Ep 35: Where is your old laptop? E-waste in Africa
In this episode, Reniera O'Donnell and Sarah O'Carroll discuss with our guests, Joseph Awuah-Darko...
says Ghislain Irakoze. “People don’t know it, but that’s the reality.” Irakoze is CEO and founder of Wastezon, a Rwanda-based company which repairs and remanufactures electronics, and resells quality-assured products back into the market. The company sprung from a near tragedy amid Africa’s growing waste problem: “When I was on a school assignment with my best friend, a heap of garbage fell on him. He was hospitalised for almost three months. That inspired me to explore solutions that could divert waste from landfill.”
Across the continent, African companies take a creative, innovative approach to material sourcing that places less emphasis on virgin raw materials. Fashion is a key market where this approach can be seen in action. Sole Rebels in Ethiopia makes shoes out of recycled tyres, indigenous plant fibres, and local leather. Nigeria’s Planet 3R weaves discarded plastic water sachets into bags, homewares, and accessories. Nairobi-based Rummage Studio sources 95% of the core materials in its bags and accessories from the largest second hand textile market in East Africa: Gikomba. “We tend to use anything that has a nice pattern and looks durable,” says founder Mohamed Awale. “We like to put that back into the market, give it a second life, and assure people that it’s going to last a long time. For us, upcycling is not a limitation, but a constant inspiration that pushes us to find creative solutions at every step.” These solutions prove economically viable too. Each of these companies have found financial success and are looking to scale. From a standing start in 2005, Sole Rebels has global reach, stores in North America and Europe, and an annual revenue of USD 22 million. Planet 3R employs 16 full-time staff after less than 3 years in operation, and secured USD 100,000 funding to expand. Rummage Studio rebranded from its original name of Suave Kenya to appeal to its increasingly international customers.
But as well as these established businesses, a huge cohort of talented, industrious craftspeople work to repair and repurpose products – from solar panels to shoes – often with limited infrastructure or resources. Bicycle mechanics travel between towns to collect worn-out bikes, and salvage gear sets and brake cables for repairs. Seamstresses patch shirts, hem trousers, and make bow ties from leftover cloth. Artists make jewellery out of electronic waste. “Almost everything can be repaired,” noted a Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office-funded study led by the Better Futures CoLab last year, Landscaping the repair and reuse economy in Kenya.
“Africa, in particular, has a rich tradition of resourcefulness, repair, and repurposing, driven by the necessity of limited resources and self-sufficiency,” says Kelley Rowe, the report’s co-author. “Entrepreneurs in Africa often view waste as a valuable resource that can be utilised for repair and refurbishment, or transformed into new products: chairs made from upcycled tyres, for example. Waste is considered a valuable resource.”
“Consumption behaviour is structured so that all materials can also be a resource for the future,” affirms Irakoze. “In emerging economies with low incomes, money isn’t at their disposal to buy brand new things.”
It could be argued that waste is a wealth problem. As consumerism boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, in a firmly linear fashion, the disposable society took root in the Global North. It became cheaper and easier to throw a broken kettle away than to find the parts or skills to fix it. Since the linear model depends on a take-make-waste approach, as consumerism grew, waste and pollution proliferated.
“The economy plays a role,” Irakoze reflects, “but I’d rate consumer behaviour as the key enabler. People are interested in reusing and repurposing products.”
Recognising that many countries in the Global South instead have well-established markets for repair and , the Better Futures CoLab Repair & Reuse study explored the economic benefits of these activities, taking Kenya as a case study. It found that the repair market in the country is worth a minimum of 1.5% of Kenya’s economy (equating to c. USD 1.5 billion) – a conservative estimate given that much of this takes place in the hard-to-measure informal sector, known in Kenya as the ‘Jua Kali’ (which translates literally as ‘fierce sun’, but it has come to signify the small-scale traders, entrepreneurs, artisans, and vendors who often operate in the open air.) Socially, this sector is worth even more, accounting for approximately 83% of total employment in the country, and creating more than 90% of new jobs according to the Kenyan Bureau of Statistics.
There’s a lot to be learnt from the artisans of Africa, and these talents are vital for advancing a globally.
Repair and repurpose strategies are essential, but frequently overlooked functions of the circular economy, key to circulating products and materials at their highest value. By keeping products, and – when they can no longer be used – their components and raw materials in use, nothing becomes waste and the intrinsic value of products and materials is retained.
Although designing out waste in the first place is the priority, by extending the life of existing products through repair and repurposing, materials are kept in the economy and out of the environment.
Developing these loops brings economic benefits. “Adopting value-retention processes is a win-win situation for governments, industry and customers,” according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “Governments would have less waste to deal with, generate green jobs, and stimulate economic growth; industry could lower production costs, avoid resource constraints on business growth, and open new markets; and customers could benefit from lower prices for refurbished products.”
The economic advantage is key. Some estimates put the annual growth of the repair and maintenance sector as high as 8.5% in 2023 with a total global value of USD 1,536 billion.
Jobs are also a big draw for policymakers. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) calculates that for every 10,000 tonnes of used goods, while putting them in landfill creates around six jobs, recycling them would create 36 jobs, and reuse and repair could create up to 296. Meanwhile a UK study found that “transforming the UK’s approach to repair, reuse, recycling and remanufacture could create more than 450,000 jobs across the country by 2035.”
The Global North is beginning to return to these lost values, driven by an awakening to the damage caused by our wasteful economy, and the cost of living crisis.
A trend to mend has been identified in the UK. In Germany, Repair Initiatives have been proliferating across the country. In Copenhagen, Resource Rows is building an entire new urban development from resources that would normally have been considered waste. From community repair cafes (now numbering more than 2,500 around the world); to disruptive digital start-ups (such as Sojo, which aims to make repairs accessible from your smartphone); and major corporate repair offerings from the likes of Apple and Tommy Hilfiger, repair is increasingly à la mode. Even celebrities are lending their weight to more circular consumption: Angelina Jolie’s recently launched Atelier Jolie links consumers with tailors to make individual products using leftover quality vintage material and deadstock.
Although in African countries the sector has grown organically and still exists largely outside policy frameworks, in the Global North policy is beginning to move in support of these approaches. In March 2023 the European Commission adopted a ‘Right to Repair’ proposal, which will make it easier and more cost-effective for consumers to repair as opposed to replace goods. In North America, Canada announced a plan to implement the right to repair for electronic equipment in 2024, and Colorado passed the first Right to Repair legislation for agricultural equipment in April this year.
So what can the Global North learn from Africa as it re-establishes these sidelined sectors?
The very first priority is a mindset shift. Companies and consumers in the Global North must continue to reevaluate their attitude towards repaired and repurposed products.
It’s a process that’s already underway. The popularity of remanufactured automotive parts has grown, and acceptance of reconditioned electronic goods is also increasing. Europe’s refurbished mobile phone market, for example, is projected to grow by almost 10% a year between 2023 and 2033. However, for the segment to reach the necessary scale to cement a circular economy in place, refurbished goods across the board need to be as attractive as new ones.
Appealing to consumers’ growing sustainability sensibilities to make refurbished goods ‘cool’ is one way of boosting sales, and one that has already borne fruit in the booming preloved clothing market where buying second hand has gone from niche to mainstream. That the UK’s popular reality TV show, Love Island, has switched from a fast-fashion sponsor to eBay is testament to the changing status of the resale sector. With Harry Styles's stylist launching a Depop store, Olivia Rodrigo popping on the app to sell her clothes, and tens of billions of TikTokkers celebrating the power of the old in fashion, it is clear that the resale sector has not only found its space, but is here to stay.
In Africa, consumers are starting to view these products as positively as new ones. In Nairobi, Awale believes young people are driving the segment: “they see the craftsmanship and quality of our products and compare it to the imports they are buying. Upcycled products are cool and original, and they last longer.”
Access to skills is critical. “We’re really big on crafts,” says Awale; “ it could be woodwork, metalwork or tailoring. If you’ve got an idea you want to try out and you can’t make it, you can find someone in the neighbourhood who can.”
The same access does not exist in the blue collar economies of the Global North, and the International Labor Organisation has already identified skills gaps as a bottleneck for green growth in a number of sectors.
Training more people in repair and artisanal skills, and finding ways to connect craftspeople with consumers nearby is key to developing the sector.
It’s got to be easy. The Better Futures CoLab Repair & Reuse study found that “consumers were generally willing to repair broken items, however, their intentions could easily be hampered if repairs were seen to require too much effort compared to replacement”.
African markets and high streets throng with stalls offering repair services. Generally, such hyperlocalised repair communities are the first port of call for customers; enhancing these can promote their use. Similarly, creating effective infrastructure for collecting, sorting, and redistributing products that have life extension potential is vital to divert usable materials from landfill.
Essentially in order to scale these operations up, time-poor consumers need to know where to drop products; repairers and repurposers need to be able to easily find and collect them.
To keep returning to repair services, customers need to trust the quality of the work. Certification can be vital in this regard.
“Both security and quality vetting are instrumental in promoting this reuse and repurposing culture,” says Irakoze. “These are some of the big challenges we scoped in this market. Our refurbishment lab checks device components and checks their , and security.” Verifying workmanship in this way is crucial to building a consumer base and growing the sector.
Africa has an established culture of repurposing materials, but the system is not perfect. Challenges exist around the quality of repairs, trust between consumers and businesses, a lack of policy support, and – as wealth increases – a growing trend towards the same disposable consumerism seen in the Global North.
The continent currently generates less waste than much of the rest of the world but if current trends persist, sub-Saharan Africa is forecast to become the biggest global producer of waste. The continent can avoid making the same polluting mistakes as the Global North by preserving and enhancing existing talents for repair and repurpose.
Rowe points out that “Europe has far greater advancements in policies, regulations and infrastructure promoting the circular economy and encouraging repair and reuse practices.” For example, the EU’s ecodesign rules require that spare parts are available for a product for a certain amount of time.
Although both the Global North and Global South face unique challenges and opportunities, by harnessing the best practice of each region, the repair and repurpose sector could take critical strides forward. Key areas for development include:
Wastezon has identified the need to reassure their customers with guaranteed workmanship, but providing this reassurance at a national or regional scale has the potential to accelerate uptake of the sector. Centralised certification and regulation can level the playing field and build consumer confidence in the repair and repurpose sector.
Legislating for such capacity changes the governance structure of the repair industry. Rather than manufacturers deciding which products are repairable or not, by creating a centralised set of standards and mandating access to competitive services, consumers and independent repair businesses can contribute to the development of the sector.
But Rowe cautions that such standards should not force the formalisation of activities: “it’s through formalisation that repair can become a very exclusive experience, particularly for those that have existed in the informal part of the economy for decades.” As yet, the way forward for this isn't clear, but it will be the subject of Rowe's next study and hopefully provide crucial learnings for such collaborations across geographies and sectors.
Spare parts have to be easily accessible. Technology can help here. 3D printing, for example, can make a huge catalogue of parts available to tradespeople around the world. Digital parts tracing can improve transparency in availability and pricing of spare parts. A Brazilian platform – Spare Track – aims to do just this. However the reliance on online systems requires reliable and accessible internet systems, with a risk of deepening the digital divide. Innovation interventions in this regard need to be sensitive to the availability of online connections.
“There’s just no data on repair,” says Rowe. “For me it’s another big area of opportunity. Imagine if we had enough data and insights to understand the repair and reuse economy across the entire continent and world. Big brands and businesses want to commit but they struggle to know where and how.”
Data could surface the extent of the opportunity, the gaps, the success factors, and support businesses in the development of new business models and services.
Rather than each national economy working to become a jack of all trades, the concept of value pools based on existing strengths holds weight in the repair and repurpose sector. Developing regional hubs for repair could play to current localised talents, and provide a pathway to scaling up hyperlocalised approaches where appropriate, driving reciprocal trade within those regions. For example, a broken computer could be taken to a local collection centre by the consumer then shipped to a central repair hub for specialised repair before being returned to the collection point.
Policies such as Extended Producer Responsibility and a ‘Right to Repair’ create push factors impelling businesses to create more robust products and provide repair infrastructure. In countries such as Slovenia and Sweden, governments have slashed VAT on repair services. France’s Index mandates the display of clear repair information for electronic equipment.
A framework of such policies – tailored to regional geographies – can set the enabling conditions that allow repair and repurpose industries to flourish.
As the limitations of the have become more apparent, the resourcefulness and creativity of Africa could be leveraged in accelerating the transition to a circular economy. Repair and reuse largely occur as secondary activities in the Global North, rather than as an integrated aspect of an overall product or sector strategy, but countries here are waking up to their importance.
By studying the thriving repair and repurpose sectors in Africa and translating the success factors to their own contexts, these countries stand to benefit. Repair and repurpose industries create employment opportunities, reduce waste and pollution, and reduce reliance on natural resources.
Meanwhile, African countries could hone their existing talents and borrow from tried-and-tested enabling policy to quickly progress towards a circular economy. Rowe concludes: “Just imagine just how big and effective this sector would be if it had all the right enabling conditions.”