Repair Culture: Ghana – making better use of ‘used’

Accra was identified in a 2008 Greenpeace report, as a major ‘dumping ground’ for US and European e-waste (e.g. electronic waste from TVs, consumer electronics, PCs and mobile phones) and one area, Agbogbloshie, described as ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’, was viewed like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, as locals attempted to recover copper and other metals by burning off the insulation.  When I visited in 2018 the reality was somewhat mixed. There was still some burning of e-waste to recover copper and other metals, but there was also a much bigger thriving repair and recycling economy in and around the landfill site, and a proposed new e-waste recycling and repair training centre, to be funded by German regional investment.

In Agbogbloshie there were many businesses recycling old car and lorry parts for spares (that was the main focus, breaking cars and motorbikes for spare parts and bulk metals). There were also workshops repairing cars and motorbikes.  There were also workshops casting new cooking pots from recovered aluminium, and in the process saving 95% of the energy that would be used to fashion them from raw material. At the edge of the site, and around Accra, there were numerous repair and reuse businesses, all making use of the materials recovered. As an example, Ibrahim ran a local bicycle repair shop doing brisk business as bikes remain an important form of transport for this community. Ibrahim worked on a bike with broken spokes, broken pedals, and no brakes and in less than two hours it is repaired and functional. That is more sustainable than trying to recycle the metal. There were similar businesses repairing computers and electronic devices.

A few groups broke down e-waste and still ‘burnt’ and recovered copper from e-waste.  It probably represented less than a few hundred people on a site of roughly 40,000 however, it still polluted and created plumes of black acrid smoke that drifted across Agbogbloshie. The residue left toxic heavy metals in the ground, which then polluted the water.  All that has gone now. The city government bulldozed the entire site in July 2021; it received little press in the Western media. It removed the livelihoods of many urban poor and ended up dispersing the informal e-waste recycling to multiple private locations across the city, potentially making control even more difficult.

Many second-hand goods are imported from Europe via the container port of Tema, and then distributed across West Africa. These imports locally represent the ‘top of the market’ and are quite expensive. But a percentage of those goods (despite the Basel agreement) are broken on arrival either through illegal export or simply through poor packaging. They are repaired if possible and then reused, but the remainder simply add to their local e-waste problem and one which they do not yet have the facilities or technology to manage properly.

There are districts such as Abosseyokai, that specialise in car spares and repair using recycled materials. Other areas, notably in and around Tema, specialise in refurbishing imported second-hand white goods, especially cookers, fridges, freezers and TVs. It is explained to me, by Eric who runs a workshop on Krakue Road, that some of these goods arrive damaged beyond repair simply because they were packaged so badly.

Close to Agbogbloshie, in Kantamanto Market, is a large resale and recycling market for clothes. The market employs over 30,000 people handling millions of garments a week.  However, many of these items are ‘fast fashion’ and not suited to reuse, so about forty percent of the clothing leave the market as waste (to be burned or simply landfilled).

Mobile phone repairers can be found all round Accra, from purpose-built workshops serving newer, high-end models to pop-up street side stalls. At such a stall, Achilles (a young Nigerian) offers to replace the screen and repair a Samsung phone for 45 cedi (around £7.50 or $10). His tools include recognisable items such as small screwdrivers, a jimmy and a soldering iron but also include a toothbrush, a razor blade and an old speaker (with its magnet used to hold the tiny screws). He keeps cool using a repurposed fan, that once cooled the inside of a desktop PC.  Nearby Daniel runs an electronic instrument repair shop that he has recently taken over, following completion of his apprenticeship.

A recent research project (Lepawsky, 2020) identified over 600 users of the iFixit on-line manuals in Ghana alone: supporting evidence for the sophistication of the local repair community and their capabilities.