Electronic Waste Gives Investors Chance to Make Cash From Trash

Computing

The growing volume of e-waste in the region is creating new opportunities for local entrepreneurs and multinationals, who hope to tap into the $14 billion global market.
As the government ups pressure on technology firms and other large-scale importers to manage their electronic waste more efficiently, industrialists are hoping the environmental threat can translate to increased job opportunities and income generating activities.

"Given the volume of IT electronic waste entering the country today, there is a critical need to grow formal recycling capacity to cater for the whole region," said Ken Mbwaya, managing director Hewlett Packard (HP) East and Southern Africa.

E-waste refers to the remains of used electronic goods, while IT e-waste is specifically used to refer to the remains of used information technology electronics equipment.

Earlier this month, Camara Education started an e-waste facility in Mombasa, becoming the latest entrant in a growing field of e-waste handlers in the region.
Camara is a non-governmental organisation that uses technology to make learning easier by providing schools with computers.

"The plant is poised to create over 1,000 jobs since the industry is labour intensive while addressing current health and environmental threats," said the technical director of Camara Education Eoghan Cosby. The move is the latest in a string of initiatives that aim to tap into the over 17,350 tonnes of electronic waste generated annually.

A United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) study released early this year shows that the annual generation of e-waste in Kenya stands at 11,400 tonnes from refrigerators, 2,800 tonnes from TVs, 2,500 tonnes from personal computers, 500 tonnes from printers and 150 tonnes from mobile phones.

With over 20 million mobile phone subscribers, three million computer owners and a growing dependence on electronic products, analysts say Kenya is ripe for major investments in recycling plants presenting consumers with where to safely dispose off the devices. This means that the volume of e-waste produced from mobile phones and other related appliances is set to increase.

HP is planning to establish recycling centres in major towns. "We are seeing how the plant we have in partnership with Camara at the Coast will perform then we shall follow up with several plants across the country," said Mbwaya. They will join other groups like Computers For Schools -- who recently partnered with Cisco -- and other small scale recycling operations that have set up e-waste recycling initiatives in Nairobi.

Computer for Schools is an NGO that provides learning aid to educational institutions in form of IT equipment.

The sector has provided grassroots business opportunities for small-scale entrepreneurs, who process computer monitors into affordable television sets, which they sell locally and export to Uganda.

"Some of us collect hard disks for export to China. We, however, need more training to break down most of these components," says Gideon Masasia, one among ten small-scale e-waste managers at Ngara market in Nairobi.

The informal model, which has also been adopted in China, could be easily replicated in Kenya, given that most of the waste in the Asian country is held up in households and institutions.

This can then be boosted with the centralised national recycling system used by South Africa where the national plant breaks down more complicated components.

Plastics, ferrous metals and aluminium can all be recycled and sold to industries in Kenya.

Copper, printed wiring boards, cathode ray tubes and other hazardous fractions cannot, and are currently exported to markets in Europe and Asia due to lack of end-to-end manufacturers recycling.

Research done by HP shows that more than 50 per cent of the computers sold in the Kenyan market are second-hand and a majority of those donated to schools are also used, meaning they easily degenerate into e-waste.

Players in the sector said that investors should know that the raw materials base extends to the larger East African region, following the ease of transporting goods after the coming into force of the Customs Union mid this year. "Incoming players should not worry about raw materials as the larger free trade area will boost capacity," said Seth Munyambu, director of Computer for Schools.

Kenya, therefore, becomes a better location for the setting up of the processing plants given its proximity to the Coast, making it easier to export the by-products at a low cost.

Industry players, however, say that large-scale investors are sceptical of putting their money in the local market because the country does not have clear policies yet. "We only operate under the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) guidelines. Large-scale investors are waiting for the approval of a national policy because they don't know the terms under which they will be doing business," said Munyambu. This has seen a few players set up recycling plants. These are mainly those like manufacturers or distributors, who are obligated to do so.

However, Nema officials said a Bill should be ready within 15 months. "We are engaging all stakeholders and these guidelines should be finalised this year and form the basis for a new environmental policy that should be complete in the next 15 months. It will have a stronger focus on e-waste, which has not been adequately addressed in previous legislation," said Mr Malwa Langwen, the director of compliance and enforcement at Nema.