Out in Africa: lessons learnt for e-waste

One charity is not only breathing new life into redundant IT equipment, but helping to transform the lives of children in the poorest parts of Africa. Vernon Ward reports

With the technological revolution in full flow, changing the way we do everything from listening to music to reading a book, there seem to be no losers in the advancement of our digital age. The hi-tech gadgets that were once the property of the rich are now more affordable – and with the race to bring out the next best thing, the turnover of hardware delivering it has never been higher. However, a seemingly victimless offering of information for everyone does have its price, for even our waste is evolving technologically.

The recently broadcast BBC3 documentary, Blood, Sweat & Luxuries, alerted many people to where their old PCs had gone. In Africa, they too have started placing the ‘e’ in front of what usually went without the electronic precursor; their waste dumps are now e-waste dumps. Huge electronic graveyards that made up the last generation of our equipment, from PCs to TVs, are being scoured by children as young as six, burning off mounds of plastic casing to get to the various metals that can be sold.

Set up in 2004, IT Schools Africa is a charity that has been encouraging councils to aid in the reuse of computer equipment, not only to extend the life of IT equipment, but to provide the poorest parts of Africa with an education for its children and to ensure the end-of-life recycling process is carried out by a regulated body. “We can extend the life of computers that would ordinarily go to recycling companies by up to five years,” explains UK development manager Phil Layton.

The charity gets support and computer donations from schools that have upgraded their equipment, along with various rotary clubs. “What we really need at the moment is for organisations such as local councils and businesses who would otherwise recycle, to reuse. It saves the companies recycling costs and also means the donating company is helping to educate and improve the lives of thousands of children for years to come,” urges Layton.

In complete confidence

As soon as the computers arrive at the IT Schools Africa head office in Cheltenham, the data is wiped from the hard drives using a programme that conforms to US Department of Defence recommendations, ensuring all sensitive data is purged with no possibility of recovery. The machines are then serviced to remove dust and certify all drives are working effectively before being shipped all over Africa.

“Our major programmes are in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania and Zanzibar. We’ve also supplied computers to schools in Kenya, Madagascar, Gambia, Ghana and The Congo,” says Tim Barnes, programme director for the charity. “We’ve provided 1,000 schools with over 21,000 computers.”

With the WEEE Directive in place, IT Schools Africa has secured a contract with DESCO in South Africa, a company that provides recycling for redundant e-waste. Having been shortlisted for the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development this year, the charity has achieved this accolade through creating a transparent solution to a problem costing companies money on recycling expense, while providing positive experiences to all those who play a part in delivering the refurbished equipment.

“A lot of our work is done by volunteers”, explains Layton. “We provide work placements to the long-term unemployed, people with learning difficulties, school placements, but the bulk of our refurbishments are done in UK prisons as part of the restorative justice programme.”

Prisoner aid

Currently the charity provides computers – once the data is destroyed – to four prisons where inmates dust the hardware and, with training provided by the charity, ensure the components work efficiently. In April the charity signed a partnership agreement with computer manufacturer Stone Computers, which provides schools, councils, the emergency services and the NHS with IT equipment.

Andy Howell, recycling manager at Stone Computers, says: “I considered it an environmental obligation to donate the middle market equipment that still had three to five years in it. So rather than chase the financial returns available on it, we took the view it would be better to do something more in line with our social/corporate responsibility.”

Having seen the African landfills first hand, Howell was mindful of making sure that the processes required to meet WEEE regulations were met. “I didn’t want to defer the recycling problem of end-of-life equipment where there is no Environment Agency, and no policing of the disposal at the end of the secondary life. It’s brilliant that IT Schools Africa came back with all the right answers for us.”

As Barnes emphasises: “It provides the children with basic IT literacy, enhancing their job prospects and their ability to go on to tertiary education. It transforms their school experience and affords the opportunity for donating companies and institutions the chance to save money and fulfil their corporate responsibility.”

Vernon Ward is a freelance journalist

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