Probably the least exploited economic activity in the Kenyan market, urban mining from electronic waste, is gaining root slowly but steadily due to the growing adoption of technology in the country. Founded in 2012 out of a computer distribution charity venture targeting schools, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Centre, with branches in different parts of Africa, mines rare metals in the discarded waste electrical and electronic equipment.
Boniface Mbithi, the CEO, says the Covid-19 pandemic has breathed new life into the adoption of electronics in homes and offices boosting the fortunes of the little known industry.
“The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has seen individuals acquire computers, phones and other electronics enabling them to work remotely raising opportunities in the electronic waste business at the end of the lifespan of the gadget.”
They started out as a charity organisation, with a focus on working with companies to promote ICT adoption in the country, but they would soon pivot when they discovered an untapped market.
“What bothered us was where all these gadgets would end up upon becoming obsolete or broken. This thought bloomed into a business idea in safe disposal.”
Search for funding
Due to the company’s ‘computer for schools’ wing, they already had a base for raw materials to start a recycling plant but it was not going to be easy due to the investment needed to acquire the advanced machines needed to set up.
But there was a silver lining. What made it easier to access capital was the nature of the business and its focus on eliminating electronic waste whose components are linked to environmental degradation.
So when the centre approached corporates, many were ready to invest a part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) budget to the venture.
Since its inception nine years ago, it has created 5,000 jobs in its supply chain and another 60 direct jobs. Through partnerships, the centre has footprints in Morrocco, South Africa, Zambia, Madagascar, Nigeria, Cameroon South Sudan, Ethiopia, Liberia, Senegal, Ghana, Egyp, and DR Gongo with direct operations in Uganda and Tanzania.
“Benchmarking with leading companies in the industry has made it much easier for the centre to spread its tentacles within the region easily.”
The lawyer-turned-expert in e-waste recycling says the cake is bigger and the Covid-19 pandemic has made it even better for the industry.
“In a period where the pandemic has pushed many businesses and schools online, forcing them to adapt to working virtually, the demand for electronic devices such as smartphones, Wi-Fi routers, laptops, desktops, scanners, cables, modems, charges, batteries, and solar power devices have shot to an all-time high as corporates doubled efforts to keep processes running.
“We are projecting an increase in the availability of e-waste in the coming few years since technology is changing fast and calls for a need to sensitise individuals on how to manage these electronic wastes,” he adds.
Through a partnership with supermarkets and telecommunication firms, Mbithi says they have collection points across the country where they get the supply of raw materials (electronic waste) which the company uses.
Once the waste is brought to its factory in Utawala, Nairobi, an inventory is taken. He says electronics such as computers are subjected to advanced tests to ascertain whether they could be refurbished.
From the waste, rare metals are extracted for re-sale while other computer components such as plastics are crushed for use in making floor tiles or beautiful artwork. The e-waste cuts across mobile phones, iron boxes, routers, servers, and anything electronic.
The refurbished computers are distributed to schools while the components of dead machines are extracted. Parts such as batteries are revived, modified, and packaged for reuse to support operations of machines such as ATMs, solar systems, radio masts, and towers.
According to Mbithi, Kenya is currently estimated to be generating about 51.3k tonnes of e-waste annually. With an unclear management system, several tonnes of e-waste loaded with heavy metals end up in dumpsites and rivers exposing the majority of the population to the harmful parts.
“If the government was swift to enact various laws on e-waste disposal, the industry will be able to operate optimally and create thousands of jobs for the youths,” he says.