The Challenge and Opportunity of eWaste Management in Southern Africa

Africa only has 13 countries with eWaste specific policies (24% of the continent) lagging far behind the global average of 81 countries (41.7%)

eWaste, Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Southern Africa, SADC, Southern African Development Community (SADC)

When you buy a new phone nowadays, chances are the phone will come without a charging brick in the box. The logic they present forward is that most consumers already have chargers from their previous phones and so excluding that in the packaging is great for the environment as it reduces eWaste (electronic waste). Depending on who you ask among consumers, they still want the charging brick because for consumers – more things in the box roughly translates to more value for money. 

This small conundrum got us wondering how significant the issue of EEE POM (or Electrical and Electronic Equipment Placed on the Market) better known as eWaste is in the context of Africa. As is usually the case we looked at it from the lens of Southern Africa…

eWaste exists within 6 categories;

  1. temperature exchange equipment;
  2. screens and monitors;
  3. lamps;
  4. large equipment; 
  5. small equipment 
  6. small IT and telecommunication equipment.

The global eWaste conundrum vis-a-vis Africa

Electronic waste is on the rise at a rate of 2 Mt (million metric ton) per year and the figure is expected to grow to 74.7 Mt by 2030. In 2019, Africa generated 2.9 Mt of eWaste and more alarmingly only 0.03 Mt (0.09%) was collected and properly recycled. The figure has been disputed as being partially representative as there is limited information in regards to the amount of eWaste collected and recycled but compared to other regions it does highlight that the culture of recycling (within eWaste at least) is still quite primitive.

This culture is reflected in the legislative action or lack thereof as Africa only has 13 countries with eWaste specific policies (24% of the continent) lagging far behind the global average of 81 countries (41.7%). Most recycling activity on the continent has been attributed to informal recyclers – which we will look at later in the article.

Closer to home…

Within southern Africa the wheels have started to turn. The Southern African Telecommunications Association has drafted guidelines to support member states with eWaste disposal.

On a country-by-country basis here’s what we’ve observed;

South AfricaMandatory EPR (extended producer responsibility) came into effect in 2021 under Section 18 of the National Environmental Management Waste Act, which covers EEE among other waste streams. Amendments to the Act allow EEE producers to establish and implement their own EPR schemes. All existing EEE producers of identified products must register with the government. Producer responsibility organizations must also register and are obliged to integrate informal sector e-waste operators into the post-consumer collection value chain, while EEE producers operating individual take-back schemes must compensate informal collectors who register with the National Registration Database for collection services and environmental benefits.
ZambiaStatutory Instrument No. 65 on Extended Producer Responsibility Regulations (2018) is a legally binding instrument that regulates EPR but has been infrequently implemented. However, with support from international organizations, the government has begun preparing a specific regulation on e-waste management and in 2023 it started developing a specific EPR regulation covering electronics and packaging materials. Zambia has also made progress towards introducing standards on e-waste management, with 11 of 4 proposed standards having been adopted.
Malawia draft national e-waste management policy is currently in the process of being approved. The policy was developed via a detailed process of stakeholder consultation and validation and will be implemented over a 5-year period. It will be Malawi’s first guiding document for e-waste management. Furthermore, with support from the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership, a recent national quantification study conducted with the National Statistics Office found that the availability of EEE in Malawi has increased significantly, from 1.3 million kg in 1995 to 12.5 million kg in 2022. Small equipment and temperature exchange equipment are currently the main categories being put on the market. This has been accompanied by a concomitant rise in the amount of e-waste generated, to 12.8 million kg in 2021 from 600 thousand kg in 1995. The main contributors in the past 20 years have been the small equipment and small IT and telecommunication equipment categories.
Botswana and Namibiadraft national e-waste strategies and policies, were recently validated and are in the approval stage. (Despite the recent normative progress, however, it is still too often the case in Southern Africa that even when an e-waste policy, legislation or regulation is in place, sometimes for many years, implementation and enforcement fall short, mostly because of underfunding and a lack of government capacity and resources.) In collaboration with the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership, national quantification studies were also conducted in Botswana and Namibia, in collaboration with the respective national statistics offices. In Botswana, for example, it was found that 21.1 million kg of EEE were placed on the market in 2020 and 13.5 million kg of e-waste were generated.
Mauritiusis in the process of introducing Environment Protection Regulations aimed at implementing a collective EPR scheme for EEE.62 Madagascar’s Decree No. 2015- 930, on WEEE (eWaste), sets out a framework for the classification and management of e-waste by promoting the disposal of goods in an environmentally sound manner.
MadagascarIn 2018 an e-waste recycling centre was set up in Madagascar in partnership with a Kenyan recycler; the emphasis is on the creation of innovative practices for waste management related to urban mining and on stimulating greater awareness among the public for the need to safely manage e-waste.
SeychellesThere is currently no legally binding instrument in place for e-waste management. However, some peripheral laws do refer to EEE, such as the Consumer Protection Act (2010) in Seychelles, which sets the minimum warranty for EEE at 6 months. The law requires EEE suppliers to repair products returned for a valid reason within 60 days or to replace them within 7 days or to refund the customer within 24 hours. The high logistics costs for island States can be reduced by increasing the longevity of EEE (e.g. by repairing it) and thereby reducing the need to export waste.

Similar to East Africa, there have been discussions to adopt regional standards for eWaste collection within the region with the need to create economies of scale a big motivating factor. This approach will negate specialisation which could prove unsustainable given the varying sizes of economies and populations thus volumes being generated in each country within the region.

The ITU published two case studies taking a closer look at Namibia and Botswana and we gleaned on these to get a clearer picture of how some of the countries within the region are approaching eWaste.

eWaste case Study I: Namibia

Namibia set out to adopt a national policy on the management of eWaste that covers all 6 eWaste categories. In 2019 through its Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, Namibia requested technical assistance from the ITU to help come up with a national policy and an action plan for management of electronic waste – a process which is ongoing.

In most countries globally, including Namibia, eWaste statistics are not collected. Presently, only 21% of countries (41/193) collect data on eWaste generation and collection creating a gap in the quantification of electronic waste. Because eWaste procedures are not formalised producers, consumers, recyclers and government agencies all work randomly blunting the effect of efforts to counter eWaste.

There also fears that this fragmentation exposes workers dealing with eWaste to hazardous substances and improper management leading to loss of valuable content, but also as potential hazards to human health and the environment.

“Whilst private sector initiatives do provide domestic and commercial collections for e-waste in Namibia, there is little clarity nor direction on the valorization process and the recycling of valuable waste fractions. A similar lack of clarity and understanding also applies to the management of non-valuable and potentially hazardous waste fractions, which results in the poor disposal of toxic waste.”

National eWaste Monitor | ITU

Because there’s no data collection, The Global eWaste Monitor estimated that Namibia generated 15,700 tonnes of eWaste in 2019 equivalent to an average of 6.4 kg per inhabitant. Estimates from a national study showed that Namibia generated a total of 18 161 tonnes in 2020, which is equivalent to 7.1 kg per inhabitant. 

NamiGreen is an example of an eWaste operator within Namibia – collecting and recycling across 30 drop-off points. The operator is a joint partnership between Per Hansen (Denmark based e-waste trading company) and Transworld Cargo (Namibia based international logistics provider). They allow large amounts of eWaste collection via online ordering but also go around collecting eWaste from companies and individuals. Interesting initiatives like partnering with EcoRobotics – Namibia’s first online electronics shop on eWaste collection has also been viewed as innovative. 

The eWaste operator has a few dedicated EEE category specific recycling programmes, including printer and printer cartridges, phone, computer, as well as a server, mainframe, and telecommunication, where NamiGreen the company works with major EEE producers. NamiGreen also offers recycling certificates to clients that act as proof of destruction/disposal. Beyond NamiGreen there are other initiatives highlighted as doing noteworthy work by the ITU;

  • E-waste Experts Namibia – recycles office and household electronic waste such as laptops, computers, printers, photocopiers, mobile phones, iPads, TV sets, hi-fi systems, fridges, washing machines, solar power accessories, generators, electrical cables, car batteries, and communications equipment. It also offers free door-to-door collection service from private homes, banks, mines, NGOs and government departments. E-waste Experts is a member of Recycle Namibia Forum and works in conjunction with the City of Windhoek, the Document Warehouse and AST Recycling of South Africa to manage e-waste. The company also offers a certificate of destruction to clients on request. 
  • Recycle Namibia Forum – a community recycling project that aims to create zero-waste to landfill. The Forum organises various collection drives and supports collection, for example, collection bins for household batteries are located in six locations across Namibia. 
  • Scrap Salvage offers metal waste recycling through container supply and collection, with branches in Swakopmund, Walvis Bay, Rundu, Ondangwa, Oshakati and Windhoek. In terms of infrastructure equipment, the company has bin/skip trucks, long distance haulers, tippers, mobile balers, shears, and cable strippers, as well as weighbridges (some of which are open to the public). The majority (90%) of products are exported overseas and 10 per cent to South Africa.20 Key products include copper, brass, aluminium, stainless steel, batteries, tungsten, and zinc. 
  • Rent-A-Drum – a waste management company that has been operating in Namibia since 1989, and which focuses on recycling, mining, landfill, and hazardous waste management.21 They offer skip removals, general waste collection, including through household and mobile recycling stations, and hazardous waste collection. The company has a material recovery facility for dry municipal solid waste used to separate, process and temporarily store waste before transporting it to South Africa. 

City of Windhoek’s solid waste management division – offers a dedicated e-waste disposal and recycling infrastructure where recyclers, such as NamiGreen, are involved in the collection to such facilities. The general public is also able to drop-off e-waste in a dedicated container skip at the City owner Kupferberg landfill site.22 Under the Health Services and Solid Waste Department of the municipality of Swakopmund, there is a dedicated division on environmental and waste management that facilitates a dedicated e-waste site in the town of Swakopmund.

All these different stakeholders have played a significant role in Namibia’s recycling ecosystem – an ecosystem that saw significant growth between 2018-2020. eWaste recycling increased by 26% in 2020 compared to the year prior. This growth has been attributed to “increased awareness of e-waste in society, including through government efforts, and the work of other organisations.”

Outside of the examples given above there’s an informal recycling sector which has been described as “mostly interested in high value copper wires found in computer cables.” These informal recyclers have been criticised for their methods which lead to pollution as they cut off or burn cables over open fires to remove the copper wires and sell to scrap yards.

Other challenges cited within Namibia’s recycling ecosystem include;

  • Large geographical distances to recycling facilities – waste collection infrastructure is not equally distributed across Namibia, and this results in a lack of incentive to recycle e-waste, especially when associated travel costs do not make recycling economically viable;
  • Low awareness among citizens;
  • increasing volumes of e-waste;
  • competition with the informal sector;
  • absence of an established regulatory framework;
  • lack of financial investments;
  • absence of e-waste data collection and statistics;
  • absence of reporting and monitoring systems.

eWaste case Study 2: Botswana

Botswana has also been hard at work and their department of Waste Management and Pollution Control produced an Integrated Waste Management Policy back in 2021 with the aim to help manage all types of waste streams in Botswana including e-Waste. One of the policy’s key implementation points include establishment of an EPR system which will ensure that producers are held accountable for the end-of-life management of their products and packaging.

Despite this progress on the policy creation front – a number of challenges have been highlighted as bottlenecks for Botswana’s recycling industry;

  • A lack of separation of waste at source which means that e-waste is collected with domestic waste destined for landfill disposal.
  • Lack of e-waste recycling infrastructure results in e-waste being transported to neighbouring countries for recycling.
  • A lack of expertise on e-waste management.

*PS: The challenges cited above don’t include the ones highlighted for Namibia earlier in the article though those also apply to Botswana

On the ground, the issues Botswana faces are not too dissimilar to Namibia. Consumer awareness regarding how to handle electronic waste is incredibly low. There are companies dealing with electronic waste in Botswana – 12 to be exact if we’re going by the numbers provided by eWaste Monitor. 

The biggest challenge these companies have faced has been a below-par infrastructure making it hard to handle e-waste. The problem is that whilst the companies deal with eWaste they are not specialised in the domain and ending up exporting a lot of the waste for treatment thus meaning the companies in this ecosystem take care of eWaste collection and transportation leaving a gap in the recycling. Most of the eWaste is transported to South Africa which has better facilities to take care of eWaste or what’s left of it after the companies in Botswana have dismantled the electronic appliances and extracted the valuable materials. As is the case in Namibia – there’s also a gap in regards to data collection in relation to eWaste and what is exported internationally.

One form of recycling that has taken root in Botswana sees recyclers purchase obsolete electronic equipment for reuse, part extraction and repair and resell of equipment. There are many outlets in towns and cities across Botswana for the repair and reconditioning of electronic equipment such as computers, mobile phones and general electronic equipment. 

The government has played a key role in ensuring this industry is sustainable as they are, “one of the largest procurement entities of computers.” The countries’ Government Computer Refurbishment Centre has played a key role in reclamation and restoration of used ICT equipment from the government. Initially some of the equipment acquired as part of this project have been redirected to schools around the country. This practice slowed down though as a some of these refurbished electronics had limited lifespan and accumulated at schools at the end of their use, creating disposal headaches for learning institutions. 

Ultimately, these case studies outline some of the many challenges that plague Namibia’s, Botswana’s – (and by extension many of Africa’s) recycling efforts. Informality is the bane of African business and governance – it’s no surprise that informality is also the bane of recycling and eWaste combating efforts…

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