A glimmer of hope comes to Agbogbloshie, Ghana, but is this the relief Accra residents desperately need?
Urgent update: The Abgbogbloshie Scrapyard was totally demolished on July 1, 2021. Read more in the new article below:
Dagara, a 'burner boy', at Agbogbloshie, Accra, Ghana/ March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
A Glimmer of Hope Comes to Agbogbloshie, Ghana
Accra, March 27, 2019 - The German Government and Ghana’s Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology, and Innovation (MESTI) have jointly inaugurated a €5 million health post and training workshop inside the Agbogbloshie scrapyard to help tackle the impact of e-waste in Ghana.
Inaugurating the €5 Million Agbogbloshie Technical Training Centre at Agbogbloshie, Accra, Ghana/ 27 March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
According to both Germany and Ghana, the inaugurated facility (pictured below) 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
The €5 Million Agbogbloshie Technical Training Centre, Accra, Ghana/ 31 March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
The facility is part of a €25 million support from Germany to Ghana to help address the impact of e-waste in the country.
While great idea and commendable, this follows the usual 'emergency relief' framework. Not exactly addressing the underlying problems.
I can't seem to wrap my head around the German Government partnering the Government of Ghana — responsible for the mess — to tackle Agbogbloshie. This unlikely partnership appears great from afar.
But this again follows the usual 'top-down' approach to tackling problems in poorer countries.
The pattern is usually framed this way: let's start addressing the problem from the government level down to the community level. Let's not be bothered at all by how the people we intend to help perceive our 'concepts of solutions' to their problems.
Post-developmentalists such as Amartya Sen and Arturo Escobar have heavily criticized this approach to development in poorer countries.
This project was technically directed by the German implementing agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), with inputs from Ghana (or not at all as one cannot tell since it usually involves using nicely couched diplomatic phrases to cover for a developing country shoving off its problems on another country).
Agbogbloshie is near the center of Accra. Issues of toxicity wouldn't be extensive throughout the Agbogbloshie area without the explicit knowledge of the Government of Ghana.
On liability, the Government of Ghana is responsible for the destruction of the Agbogbloshie ecosystem, in my opinion.
I will get this out of the way first: I’m not in anyway opposed to the institutional development approach. Far from it.
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 end of world war II.
The post-development school view the post-war development projects by Governments and NGOs in poorer countries, which are heavily influenced by development theory (such as the modernization theory), as monolithic, and hegemonic.1
They argue that development projects in poorer countries often failed partly because donor Governments and NGOs fail to account for cultural variations and local perspectives.
Some of the theorists 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 has demonstrated that western models of development have not worked in the non-western context since 1945.
Dismantled Printed Circuit Boards at Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana/ 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
Not to get much into theories, but 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 turn without first asking us about the problems, and how it could be tackled from our ‘primitive’ point of views?
The city-dwelling ministers of states who drive in foreign aid sponsored SUVs magically have all the solutions to villagers' problems some hundreds/thousands of miles away. No need to collect any data, just hand over money to them and hope they would sort out the villagers.
How has that worked out in the last 70 years?
Problem is, very often the government officials are clueless o how to tackle the problems, yet they will take the money anyway.
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
One of the most visible problems at Agbogbloshie is the open burning of electrical wires to recover copper.
The unsafe dismantling of televisions, computers and other electronics are very serious alright, but this cannot be compared with the environmental pollution from the burning of the cables, which poses immediate health risks to the residents of Accra.
Burner Boys at the Agbogbloshie e-waste dump, Accra, Ghana/ November 2018 Copyright © 2019 Muntaka Chasant
Dr. Stefan Oswald, the Director-General of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation and Development, in addressing the audience at the inauguration of the Agbogbloshie Technical Training Centre commented that Agbogbloshie is often sensationalized in the international media.2
He said: “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.”
A young person uses a stone to break apart an old television set to recover the iron materials inside at Agbogbloshie, Accra, Ghana/ August 2019. This area of the scrapyard is strewn with crushed CRT screens. Copyright © 2019 Muntaka Chasant/atcmask.com
Dr. Oswald is partly correct there. For instance, the Agbogbloshie scrapyard is unlikely the largest e-waste dumpsite in the world, as often reported.
Again, Agbogbloshie is more of an auto dismantling yard (for scrap metal) than a large e-waste dump. There are several other prominent livelihood activities in and around the scrapyard that are not e-waste related.
But he’s certainly wrong about the toxic pollution levels from Agbogbloshie. "Hell on earth" is not an exaggeration at all, in my opinion.
See the scenes below I captured with a mobile phone (showing just a small section of the e-waste dump). Feel free to side with Dr. Oswald after.
Agbogbloshie - A short mobile film
Still agree with Dr. Oswald that the toxic pollution levels from Agbogbloshie is exaggerated? If yes, that's fine. But read on.
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 high particulate pollution (PM) levels from the scrapyard.
This was while Dr. Oswald was dismissing the international media.
Just outside the scrapyard (in front of the Ecobank), my handheld PM2.5 monitor consistently measured more than 150 ug/m3 while the event was ongoing. Mind you, the entire place was on a lockdown for the inauguration, to make it appear as if that was the normal scene every day.
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.
While Ghana's EPA collects some small amount of air pollution data (only in some parts of Accra in the whole of Ghana), they do not share this data with the public even if air quality is expected to negatively impact human health.
The 155 μg/m3 my handheld monitor registered during the inauguration 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
Here's another measurement near the new facility two weeks later.
Agbogbloshie Air Quality/ 12 April 2019
Hweew! More than 500 μg/m3! This device cannot measure beyond 500μg/m3. That's what a normal day looks like around Agbogbloshie, Dr. Oswald, not when you visited. They gave you a good show for your money!
The measurement above is far above 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
Agbogbloshie Market, Ghana
Consider this again:
Agbogbloshie is the largest open food market in Accra.
Residents and restaurants regularly pick up yam, vegetables, fruits, beef and fish there.
Agbogbloshie market attracts people from the hinterland due its cheap food.
Agbogbloshie Onion Market is a few yards away from the Agbogbloshie scrapyard, Accra, Ghana/ April 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2016, one third of street food vendors in Accra pick up their inputs from Agbogbloshie.3
This is how the FAO characterized Agbogbloshie:
"Agbogbloshie is a toxic threat. The burning of e-waste releases toxic fumes that spread throughout the community, threatening city dwellers. The toxic chemical fumes released get into the food market and get inside the soil throughout the area when it rains. Indeed, high levels of toxins have been discovered in soil and food samples, as these chemicals stay in the food chain." - FAO, 2016.
Makes sense doesn't it? Accra residents, restaurants, etc. pick up food from one of the worst places on earth.
Referring to the €5 millions facility, 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 that is not all.
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 address the problem of the burning of electrical wires for copper recovery, Pure Earth, with local partners Green Advocacy Ghana (GreenAd) and the Greater Accra Scrap Association (GASDA), inaugurated an e-waste recycling facility inside the Agbogbloshie Scrapyard 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 granulators separate metals from cable plastic coatings.
But there was a problem they did not foresee (a simple data collection would have revealed this but they did not bother, just threw money at the problem): the machines could not process the small diameter cables that are regularly incinerated in the open in and around the Agbogbloshie scrapyard.
Separated large diameter plastic coatings, Agbogbloshie Recycling Center, Agbogbloshie, Ghana/ March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
A worker demonstrates how a wire-stripping machine works at the Agbogbloshie Recycling Center at Agbogbloshie, Ghana (sponsored by Pure Earth and GreenAd)/ March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
A worker demonstrates how a wire-stripping machine works at the Agbogbloshie Recycling Center, Agbogbloshie, Ghana/ March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
So, the first phase was a failure, which Pure Earth has admitted.
There was a second phase.
They brought in new units. This time to help separate the metals from the small diameter plastic coatings.
Agbogbloshie Recycling Center, Agbogbloshie, Ghana/ 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.
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. This is not only about electrical cables.
Agbogbloshie e-waste dump, Accra, Ghana/ April 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
A mixture of armature and other objects about to be set on fire to recover the copper inside - Agbogbloshie, Accra, Ghana/ August 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
Urban miner setting tangled wires up on fire at the Agbogbloshie e-waste dump in Accra, Ghana.
Burning electrical wires to reclaim the copper wires inside at Agbogbloshie, Ghana. March 2020. © 2020 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 are required 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.
Dagara, a 'burner boy', looks at his own image used as a model, reflecting on his years as a burner boy. Dagara hopes to find a better job some day. Agbogbloshie Recycling Center/ March 2019 Photo Credit: Muntaka Chasant
Another model at this post (by GIZ and its local partners) 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, and it appears they were 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 the openly incinerated wires.
Some of the scrap dealers also claim that the copper are heavier and weighs much more (which means more money) when burned in the open than using the wire-stripping machines. The cleanly stripped wires look way too light for them.
I couldn't wrap my head around this. I suspended all rational thoughts in order to make sense of what was going on at Agbogbloshie.
So, despite spending nearly $150,000, this the Pure Earth ‘recycling’ model has not succeeded in minimizing the burning of electrical wires for copper recovery at Agbogbloshie.
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 (a section is pictured above) across a waterway from the Agbogbloshie scrapyard. Parts of this 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
Around twenty more million Euros (Good for German taxpayers' and how your money is being used abroad) are in play here. Remember €5 millions is already gone. Some of this money is meant to fund an e-waste recycling facility.
The urban miners you often see in photos on the internet 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 (not always), who resell them to scrap dealers inside the Agbogbloshie scrapyard and elsewhere. The wires are then turned over to the 'burner boys' to use crude methods to recover dirty copper.
The urban mined copper are then carted away, weighed and sold, mostly to foreigners inside the Agbogbloshie scrapyard, for instant cash.
While it may appear poverty has a tight grip on people living around Agbogbloshie, make no mistake — not all of them are poor. E-waste recycling is a very profitable business.
The price of copper at Agbogbloshie as of January 2021 was around GH₵16 ($2.7) per pound. The global price of copper as of February 19, 2021, was around $4.07 — according to the website macrotrends.net.
A lot of copper from Agbogbloshie are exported out of Ghana, where they are used as components in new products.
The burner boys 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.
But here's another side to this.
Some of the burner boys make as high as GH₵200 cedis (around $35) or more on a good day. On average, they make roughly around GH₵50 (around $10) per day. This is in reference to the burner boys' 'masters'. The 'masters' (bosses) are also burner boys, and they are those you frequently see in documentaries and on the internet. Majority of the burner boys work as apprentices under other experienced burner boys.
The average monthly net income for a bachelor's degree holder in Ghana is around $200 or below.
By the average calculations above, some of the burners could be earning more than bachelor's degree holders in Ghana.
It won't be easy to get them off the landfill if the job isn't going to net them that much each day.
A lot of them cannot read or write well enough to hold a job. And not a lot of employers in Ghana will be willing to pay more than $300 per month to a non bachelor's degree holder.
And the Government of Ghana does not have the capacity to employ tens of thousands of low-skilled workers and pay them around $300/month.
It is possible to man the area and attempt to stop the burner boys from open burning, but that won't be solving it. They will pack up and move to 'Kokomba Galloway' where there are already several functioning (discreet location that doesn't attract much attention) cable burning spots along the Korle.
What a terrible situation.
You can see why it won't be easy to get these guys off the landfill. Besides, getting them out of the Agbogbloshie e-waste dump won't be changing much.
The people making the real money from the copper recovery business at Agbogbloshie would find their replacement the following morning.
Some of the burner boys 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 Government's plan to construct an e-waste recycling facility to employ them.
How do you attempt to solve something as complex as Agbogbloshie without involving the people directly? And won't collect even a small amount of data to get a head start over the situation?
You probably don't understand the culture of Agbogbloshie, if you think a sit-down with the GASDA leadership is the same thing as sampling opinion from the scrapyard. Far from it.
Yes, it can get tough trying to get good data or closer to indigenous people in some poorer communities, sometimes. Is that an excuse to look at the problem on the surface and throw some money at it? Most likely not.
An observation. Not just about Agbogbloshie, but anytime I have attempted to get closer to understand a problem (mostly low-income families or poverty-related livelihood strategies), I always got the sense that my intentions were misconstrued as malice towards them. I guess that is probably because what we on the outside see as a problem is often their attempted solution to tackle another problem. Disrupting this is not always welcomed.
An example. On an air pollution awareness campaign in late 2018, a slaughterhouse worker at Jamestown in Accra attempted to assault me and two journalists who had come to report on the campaign. Ran into the same guy a couple of weeks back while in the area. He gave me the middle finger and threatened me with physical violence if I attempt to go anywhere near his territory again. My deeds? I only suggested they find an alternative to the use of scrap tires to singe livestock (health and air pollution-wise). This didn’t go down too well with him.
Yes, it's tough sometimes with the locals, but just throwing money at problems doesn't help much either.
Any solution without taking into account the bulging youth population in the nearby 'Sodom and Gomorrah' and the other settlements won't help much, in my estimation.
'Sodom and Gomorrah' and the Agbogbloshie scrapyard are intrinsically linked.
There are tens of thousands of economic refugees living in the nearby settlements. 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 (only 3.1% of population 3 years and older had a bachelor's degree in Ghana in 2016 ), 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 2021.
Conceptualized solutions to problems drawn up in Berlin, London or DC, without the perspectives and involvement of the targeted country's indigenous people (not government officials), have not worked very well in the last 70 years.
Agbogbloshie is one hell of a messy place. Good luck tackling it!
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)↩