By James Waititu and Reuben Kyama, Nairobi, Kenya
Three years ago at a rural school in Kenya, students gathered in a lab to admire with awe newly installed computers. The arrival of the new technology generated great interest and expectations – thanks to a generous firm which donated the machines.
So, the excited students pushed and elbowed one another as they fought to be the first ones to touch, switch on, and type their names on flashy keyboards. This being their first time seeing a computer, they were all too overwhelmed by the monitors and data displays and religiously listened to their teacher explain how the computer operates.
However, the school was recently jolted after the machines started developing technical problems. Many broke down and failed to operate any more despite frantic efforts to revive them. The joy of using Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) as tools to promote learning was dealt a heavy blow and frustration and despair was loud and widespread.
A decision has now been made to dispose of the obsolete machines. Some will be sold to scrap dealers while others will be dismantled to recover valuable parts as the trash parts are sent to a local dumpsite as electronic waste or eWaste.
eWaste-hazards worry experts in developing countries
Computer donations are just part of a large portion of unwanted electronics shipped to Kenya every year from abroad. As the technology continues to develop at amazing speeds, the items nearing the end of their useful lives are being discarded for new, better and more fashionable ones. Most items have a short lifespan and will soon turn into eWaste containing deadly toxic substances. And it is at this stage that the technology – despite having radically changed our lifestyles – is being seen as having turned into a curse for humanity! Now ICT experts are alarmed and are sounding a warning.
According to Bernard Nyakundi, Manager of the eWaste Management Unit at RUSCEMP, Kenya, computers are just like other electrical products and have components that contain highly toxic substances, gases and heavy metals which can be harmful to human health and the environment.
The trash from old computers, mobile phones or refrigerators contains dangerous substances, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium and barium among others.
“When piles of unwanted electronics materials are improperly disposed of, they can leach toxins into the soil, air and groundwater which later enter into crops, animals and human body systems causing contamination and pollution,” Nyakundi says.
He warns that exposure to these substances can cause damage to blood and nervous systems, DNA, immune systems, kidneys, can lead to respiratory and skin disorders and lung cancer as well as interfere with regulatory hormones and brain development.
Mr Nyakundi, 36, says it is ironic that the computers being given to bridge the digital divide, provide ICT access and promote economic development are posing threats which developing countries are ill-equipped to confront.
Strategic management is needed
RUSCEMP-Kenya was founded 14 years ago to promote ICT access in schools. But recently it created a special unit to actively work on sustainable eWaste management and recycling processes and help to get rid of the problem. It is based in Nakuru, some two hours drive west of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The unit stresses the strategic policy of reduction, reusing and recycling of electronic waste materials in an environmentally friendly process through innovative techniques. The unwanted parts are then disposed off in a manner that does not pollute the environment or endanger lives.
Their eWaste project works in partnership with the Ministry of Education, Kenya ICT Federation, Nakuru Business Association, Digital Pipeline, Rift Valley Institute of Science and Technology, KICTANET, Tracom College and Delta College in the USA.
The issue of hazardous content in electronic items has worried Mr Nyakundi since his days at the University of Nairobi in the 1990s where he studied Electrical and Electronics Engineering. He figured out what the university would do with all the obsolete machines and the potential dangers posed by the poor disposal of electronic waste across Africa. This scenario disturbed him daily and he felt something needed to be done urgently to address the problem before it was too late. He also strongly feels that engineers must be ready to provide solutions to problems and risks emanating form the very products they have created!
Currently, he is working hard to ensure that a lasting solution to eWaste management is achieved in Kenya and Africa. Indeed, he is facing a daunting task. Even at his town, he regrets that the Nakuru Municipal Council is unable to effect rules to regulate the dumping of solid or even eWaste. He fears this might soon pollute the soil and water systems, including the famous Lake Nakuru flamingo’s sanctuary – a major tourist attraction.
”Nyakundi opines that the public should also be sensitised to the dangers of eWaste. Shipping of eWaste to other countries should also be banned, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) dealing in eWaste management schemes should be supported with funds and there should be an introduction of exchange programmes to bring the latest eWaste management skills and technologies to Kenya and Africa.
He feels that Kenya, like other developing countries just waking up to the silent dangers of eWaste, is sitting on an eWaste time bomb – drastic steps must be taken against the irresponsible disposal of electronic equipment. He urges the government to introduce strict laws to regulate the importation of electrical equipment, to regulate eWaste management and to impose heavy penalties on culprits.
Nyakundi is now looking forward to chairing a session at eLearning Africa that will focus on the rather contentious issues that can arise when computers are donated to developing countries by developed countries to reduce the digital divide. It aims to identify best-practice and appropriate procedures for managing eWaste.