It’s early on a Thursday morning. The sun hasn’t risen yet, and a haze – part morning mist and part smoke – hangs low over central Accra. A procession of men pushing wooden wagons, fastened to large, sturdy wheels, is already streaming down Abose-Okai Road.
They will spend the day collecting trash in and around the city, some walking up to 50km before returning home with their haul. Their wagons are rented at a daily rate of GHS1 (about R3) from “bosses” who own fleets, which run into the hundreds.
Starting early means having first option on the electronics and parts discarded by Accra’s businesses and homes. More than this, it allows the trash collectors to get some good work done before the crippling midday heat sets in and they are forced to take refuge in the roadside shade.
Before they disappear into Accra’s frantic streets, the men trundle over the Odaw River, which emerges from a series of subterranean tributaries before gathering into the Korle Lagoon and then etching an opening in Accra’s coastline, where it streams into the Gulf of Guinea.
White egrets move lightly across Korle’s surface, which sags under the weight of plastic. In its upper reaches, the lagoon’s southern bank is dominated by the Agbogbloshie shack settlement, home to nearly 100 000 people, while the world’s largest electronic waste dump – the Agbogbloshie scrapyard – looms over the northern bank.
This is where the trash wagons will return at the end of the day. Piled high with treasures, their contents will be sold to Agbogbloshie’s innumerable scrap men, who make their living reviving broken appliances and machinery, turning them into something new, or by dismantling them altogether for the precious metals that lie within.
Mining electronic waste
Agbogbloshie scrap men, such as Ali Mumuni, 30, and Abukari Nasri, 30, are links in a R936 billion global industry that researchers are calling “urban mining”. Some estimates now suggest that there is more gold, silver and copper above the earth’s surface than in the known deposits below it. The precious metals mined from defunct electronic devices – “urban ores” – are becoming big business.
Mining electronic waste is also more rewarding than traditional mining. United Nations University figures show that deposits of precious metals in electronic waste are up to 50 times richer than deposits underground. A ton of ore mined from the earth, for example, yields about 9kg of copper. A ton of electronic waste contains 15 times that amount – 131kg.
It is copper that Mumuni and Nasri are after. They spend their days in search of the gleaming brown metal in the televisions, fridges and other appliances they have bought from the wagon pushers. The words “shit happens” glimmer in gold on Mumuni’s T-shirt. He says it will take them up to four days to collect enough metal, which they will sell for between GHS100 and GHS500 (between R296 and R1 481).
Mumuni and Nasri are among the 14 500 to 21 000 people who have found work mining Accra’s electronic waste. Urban ore from the waste now generates R4 billion in Ghana every year. But at Agbogbloshie, not all shares in the electronic waste economy are equal.
As it is for Mumuni and Nasri, copper is the most valuable metal for Isaac, who chose not to give New Frame his surname. Isaac’s shirt is cleaner and his hands are smoother than the men dismantling appliances and engine parts in his small scrapyard. He sits hunched over a thick ledger where the weights and prices of the copper, aluminium and brass he has bought and sold are recorded in scrawled blue ink.
Isaac claims to sell between 2 000 and 5 000 pounds (907kg to 2268kg) a day to middlemen, who take it to Tema Harbour, 35km up the coast, where it is shipped in raw form and used to sustain fast-growing industries and cities in India and China. Almost a quarter of the metal exported from Ghana ends up in China. Isaac gets GHS10.50 (about R 31.60) for one pound (0.45kg) of copper, resulting in earnings of up to R157 000 per day.
The world’s garbage
Many of Agbogbloshie’s businesses come into direct contact with global commodity markets at Tema. Sayibu Abdullai, 26, says that the Agbogbloshie-based oil operation where he is second in command sells 100 barrels of dirty motor oil every day directly to corporations such as Coca-Cola and B5 Plus, a steel and iron behemoth operating at Tema. The oil is recovered from the engines of cars and trucks at servicing stations around Accra before being brought back to Agbogbloshie and decanted into multicoloured, dented oil barrels and transported to the harbour.
If Agbogbloshie is the place technology goes to die, then it is also the place it is resurrected. Abdul-Ruhman Nuhu, 42, for instance, buys steel coil springs from dismantled cars for GHS10 (R30). Heating the springs in a small pile of glowing embers, Nuhu brings his heavy hammer down, straightening them before he expertly smiths each of them into five chisels. Nuhu sells the chisels on again to scrap workers dismantling cars – many of the springs he is working with were likely pried from their axles with chisels he made.
Fasini Saibo, 30, restores computers, televisions and radios that, to the untrained eye, look beyond repair. Stripping them down to their bare essentials, Saibo goes to work rebuilding the complex machinery. It is a skill his father taught him in his small home town of Yendi in Ghana’s northern region.
Most of the motherboards that land up on Saibo’s lap come from outside of Ghana. In most cases they pass through local business or scrap auctions before arriving at Agbogbloshie. While the West African nation generates 179 000 tonnes of electronic waste every year, the great majority – 215 000 tonnes – of its electronic waste is imported, largely from Western Europe.
Part of this flood of obsolete electronics is down to Ghanaian policies designed to bridge the digital divide with the developed world, allowing for an influx of used computers.
But a more concerning reason for Agbogbloshie’s labyrinth of discarded computers and cellphones lies in the fact that labour is cheap in Ghana, and the rules governing the management of electronic waste are flaccid. There is a mounting concern that rich countries are sidestepping high costs and onerous domestic regulations by dumping electronic waste in poorer countries.
The United Nations Environment Programme has warned that between 60% and 90% of the nearly 50 million tonnes of noxious electronic waste produced globally every year is illegally traded or dumped.
Hazardous dumping in Africa is not new. In the 1980s, European countries turned to the continent’s economically desperate West Coast to offload boatloads of hazardous waste from tanneries and pharmaceutical companies, sometimes compensating the destination countries as little as $3 (about R6, 33 at the time) per tonne.
Research by geographers Martin Oteng-Ababio and Richard Grant, of Ghana and Miami universities, shows that ports in Africa are being used by developed nations to circumvent the protections set out in the Basel Convention, the international agreement intended to check the flow of hazardous wastes from rich to poor countries and manage their disposal.
Chief among these ports is Durban, where used computers and cellphones from the global North are rerouted and combined with Southern Africa’s electronic waste before making their way to Ghana.
Oteng-Ababio and Grant fear that Accra’s urban mining is developing into “yet another iteration of resource extraction” controlled by foreign exporters. Like the underground mining that preceded it, they argue, the offshore enjoyment of commodities produced from urban mineral resources may be at the expense of the African workers who mine them.
From food crops to scrapyards
Accra’s exclusionary rental costs coupled with municipal by-laws outlawing the operation of businesses from homes mean that Agbogbloshie remains an appealing option for people trying to make a life in the city. Muhammed Ziblim is one of them.
Ziblim, who has lived there with his wife since 2007, works with a rugged focus from beneath his frayed peak cap. Readying an old pair of fabric scissors to cut the piece of leather in his hands, Ziblim says Agbogbloshie is the one place he can do what he is good at – repairing computer screens and upholstering furniture.
The money he has left after feeding himself and his wife is sent back to northern Ghana, he says, where the vast majority of those living and working at Agbogbloshie come from, and where Ziblim’s four children are in school.
The area around the wetland on which Agbogbloshie has been built was once used for growing and selling food crops. But structural adjustment programmes sponsored by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and implemented by JJ Rawlings’s military junta in the 1980s, caused the expansion of the shack settlement at Agbogbloshie.
Mass retrenchments compounded an already established flow of people from rural northern regions into the cities in search of work, while the removal of subsidies drove up the cost of living once they arrived.
A series of municipal relocations in the early 1990s – including the removal of hawkers from congested streets in anticipation of Accra’s hosting of an international conference of NGOs in 1991 – saw Agbogbloshie’s population swell.
Large-scale human displacement following ethnic conflicts between Konkomba, Nanumba and Dagomba groups in northern Ghana in the mid-1990s further compounded the rush to Agbogbloshie.
On Agbogbloshie’s northern fringe, an apocalyptic plane of plastic and glass stretches from a fresh onion market in the east to a meat market in the west, where goats are kept, slaughtered and sold to customers from surrounding areas. In the centre, the earth has been scorched black and is waxy to the touch. This is where the burner boys go to work.
Young men burn the plastic coating off mangled bunches of wire to reveal the precious strings of copper within or extract what they can from alternators before dousing them with drinking water from small plastic packets. They occupy the lowest rung on Agbogbloshie’s economic ladder.
The men start later than the rest of the people working the scrapyard. They must wait for scrap workers to strip appliances of their wiring or prise valuable components from the hearts of car engines, and then bring them for burning. But by late morning, dark columns of smoke have risen above Agbogbloshie.
A British two penny coin swings from a silver chain around 24-year-old Abdul Rahim’s neck. He is one of the burner boys manoeuvring a bouquet of blazing wire with a long rod in order to keep his distance from its baking heat and toxic fumes. Flames of electric green, blue and violet lick the wires before gathering into thick black plumes. It is a highly specialised skill. Get it wrong and you spoil the copper.
It is also a thankless task. Ibrahim Abdullah, 25, says he makes between GHS40 and GHS50 (between R120 and R150) a day when work is available. Abdullah is from Tamale, in the north of Ghana. “I can’t get any jobs in the north,” he says. “It’s why I came here to make small small [money].” Abdullah’s body feels “hot and sore all over” after a day working with the melting plastic. He says he takes painkillers to help him sleep.
A 2013 Blacksmith Institute report placed Agbogbloshie among the 10 most polluted places on the planet, an honour it shares with such auspicious company as Chernobyl, the site of a 1986 nuclear catastrophe in northern Ukraine.
The crude methods used at the scrapyard means little can be done to avoid arsenic, beryllium and cadmium among others – all highly toxic metals that accompany the precious metals in electronic devices.
As many as 250 000 people are reportedly affected by Agbogbloshie’s particulates, lead and mercury. Public health assessments reveal lead levels in the soil of more than 18 000 parts per million (ppm), 45 times higher than the level considered hazardous by the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s standards.
Development and destruction
Many of Agbogbloshie’s scrap workers are concerned that recent media attention on the desperate conditions has excluded the livelihoods, homes and families they have made and sustained at the scrapyard. The bleak coverage, they say, could lead to the kind of international pressure that slows the flow of waste, on which they depend, to Agbogbloshie.
The life that scrap workers worry is being left out of Agbogbloshie’s story is difficult to miss. A large, rectangular field of dust has been opened alongside the peeling yellow carcass of a Caterpillar crane, likely once used in construction operations. It hosts football practices in the evenings and friendly games on weekends. From time to time, the field is also home to more significant celebrations – weddings, funerals and naming ceremonies.
Sahada Mukaila, 22, spends mornings working over large, bubbling pots of groundnut soup. Together with the rice balls, banku and tuo zaafi, a mix of corn and cassava flour that she has already prepared, it is a welcome lunch for many. In the meantime, some take a breather in the shade offered by the Mosques scattered throughout the scrapyard, closed after the early-morning fajr prayer, soon to be reopened for the midday dhuhr.
The scrap workers worry their livelihoods will be lost if their deepest fear – demolition – is realised. Plans for Agbogbloshie’s future, in which both development and destruction loom, suggests these fears are not unfounded.
The German development agency GIZ has begun building a rudimentary onsite clinic, while the government’s construction of a R424 million electronic waste recycling plant is set to begin this month. But Accra’s municipal authorities are also forging ahead with the demolition of more than 1 000 “illegally” erected structures at Agbogbloshie.