Uganda: Row Over Ban On Used Computers

Computing

A ban on import of used electronic equipment took effect last week, amid continuing controversy over how to deal with the growing environmental hazard.

The ban was ordered in a law approved by Parliament last year, but importers have been pushing to overturn it so they can continue to sell second-hand computers and other equipment.

The National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) is defending the law and pushing ahead with plans to establish a state-of-the-art recycling centre for electronic goods. In the process, however, Nema has become embroiled in a battle with an existing United Nations-backed recycling project.

The complicated battle suggests Uganda is still struggling to come to grips with electronic waste, one of the fastest-growing sources of hazardous waste worldwide. Aging or discarded electronic items have become the fastest growing form of waste in the world, totalling about 50 million tonnes a year.

Much of this trash is heading toward developing countries like Uganda. It is estimated that 60-80 per cent of all electronic waste and second-hand electric equipment from developed countries winds up in developing countries which lack capacity, policies, safeguards and enforcement tools to manage it safely.

The 2009 ban was Uganda's attempt to get control of this growing problem. Yet no sooner was it enacted than two trade groups - Dealers in Reconditioned Electronic Equipment (DIREE) and Uganda Electronics and Technicians Association (UETA) - petitioned Parliament to rescind the law.

They argued, among other things, that the ban would hurt Ugandan consumers by depriving them of low-cost, used computers and other electronic equipment. Nema responded that the benefits to consumers are less than meets the eye. While used computers cost less than new ones, the average amount of money spent on maintenance and the need to replace aging equipment more frequently offsets those lower costs.

Nema argues that Uganda can protect its environment and achieve economic benefits by becoming a centre for the safe disposal and recycling of electronic waste. It is planning to build a Shs 300 million electronic waste management centre at Namanve industrial park.

"We have around Shs300 million from our environmental fund and we are going to use it to set up the recycling centre," Nema executive director, Dr Aryamanya Mugisha, said.

Nema is negotiating with Second Life Uganda, a Netherlands company, to operate the facility. Its goal is to have the facility up and running by early next year.

According to Dr Aryamanya, the plant will be used as a storage point for phones, computers, printers and other discarded electronics goods. It will sort goods, recycle and re-export items that can be salvaged and destroy the rest in an environmentally safe way.

"... In Uganda, we do not have much capacity in terms of electronic management. So through this we will set up capacity programme to train people to do the work and in the process employment will be created," he said.

Nema's plans has created some tensions between Uganda's government and the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation. Earlier, Unido selected Uganda as a pilot country for computer refurbishment based on the country's Unido District Business Information centre (DBICs) programme and the government's commitment to developing the ICT sector.

Under the programme, Unido supported a computer refurbishment center operated by Uganda Green Computers Ltd. While Unido is no longer involved with Green Computers, it is planning a similar project with Microsoft Corporation. But in a March 2 letter, Nema asked the secretariat of Basel Convention, a 1992 comprehensive global environmental agreement on trans-boundary movements of hazardous wastes, to investigate the Unido-Microsoft project.

Dr Aryamanya said no environmental impact assessment was carried out prior to the establishment of the Uganda Green Computers Refurbishment Centre, contrary to environment laws.

"Some individuals are claiming to be from Microsoft and others claiming to work with Unido. They took advantage of lack of communication and worked with Ministry of Industry to try and establish a computer refurbishment centre in Uganda," Dr Aryamanya said in an interview.

Mr Bruno Otto, the head of Unido operations in Uganda, says they were not copied in Nema's letter and the Nema official they dealt with was Mr Onesimus Muhezi, the former director environmental compliance and monitoring, who was recently sacked.

"Our involvement in this project as Unido was to provide the technical training support, market survey and also equip the centre and that was it," he said. "I think there was a big misunderstanding between us during the meeting..... But what was the intention of the letter?"

“I think what we did before the policy came into place does not cancel what is there now” the Unido official said. Mr Bruno said that this really causes a diplomatic embarrassment and if Nema has a problem with green Refurbishment Centre they should use a dialogue to solve their differences.

The chairman of Green Computers, Patrick Bitature, said that the company is more or less not in business, but he declined to discuss the matter further.

The Monitor