Ghana is at the forefront of Africa’s technological development, but can it overcome its chronic e-waste problem, asks Sophie Curtis
Having spent a week investigating the ICT landscape in Ghana, I am somewhat at a loss as to whether technology is having an overall positive or negative impact on the region.
Of all the African countries, Ghana is undoubtedly one of the most technologically advanced. Its mobile infrastructure puts much of the developed world to shame, and networking company Alcatel Lucent has even hinted that the company is working with mobile operators in the country with a view to launching LTE.
A high-capacity submarine fibre-optic cable system was also recently built by Alcatel and Globacom, to carry data and Internet traffic at high speed between West Africa and the rest of the world. The 9,800km long cable network, known as Glo 1, runs on a huge capacity, upgradable to up to 2.5 terabytes per second, and offers 99.9 percent uptime as well as long-distance voice, video and data communication services.
An attractive target for investment
Furthermore, tech giants such as Google and SAP are rushing to invest in the country. Google has teamed up with the Campaign for Female Education (Camfed) to establish a network of three ICT centres, which will act as hubs for learning, communication and entrepreneurship in some of the poorest and most remote rural regions of Northern Ghana.
SAP, meanwhile, is developing smartphone software for use by cashew and shea nut farmers in remote areas of the country, to help improve transparency in the supply chain. The technology helps to ensure that rural farmers are getting a fair market price for their produce, and are not losing money unnecessarily to intermediaries and middlemen.
While some of these projects are initiated out of a sense of corporate social responsibility, many companies are starting to realise that developing countries such as Ghana present a lucrative business opportunity. SAP’s shea nut project, for example, will be transformed within a few years into a ‘social business’ that does not rely on private investment but is self-sustaining. Many mobile phone makers are also developing low-cost handsets to tap into this burgeoning market.
However, amid all this positive technological progress, there is a significant blot on the Ghanaian technological landscape: electronic waste. As a BBC Panorama programme broadcast earlier this year revealed, Ghana continues to be the de facto dumping ground for the western world’s toxic e-waste, putting local children at serious risk of brain and kidney damage, respiratory illness, developmental and behavioural disorders, and even cancer.
The e-waste problem
Environmental laws state that broken electronics – from fridges to televisions and computer monitors – should be responsibly recycled within their country of origin. Discarded electronics need to be tested to ensure they work before they can be legally exported for resale, usually to the developing world.
However, exporters of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) are able to bypass these regulations by falsely labelling the equipment as ‘donations’. There is no import duty paid on computers and accessories, as the Ghanaian government wants to ensure that second-hand computers are made available to citizens to help improve the computer literacy rate.
An informal trade has therefore built up around this industry, with young children spending their days searching for scraps of copper and aluminium that they can sell. They break open the plastic casing of TVs and computers to expose the wiring inside, and then burn off the plastic coating to get at the metal. The burning releases toxic chemicals which the children often inhale, and heavy metals leach from the abandoned equipment and contaminate local water supplies.
While international authorities are currently working on rules and regulations designed to reduce the ill effects of importing second-hand EEE, the problem in Ghana is growing. As Kwei Quartey, author of ‘Wife of the Gods’ and ‘Children of the Street’ (the latter touching on WEEE) points out, Ghana could soon begin contributing to its own e-waste problem.
“The penetration of mobile phones in the Ghanaian population is 70-80 percent, which brings up the danger that Ghana will be faced with another wave of WEEE: its own mobile phones,” Quartey (pictured) told eWEEK Europe. “I suspect that there is more ‘sharing’ of old phones than in the West, which would extend the time that the phone is used, but eventually it will stop working.
“I don’t believe there is any question that both government and the private sector in Ghana have to look at WEEE and sustainability as a national emergency that needs to be dealt with as urgently as development itself and treated as part and parcel of development goals,” Quartey added. “Anyone who thinks that WEEE is a minor problem is very much mistaken.”
ICT: hazard or help?
Is technology therefore more of a hazard than a help in Ghana? The country’s exceptional mobile infrastructure has undoubtedly helped the country to progress leaps and bounds in recent years, making it an attractive target for international investment. And ICT can be extremely empowering for people in rural communities – particularly women.
But without the means to process WEEE – or the money to export it elsewhere, as the West does – Ghanaians may never be able to view technological development with untainted eyes.
If there is a solution, it is, as Quartey suggests, for the private sector to make a business out of sustainability. Companies and charities in Europe and the US currently offer WEEE recycling, but market economics always win out and, ultimately, it will be up to local people to turn the situation to their advantage on home soil.
“Money would be made in the same way it is now in the informal sector, but on a larger scale, e.g. foreign and local companies pay you, the recycler, for processing their WEEE, and you also get paid by selling recycled copper to local and foreign industries,” said Quartey.
If Ghana can succeed in establishing a successful WEEE processing industry of this kind within the country, it will have proved that it is indeed Africa’s technological leader.