Whenever 44-year-old Umeh goes to Billstrasse, Hamburg’s main district for used electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), his main task is how to get the best deals for used products. Crammed with various shops and garages, about half of which are devoted to sale and transportation of used goods, Billstrasse is about five kilometres from Hamburg’s harbour, one of the busiest ports in Europe.
A typical day in Billstrasse sees scores of people involved in shopping and business deals. Unlike a lot of German markets though, most of the deals are done by people who are not native Germans, people like Umeh. He agreed to provide only his first name for this story.
Born in a different continent, about 3,000 miles from Germany, Umeh is from the south-eastern Nigerian state of Imo. In front of a shop owned by an Afghan, Muhammed Aziz, Umeh tells PREMIUM TIMES of the final destination of his purchases. They are to be sent to his home country, Nigeria, the migrant who moved to Germany five years ago, said.
“I normally help some of my friends in Nigeria, they normally come to buy this ‘tokunbo'”, he said.
“We help them to search for where they can get this tokunbo, then help them for the shipment. When we ship it, they will clear it in Nigeria.”
‘Tokunbo’ is a term used by Nigerians for used items imported into the oil-rich West African country.
ILLEGAL NIGERIAN IMPORT
At least half of all electrical and electronics equipment (EEE) imported into Nigeria are used products, according to a 2012 country assessment report.
About 600,000 tons of used EEE are imported into the country annually. Virtually all the EEE used in Nigeria are manufactured abroad. At least one in six (16 per cent) of the imported used products originate from the Hamburg port where Umeh helps his friends to ship from.
The problem, however, is that a lot of these used EEE products do not work. They are electronic waste (e-waste).
“Some of them (products bought from Billstrasse),” Umeh says, “normally we buy them here non-tested. They don’t test, so working or no working.”
The import of e-waste from Europe into Nigeria is illegal by both European and Nigerian standards. Still, 100,000 tons of illegal e-waste were imported into Nigeria in 2010, according to the latest country assessment report.
Despite local laws banning the import, inefficient enforcement still makes Nigeria one of the largest e-waste importing countries in the world.
The e-waste trade is illegal because Nigeria does not possess any organized e-waste recycling or dismantling facility. The 440,000 tons of EEE that turns into e-waste every year in Africa’s most populous country are therefore left to be crudely recycled under hazardous conditions. The crude recycling of e-waste is toxic to humans and to the environment.
“We have done a lot of studies and we were able to show that all the cells (where e-waste dismantling takes place) are heavily polluted,” Oladele Osibanjo, one of the authors of the country assessment report cited above, told PREMIUM TIMES.
“You are not only dumping the hardware, but also hazardous substances,” the retired professor of analytical and environmental chemistry at the University of Ibadan said.
Mr. Osibanjo explained that the poisonous chemicals in the EEE withstand high temperature and are eventually released into the soil and ground water.
“They will be released,” he said. “Where you burn them, they are releasing into the earth. When it is really raining, they will wash into rivers and so on. Another PHD student of mine in Abuja went to dump sites where they also do raise cattle. She was able to get milk from a cow and then we looked at chicken eggs and all eggs. We found them all contaminated.”
LOOPHOLES IN EUROPE
In 2014, about 41.8 million tons of e-waste was generated globally. This figure is expected to rise to 49.8 million tons in 2018, making electronic waste the world’s fastest growing municipal waste stream.
About 27 per cent of the total global e-waste is generated in Europe, a figure bested only by Asia (38 per cent).
In contrast, only 4.5 per cent of the total is generated by African countries. Due to the high demand for cheaper used products, African countries are however inheriting a lot of the e-waste generated in Europe and the United States.
To ensure effective processing of electronic waste, the European Union has put in place several laws to ensure they are not exported, but are instead recycled within Europe. The United Nations’ Basel Convention prohibits the transboundary movement of e-waste to countries such as Nigeria that do not have proper recycling facilities in place.
Loopholes in the implementation of the law have, however, ensured that from countries like Germany, the UK and other European nations, some of these waste are still exported, a lot of them to African countries like Nigeria.
Months of investigations in various European countries, however, show that the illegal business is not masterminded or controlled by cabals but by various individuals who try to make money for themselves.
One of the sectors where loopholes exist in Europe is transportation. E-wastes are usually recovered from homes and offices and are supposed to be moved straight to treatment plants. But some individuals have now seen huge business opportunities in intercepting EEE as they move various stages of the transport chain. So a huge chunk of the waste, instead of arriving treatment plants, are illegal shipped abroad to countries such as Nigeria.
Although there are increasingly more stringent laws on inspection and testing of e-products before they are allowed to be shipped from Germany, a Nigerian businessman in Billstrasse told PREMIUM TIMES there are ways to work around the regulations.
“When you buy them (the non-tested largely e-waste products), we can help you properly pack them in your car (to be shipped too),” he said. “The ones that are very exposed will be tested to convince the shipping authorities they all work fine.”
Such shipment in cars are very common. This was revealed in the 2012 country assessment report which recorded “over thirty cars loaded with used electronics at the port” in Lagos, all of which “had their booth and doors permanently closed.”
Price is a reason many Nigerians buy the non-tested, non-functional EEE in Europe instead of tested products. A visit to various shops at Billstrasse by our reporters showed that the price difference between tested and non-tested goods could be as high as 400 per cent.
THE CRAVE FOR TOKUNBO
Despite being illegal and hazardous, there is a craving for both e-waste and used EEE among several Nigerians. The major reason for this, experts and several Nigerian sellers and buyers told PREMIUM TIMES, is economic.
Most Nigerians cannot afford new products. According to the United Nations Human Development Index, over half of Nigeria’s N170 million live in poverty. To be able to afford basic electrical and electronic equipment like fridges, TVs, and microwave ovens, most of them buy used ones.
Apart from cost, some Nigerians also feel the used products are of better quality than new ones imported from China.
”I’m even very afraid of the quality of the new equipment coming into Nigeria, because you find out that most of these new equipment transforms faster into e-waste because of low quality,” said Segun Odeyingbo, an official of StEP Initiative, an organisation dedicated to combating shipment of e-waste to Nigeria. “A DVD player can easily be designed to last you for six months, and then it has already turned into e-waste.”
In Nigeria, the largest destination for imported used EEE products are Alaba International Market, reputed to be West Africa’s largest used electronics market, and the Ikeja computer village. Containers containing used EEEs are discharged virtually on daily basis in these two markets, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
The products come largely in 40 feet containers (77 per cent) but also 20 feet ones.
“… on the average, a 40-feet container weighing 9.9 tonnes of used EEE can contain 195pieces (pcs) of TV, 94pcs of computer (monitor), 230pcs of DVD players, 322pcs of video player, 249pcs of pressing iron, 810pcs of blenders, 113pcs of microwave ovens, 106pcs of HiFi, 616pcs of radio, and 558pcs of electric kettles,” the 2012 Nigerian country assessment report which contains data for 2010, noted.
One of those who import the used products at the Ikeja computer village is Blessing (she agreed to provide only her first name), who, alongside her brother, owns a used computer sales shop at the market.
“It comes directly here from the (Lagos) port about every three weeks,” Blessing says. “It comes back in the containers and we share it. It’s not for us alone, many (traders) share it. Not more than five people share the container.”
The trader explained that although majority of the computers she and her brother import from countries such as Germany work, about 10 per cent of them were non-functional.
“Some work, some we have to fix,” she said. “Some might not come with batteries, some might not come with this, so we have to use the money to buy them.”
Blessing’s brother is an engineer and does the repairs himself.
“I can fix anything,” he says in the shop tightly packed with various desktops and few laptops. “You can use any part from others. If another part matches with that HP it’s okay. Asus, Toshiba, Hitachi, Lenovo… Provided that it works with it.”
INEFFICIENT NATIONAL REGULATION
Apart from the enforcement loopholes in Europe, similar inefficiencies exist in Nigeria.
The official e-waste regulator for the Nigerian government has tried to regulate importation of used electronics by registering the importers. This is to ensure only functional used electronics are imported.
However, “a lot of them (the importers) are still not registered,” the State Coordinator of National Environmental Standards Regulatory and Enforcement Agency (NESREA), Nosa Aigbedion Dickson, said in an interview at his Lagos office.
“Some of them are still trying to evade the process. Someone just goes to, maybe, the UK, takes from the road free, assembles together, puts in the container, and ships it down. They don’t do functionality tests.”
“For some it’s more expensive to just buy only functional items, they want to sell it out untested. But we’re trying to see how we can ensure that it’s only registered dealers that are bringing used electronics.”
Mr. Dickson said his agency works with various foreign governments to check the import of e-waste into Nigeria. He said 13 ships containing e-waste were sent back to their ports of origin by the agency between 2010 and 2016.
About half of that number originated in Europe including one, MV Gumel, from Germany, he said.
The Nigerian official said because of the volume of imports into Nigeria, his agency only does e-waste inspections on imported vessel when it is tipped off by international organisations like Interpol. Other containers on which the agency is not tipped off are not searched.
He also said no one has been jailed for importing electronic waste into Nigeria.
“A lot of them (importers caught bringing in e-waste) choose to pay fines,” he said. “They are businessmen, no one wants to be locked up in prison. They pay the fine,” he said.
He said his agency does not have data on how much fine in total those arrested have paid, saying they only leave it to the courts.
Mr. Nosa however, said the e-waste problem could only be solved if officials at source and destination countries become more efficient.
“There’s problems locally here (in Nigeria), there’s also problem over there (in Europe and other source countries),” the official said. “If it’s controlled on both sides properly, the case of e-waste will be much more reduced.”
MAKING MONEY OFF E-WASTE
The transnational trade on ‘tokunbo’ electronics is however not entirely negative, say experts.
Apart from thousands of exporters and importers of used EEE and e-waste, the industry has also created a lot of jobs in Nigeria’s informal sector.
About 80,000 people are estimated to work as scavengers, people who pick the electronic waste from homes, dumpsites and other places.
Another 52,000 are estimated to work as refurbishers, repairing the ‘non-tested’, non-functional electronics.
The fact that thousands of jobs are created in the industry and that some of the imported waste can be repaired and the life cycle extended has led to calls for review of the international ban on e-wastes.
Professor Osibanjo, however, maintains that the import of e-waste is hazardous, but that used electronics should not be banned altogether,
“Don’t ban second hand, because if you ban it, less than 20 per cent of the population can afford new equipment,” Mr. Osibanjo said.
The way Europeans regard e-waste is different from the way Nigerian importers see the non-tested electronics they are importing.
“People don’t accept it as waste,” Mr. Odeyingbo, the e-waste expert at StEP Initiative said. “You might see it as waste in Europe, but they might see it as a resource.”
“For instance most of these non-functional equipment that are coming into Nigeria can actually be refurbished at a cheaper rate and can still be used over a long time of five-six years. So now, you have called it e-waste in one part of the world, but another people see it as a resource,” said Mr. Odeyingbo.
Although the life cycle of the used electronics is extended in Nigeria, it still ends up as waste. About 1.1 million tons of EEE become obsolete each year in the West African country with almost half of that ending up as e-waste.
“There is no organized e-waste recycling or dismantling facility in the country,” Mr. Dickson said.
With this lack of formal recycling, informal scavengers have instead stepped in to make the last money from the precious metals of e-waste in Nigeria.
“Right now the Chinese, Lebanese and Indians buy the pieces from the scavengers, take it to Europe and make the dollars. That’s what is happening right now,” Mr. Osibanjo said.
Currently, Nigeria’s informal system is thus leaking hazardous toxins into the ground and valuable materials into foreign pockets.
The closest to a standard e-waste recycling plant in Nigeria is E-Waste and Metal Recycling International Company (EMRIC), located in Ikorodu, Lagos.
However, a visit to the plant shows a lot of its operations are still manually and crudely done.
“We have to do it through manual labour because we need machineries, bigger machinery,” Mukhtar Haroun, an official at the plant, said.
Mr. Haroun listed paucity of funds including inability to secure bank loans as well as poor electricity infrastructure as some of the challenges his company faces in standardizing its operations.
Also, unlike in Europe where the extended producer responsibility means manufacturers of EEE, directly and through importers, contribute to the recycling cost, no such laws exist in Nigeria.
One Nigerian state that is trying to solve this problem is Lagos, the country’s commercial capital. As the main entry port and dumping ground for most of the e-waste, the state, in 2016, released its e-waste policy, which, among other measures, tries to formalise the informal e-waste collection process in the state.
“What we are trying to build is a producer responsibility organisation,” Kayode Bello, the head of the e-waste unit of the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview.
“Bring the producers together. They have to come together. We are looking at the extended producer responsibility. And we are working together with NESREA and the port authorities (to solve the problem of e-waste).”
Meanwhile, Nigeria continues to generate 440,000 tons of electric and electronic wastes every year.
And while authorities struggle to control import and export of e-waste, demands for used electronic equipment continue to grow in West Africa.
It is business as usual for the Nigerian importers on whose behalf Umeh frequents Billstrasse in Hamburg.
“That is what they do (for a living), that is their business in Nigeria,” Umeh said.
“From there, they pay their taxes, from there they pay their hotel bills and their flight bills. They make money from it.”
(The investigation was supported through Journalismfund.eu’s Connecting Continents grant programme).