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Uganda’s ban on refurbished computers sparks the law of unintended consequences

The dirty downside of the ICT industry is that computers have to go somewhere when they die and because they are full of potentially toxic materials they cannot simply be dumped in landfills. Uganda’s Government has sought to tackle part of the problem by banning the import of secondhand computers and sparked the law of unintended consequences. Russell Southwood talked to Shakeel Padamsey of Camara and Kyle Spencer of the Uganda Linux Group about what’s happened.

In June 2009 the Ugandan Government passed the Financial Bill which prohibited the import of  “used refrigerators, freezers, computers and television sets” from October 2009. The background to the legislation was a concern that Uganda was not dealing properly with the issue of e-waste.

In May 2008 a report called “e-Waste Assessment in Uganda - A situational analysis of e-waste management and generation with special emphasis on personal computers authored by the Uganda Cleaner Production Centre and EMPA from Switzerland (and sponsored by UNID0 and Microsoft draw attention to the issue. It concluded that:”… only around 10% of those computers (estimated 300,000 in 2007) reach the waste stream, whereas the rest is kept in storage without being used. The 10% in the waste stream gets collected by individuals, whereas material and parts are sold informally and the rest gets dumped informally…This (is) equal to about 2,000 tons of computer waste (desktop unit
and CRT screen) in total, which contains e.g. 80 tons of printed circuit boards and 400 tons of plastic. These numbers are hypothetical but represent a realistic order of magnitude”. The report’s recommendation was that it be dealt with by a UNIDO/Microsoft refurbishment initiative.

However, the Government’s complete ban on used computers has had significant unintended consequences. According to a position paper in December 2010 from the E-Waste Special Interest Group is comprised of over 200 traders, importers, suppliers, recyclers, and ICT-Education charitable organisations involved with refurbished ICT equipment:” The vast majority of educational institutions, SMEs, and the public rely upon NGOs and other used-computer importers for affordable high-quality ICT equipment. This ban especially affects thousands of schools and millions of
students who rely upon these organisations for their ICT needs”.

“The six-fold price difference between the cheapest refurbished computer (supplied with educational software, training and maintenance), means that schools that
would have been able to afford 10 or 20 computers now can only afford 2 or 3, making teaching ICT impossible and affecting generations of Ugandans. As a result of the work of organisations which were operating before the ban was implemented, over 2 million
individuals now have access to high quality branded ICT equipment”.

“Due to these efforts, educational software and the Internet is now more widely accessible, providing access for 1.8 million students across 4500 schools – working towards targets set out within a number of Millennium Development Goals (2 and 8f). Furthermore, these organisations have trained approximately 32,000 individuals, including 4000 teachers. As a result of the ban, it is estimated that per year at least 1,500 teachers will not be trained and more than 500,000 students will not gain access to ICT equipment”.

But is not just the education sector that will feel the consequences but also Uganda’s economy:”According to our research, we estimate that the ban immediately eliminates over one thousand skilled jobs and annually removes $17 million from the local economy. A 2009 study by Private Sector Foundation Uganda, projects
that losses as a result of the ban will total $60 million in revenue and 100,000 jobs in Uganda, compared to the EAC and other African countries without a ban”. All lobby groups are prone to exaggerate slightly for effect but the points are well made.

The e-Waste Special Interest Group is arguing that the alternative is to produce sound and enforceable regulations on the importation of all electronic goods through licensing of businesses, ensuring only high quality goods are brought into the country. Elements of this approach would include: licensing importers of electronic goods; verification of equipment sent to Uganda by organizations like such Bureau Veritas, SGS, and Intertek; and a system of independent auditing procedures to be adopted with the help of
relevant Government institutions to ensure that each organisation is actively
involved in recycling activities; and a recycling “deposit” that would be refunded when the defunct computer was delivered to a recycling centre.

The Government’s response to these points has been somewhat ill-thought-out. In the response from the Government Minister, NEMA (the environmental agency) and the Parliamentary Natural Resources Committee, it said:”Uganda is being used as a dumping ground by developed countries and yet we do not have capacity to dispose E- waste”.

Two points are very clear: Firstly, why would anyone go to the time and trouble of exporting e-waste to an inland country like Uganda? What is currently being exported are secondhand computers that have a 2-3 year life. Secondly, if Uganda genuinely becomes the ICT society it aspires to be, it will build up a steady stream of defunct computers (and fridges, freezers and televisions) and as every year passes the number will increase. Therefore surely now is the moment to start creating recycling facilities as one of the unfortunate consequences of getting wealthier is that you have to deal with a different type of waste.

The response also said “that government plans to distribute free computers to government aided schools. It will also ensure that computers are assembled locally at affordable prices”. Sad to say, in our view pigs will fly before this starts happening. Again encouraging a local assembly industry is laudable but Uganda is a relatively small market in which to make it financially viable.

Kyle Spencer estimates that out of an estimated 350,000-500,000 computers in the country, 130,000 are computers that were bought secondhand. Of these, 1 in seven were refurbished computers:”They simply don’t have the data to support their argument.” Currently an average refurbished computer costs between US$60-70 whereas a new computer at the low end costs around US$350, a price differential of 5-6 times.

If the Government wants to encourage computer ownership then giving access at the lower price is surely worthy of consideration. Indeed Padamsey’s own organization sold refurbished computers to schools for just US$50. Padamsey says:”The Government wanted to give a waiver to one organization to import refurbished computers. But what can be given by Government can be taken away and a waiver system would be open to corruption.”

Padamsey went to one of the major landfill sites North of Kampala:”There was some eWaste like dot matrix printers and TVs but most of it was very old. There’s a Chinese company that has been trying to buy plastics and metals at US25 cents a kilo. Things like this would be the basis for a new recycling industry. NEMA doesn’t seem to distinguish between refurbishing and recycling. Our organization runs an e-waste facility in Mombasa and when computers in schools reach the end of their life, they have to return them to us”.

This is story without heroes and villains but a classic case where legislation has created unintended consequences. The Government has put itself in the position where it is cutting off a supply of cheap, working computers and will need to take on the task of supplying computers to schools (Which part of the budget will that come out of?). It is seeking to deal with a small amount of the refurbished waste stream without anticipating the huge increase in e-waste that the successful adoption of new computers will bring about. Creating recycling capacity has to be the way to go and is probably cheaper than the current legal corner that the politicians have backed themselves into.

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