshie Technical Training Centre, Accra, Ghana/ 31 March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
Agbogbloshie Technical Training Centre, Accra, Ghana/ 31 March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
Great idea, except this follows the usual ‘emergency relief’ framework - not exactly addressing the underlying problems - just something to show to donors/taxpayers.
This article was updated to show the already deteriorating conditions of this facility just 16 days after inauguration. Please note the photo captions before and after.
16 days after the launch of the Agbogbloshie Technical Training Centre, Accra, Ghana/ 12 April 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
Squatters starting to take over in just 16 days after inauguration.
Squatters starting to take over the Agbogbloshie Technical Training Centre in just two weeks/ 12 April 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
This facility is part of a 25 Million Euros support from Germany to the government of Ghana to address the impact of e-waste.
So the German government is partnering the government of Ghana (responsible for the problems), to tackle Agbogbloshie.
The usual 'top-down' approach. This development approach has been decried by scholars such as Amartya Sen and Arturo Escobar.
This highlights both the shortsightedness of the approach to 'solving' Agbogbloshie, and the incapacity of the government of Ghana to design and implement policies for development.
Agbogbloshie is near the center of Accra. It would not exist without the explicit knowledge of the government of Ghana.
I will get this out of the way first: I’m not opposed to the institutional development approach.
Not in the sense that post-development theorists such as Escobar, Sachs, and Mahnema have argued about the failures of development in the developing parts of the world since the years after the second world war.
The post-development school view the post-war development projects by governments and NGOs, which are heavily influenced by development theory (such as the modernization theory), as monolithic, and hegemonic.1
They argue that development projects often end in failures, partly because Governments and NGOs fail to account for cultural variations and local perspectives.
Some have argued that the practice of development is embedded in a western-dominated discourse, which perceives the developing world as inferior.
In short, this thinking demonstrates that western models of development have not worked in the non-western context since 1949.
Circuit boards - Agbogbloshie e-waste dump, Accra, Ghana/ March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
The post-developmentalists are correct to some extent here, I think.
Poor us, don’t we need some pity and money thrown at us at every chance without asking us about the problems, and how it could be tackled from our ‘primitive’ point of views?
This argument should not overlook the premises of intervention. There are several cases where intervention has proven successful.
The Marshall Plan helped to rebuild Europe after the war.
Did intervention work in Europe because both the United States and Western Europe are part of the Global North?
Back to Agbogbloshie.
Agbogbloshie e-waste dump, Accra, Ghana/ March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
The most immediate problem at Agbogbloshie is the burning of insulated cables and radial tires to recover copper, radial steel and other precious metals.
The unsafe dismantling of televisions and computers are very serious alright, but this cannot be compared with the air pollution from the burning, which poses immediate health risks to the residents of Accra.
Agbogbloshie e-waste dump, Accra, Ghana/ November 2018 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
Dr. Stefan Oswald, the Director-General of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development, mentioned that Agbogbloshie is often sensationalized in the international media.2
“It is not the ‘hell on earth’ like it is often reported in the international media, however, we need to work hard to make it a place where about 10,000 scrap workers can earn a living under improved health and environmental conditions.”
Dr. Oswald is partly correct there. Agbogbloshie scrapyard is unlikely the largest e-waste dumpsite in the world, as often reported. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence to support this.
Again, Agbogbloshie is more of an auto dismantling yard than the large e-waste dumpsite you read about in the news.
But he’s certainly wrong about the pollution levels from the scrapyard. 'Hell on earth' is not an exaggeration at all, in my opinion. See video below.
Agbogbloshie - A short film
Although burning was brought to a temporary halt to make way for the event (to please people such as Dr. Oswald), a handheld monitor in my pocket was still beeping from the high particulate pollution (PM) levels inside the scrapyard.
This was while Dr. Oswald was dismissing the international media.
Just outside the scrapyard (in front of the Ecobank), my PM2.5 monitor consistently measured more than 150 ug/m3 while the event was ongoing.
You can see a measurement in the photo below - 155 micrograms per cubic meter [μg/m3] of ultra-fine particles of 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter which can penetrate and lodge deep inside our lungs.
Air Quality at Agbogbloshie
PM2.5s are linked to heart disease, stroke and lung cancer, and are worse in cities such as Accra due to poor air quality controls.
155 μg/m3 is more than 6 times above the maximum limits recommended by the World Health Organization (25μg/m3 24-hour mean).
Agbogbloshie Air Quality/ 27 March 2019
Below is another measurement near the new facility two weeks later.
Agbogbloshie Air Quality/ 12 April 2019
More than 500μg/m3. This device cannot measure beyond 500μg/m3.
This measurement is far beyond the 'hazardous' level of the US EPA Air Quality Index (AQI).
The measurement is more than 20 times above the WHO recommended safe limits.
US EPA PM2.5 AQI/ Source: US EPA
Add this to the equation:
Agbogbloshie is the largest open food market in Accra.
Residents and restaurants regularly pick up vegetables, fruits, beef and fish here.
Agbogbloshie market attracts people from the hinterland due its cheap food.
Agbogbloshie Onion Market is a few yards away from Agbogbloshie scrapyard, Accra, Ghana/ April 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2016), one third of street food vendors in Accra pick up their inputs from Agbogbloshie.3
Makes sense doesn't it? Accra residents, restaurants, etc. pick up their food from one of the worst places on earth.
The German Ambassador to Ghana, Mr. Retzlaff, said “this will be a model for e-waste recycling in Ghana”.
Correct, this ‘could’ be a model e-waste recycling facility. But read on.
There has been a ‘model’ e-waste recycling post inside the scrapyard since 2014. This new technical training center shares a wall with the Pure Earth and GreenAd 'model’ e-waste recycling facility. More about this below.
Why has the ‘model’ E-waste Recycling Facility inside Agbogbloshie not been successful?
To solve the problem of the burning of insulated wires for copper recovery, Pure Earth, with local partners Green Advocacy Ghana (GreenAd) and the Greater Accra Scrap Association (GASDA) opened an e-waste recycling facility in Agbogbloshie, Accra, in 2014.
This facility was opened with fanfare. A Pure Earth press release on this was titled ’Change and Hope Comes To Agbogbloshie’.
The facility houses wire-stripping machines in blue shipping containers inside the scrapyard (photos below). The machines separate metals from cable plastic coatings.
But there was a problem they did not foresee - the machines could not process the small diameter cables that are commonly burned inside the Agbogbloshie scrapyard for copper recovery.
Separated large diameter plastic coatings at the Agbogbloshie Recycling Center/ March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
A worker demonstrating how a wire-stripping machine works at the Agbogbloshie Recycling Center (sponsored by Pure Earth and GreenAd)/ March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
A worker demonstrating how a wire-stripping machine works at the Agbogbloshie Recycling Center/ March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
So the first phase was a failure, which Pure Earth has admitted.
There was a second phase.
They installed newer units, this time to help separate the metals from the small diameter plastic coatings.
Agbogbloshie Recycling Center/ March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
It’s been about 4 years now, and the burning has gotten worse.
1. They now have a unit that is capable of stripping the small diameter wires alright. But this requires a tremendous amount of time to untangle the wires (like below) before feeding each wire through the granulator and separator.
Open burning takes only a few minutes. So guess which the scrap dealers still prefer?
Aside insulated copper wires, you also have refrigerator coils, alternators, other auto parts, and anything with embedded copper, to tackle.
Agbogbloshie e-waste dump, Accra, Ghana/ April 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
Urban miner setting tangled wires up on fire at the Agbogbloshie e-waste dump, Accra, Ghana/ November 2018 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
Freshly recovered copper about to be carted away and sold. Agbogbloshie e-waste dump, Accra, Ghana/ April 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
2. To sustain the facility, scrap dealers have to pay a small token to use the granulator. This is a problem for the scrap dealers. Thus open burning is still their preferred choice.
"The machines sometimes steal the copper or cut the small wires into pieces," a scrap worker told me about the granulators.
Stuck pieces of copper wires in the stripping machine may be turning them away as well.
Every piece of copper counts at Agbogbloshie. And they also prefer their wires long and intact.
For now, the wire-stripping machines are only gathering dust.
Abdallah, a burner, looks at his own image used as a model, reflecting on his years as a burner. Abdallah hopes to find a better job some day. Agbogbloshie Recycling Center/ March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
Another model at this post is to collect the cables as they were originally collected by scavengers, and recycle them in a facility elsewhere.
The scrap dealers lose about a dollar per kilo of copper cables this way. This is too much money to let go for selling the cables as they were scavenged. Doesn't seem to work for them.
They prefer to burn them in the open, to make a little extra.
I asked around further, and it appears they are not regularly paid instant cash with this model.
No one wants to part ways with their wires and have to return a week later for cash. They are assured of instant cash with open burning.
So, despite spending nearly $150,000, this ‘recycling’ model has not succeeded in minimizing the burning of insulated wires for copper recovery at the Agbogbloshie scrapyard.
Can't blame them. They tried their best.
Agbogbloshie (Sodom and Gomorrah) in Accra, Ghana/ December 2018 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
Most of the scrap workers live in a settlement across a waterway from the Agbogbloshie scrapyard. The community is locally nicknamed 'Sodom and Gomorrah'.
A study in 2008 found scrap-related work as the second largest category of employment in the settlement.4
Twenty more million Euros are in play here. Some for a yet to commence e-waste recycling facility.
The urban miners you often see in photos are only the visible manifestation of the precious metals business at Agbogbloshie.
First, scavengers collect the wires from their daily run around Accra. They sell their exploits to intermediaries, who resell them to scrap dealers inside the Agbogbloshie scrapyard. The wires are then turned over to the burners to use crude methods to recover dirty copper.
The urban mined copper are then carted away quickly, weighted and sold, mostly to foreigners inside the Agbogbloshie scrapyard, for instant cash.
The burners earn the least in this process - as low as GH₵2 (about $0.40) per burn sometimes. They are the downtrodden victims of this toxic place.
Some of the burners are now my good friends, and I feel terribly for them. I have asked about 30 of them, and none seemed to have any idea about the yet to be constructed e-waste recycling facility.
How do you attempt to solve something as complex as Agbogbloshie without involving the people directly?
Any solution without taking into account the population in the nearby 'Sodom and Gomorrah' settlement would be problematic. The scrapyard likely wouldn't exist without them.
'Sodom and Gomorrah' and Agbogbloshie scrapyard are intrinsically linked.
There are tens of thousands of them. Take 10,000 out of the scrapyard today, and there would be another 10,000 the following day to replace them.
Books, articles, and theories do not offer enough perspectives on developing countries such as Ghana.
You still have a low-literate population, rent-seeking, neopatrimonialism, patron-clientelism networks, primordial royalties, and colonial structures that continue to reinforce the power of the African elite over the poor, to deal with in 2019.
Conceptualized solutions to problems drawn up in Berlin, London or DC, without the perspectives and involvement of the targeted country's indigenous people (not the government), has not worked very well in the last 70 years.
Good luck tackling Agbogbloshie!
See also: Photos: The Rwandan Genocide
See also: Videos and Photos of Agbogbloshie, Ghana
Please leave your comments below, and let us know what you think!
1. https://www.jstor.org/action/doBasicSearch?Query=post-development+theory&acc=on&wc=on&fc=off&group=none (Retrieved March, 2019) ↩
2. http://www.ghananewsagency.org/science/ghana-s-biggest-e-waste-yard-receives-face-lift--147528 (Retrieved March, 2019)↩
3. http://www.fao.org/3/a-i6369e.pdf (Retrieved March, 2019)↩
4. https://www.lumes.lu.se/sites/lumes.lu.se/files/frederick_armah.pdf (Retrieved March, 2019)↩