Field Stories

eWaste no more: the TVs from PCs project

Fancy a flat screen TV for a mere 4000 Kenyan Shillings? (about €36) This is the going rate for a ‘green’ TV produced at East Africa’s first eWaste recycling plant in Nairobi. According to the International Telecommunication Union, only 13% of eWaste is recycled worldwide.  Developing countries which are often used as dumping grounds for old equipment need to implement more stringent eWaste management measures. The ‘green’ TV is rising to the challenge.

By Prue Goredema

Tom Musili’s TVs from PCs drive is the ultimate in repurposing. He runs the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Centre (WEEE) in Nairobi where computers from within Kenya’s borders and further afield are brought in when they have reached the end of their life cycle. The computers are stripped to their component parts, and everything that can be salvaged is put to a new use. The copper and aluminium are set aside; the plastic, being pliable, finds many new uses, and best of all, there’s a swanky-looking flat screen television at the end of the day.

“We convert thin film transistor (TFT) monitors into TV screens,” explains Musili. “Turning a PC into a TV requires skill, but it’s something we have been perfecting at the WEEE Centre.” The TFT screens offer a decent resolution, and the end result is a TV for which people are prepared to part with 4000-5000 shillings. Musili says that he is so confident in the quality and durability of the units that he has a couple of such TVs in his own home.  Most of the 1,000 TVs that have come off the WEEE Centre’s production line have been tailor-made for the analogue signal that has long been Kenya’s mainstay. Musili says that they have the technology and capacity to produce digital TVs, something which will become necessary as the broadcasters migrate to digital over the coming months.

Although the story appears to have a happy ending, it is not without a few toxic twists.  Many of the computers that end up at the WEEE Centre are old beyond compare, and they often lack the necessary internal components for the TV conversion.  Computers with the older Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitors are bulky and unsuited to this sleek conversion, explains Musili. “That is the most difficult fraction to handle in the recycling process,” he says.  Toxicity is a recurrent problem with CRTs because of the high levels of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, and when such units are tossed nonchalantly into dumpsites, unaware scavengers face serious health risks. It’s a hazard that all people taking a hands-on approach to eWaste management must be aware of.

The WEEE Centre’s TVs from PCs venture is in fact a spinoff of a larger project that Musili has run for a decade. When he registered Computers For Schools in Kenya (CFSK) in 2002, there was little fanfare at his vision to kit out under-resourced schools with donated computers. Embracing eWaste from overseas is a double edged sword: While there exists a real need for low-cost ICTs in most African countries, settling for other people’s leftovers doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. The computers dumped on African shores may be obsolete or swiftly heading that way, and some people see welcoming such donations as degrading, defeating or simply ill-advised.

Fait accompli: Tom Musili opens an ICT lab on behalf of Computers for Schools Kenya.

Musili feels that for imparting the core ICT skills, one need not have the latest model laptop, PC or portable device. The education ministry was sceptical when Musili first approached them, but he was convinced of the merits of his plan having seen first-hand how governments in Canada, Chile and Colombia were setting up computer centres in schools using donated PCs. “There was no question in my mind that we could easily adopt a similar approach in Kenya’s schools in order to have an informed, ICT-literate nation.”  The project eventually came to fruition when Barclays Bank donated 200 computers through Digital Links, a UK social enterprise. “There are many companies who upgrade their systems before the computers are at their worst, and such machines are well-suited for distribution in schools,” Musili says.

The project took off; however, by 2005, a new nuisance had arisen. “We were starting to see that some of the donated computers had pretty much reached their end-of-life, and we had to return to the schools to collect them,” explains Musili. Since dumping waste electrical and electronic equipment is an environmental hazard, new ways to deal with the spent units had to be found. Thus, the TVs from PC project took on a life of its own. To date, CFSK has donated over 50 000 computers throughout Kenya. Government, corporate and private donors and even some locally-based UN agencies are now starting to bring their old computers to CFSK and the WEEE Centre. Units that have not yet reached their end-of-life are put to use in schools, and those beyond this stage may well end up in a living room near you.

Musili is confident that his recycling model is suited to other African contexts, and through the Digital Pipeline Africa project, the WEEE Centre is now working with other countries to improve eWaste management Continent-wide. “We have teamed with eight countries including Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe to ensure that we share our know-how whilst learning from their experiences in disposing of eWaste responsibly.”  The need to come up with practicable solutions could not be more urgent. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that by 2017, Africa might be generating more eWaste than Europe.  It is therefore imperative that more recycling systems be put in place, a move that will also create green jobs that lead to a sustainable boost to a country’s economy. The move has precedence in the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal as well as the Bamako Convention.  (This Convention prohibits the import of hazardous wastes into Africa). It’s a matter of African governments enforcing these Conventions and then finding informed ways to deal with the eWaste generated within each country.

For now, the WEEE Centre model is literally one to watch!

For more information on the WEEE Centre, please click here.

This topic will be covered in further detail at eLearning Africa 2012 in Session 01ERS Policy Responses to Responsible eWaste Management in Africa. The session will take place on Thursday 24th in Cotonou.

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