Old computers are piling up in Africa and the developing world. Electronic waste, eWaste, eScrap or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) contains deadly contaminants like lead, cadmium, beryllium and poisonous flame retardants. UN officials say the developing countries face the spectre of mountains of hazardous waste damaging the environment and threatening public health. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is now creating awareness of the problem by promoting technology-supported learning.
By Reuben Kyama, Nairobi
In a recent report titled, “Recycling – from e-Waste to Resources”, UNEP officials predicted that by 2020 eWaste from old computers in South Africa and China will have jumped by 200 – 400 percent from 2007 levels, while in India it will reach a staggering 500 percent. By the same year in China, eWaste from discarded mobile phones will be about seven times higher than 2007 levels and, in India, eighteen times higher.
UNEP has embarked on a wide-ranging initiative aimed at promoting the use of technology-supported learning for environmental education, technical training and awareness creation among institutions that deal with environment and sustainable development.
To counterattack the surge in eWastes, officials at UNEP have already developed an eLearning strategy and built internal capacity in eLearning course development and managing eLearning programmes. The UN agency has also established a number of strategic partnerships with specialised institutions across Africa.
According to Gerard Cunningham of the Division of Early Warning and Assessment at UNEP, African environment ministers called for concerted action in 2008 to mainstream eLearning into the work programmes of environmental authorities across Africa to intensify education, training and outreach in addressing environmental problems and changing human behaviour.
An eLearning partnership with InWEnt, a leading German-based capacity-building organisation, has enabled an initial focus on capacity building on the Continent. So far, working relationships have been established with the Kenya eLearning Centre (KeLC) and the Namibian Open Learning Trust (NOLNet) to facilitate learning and achieve greater outreach.
“We are building an eLearning network embracing all environmental institutions across the Continent to strengthen national environmental authorities and create collaboration between the ministry of environment and the ministries of health and education within countries”, says Cunningham, who has been closely involved in the process and leads the UNEP eLearning team.
In December 2007, the UNEP entered into partnership with ICWE, organisers of eLearning Africa, to develop technology-supported learning and training for environmental education.
Representatives of environmental authorities in fourteen African countries met in Dakar, Senegal in 2009, during the fourth eLearning Africa conference. They agreed on their responsibility for establishing an African environmental eLearning network to share expertise, best practice and eLearning content.
The network is comprised of a number of sub-regional hubs and national eLearning centres.
“One of the network’s first tasks is to develop strategies and action plans to mainstream technology-supported learning to aid their work in the areas of training, education, and awareness raising”, says Cunningham.
The meeting in Dakar was convened in response to a decision endorsed by the twelfth session of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) held in Johannesburg in 2008 in which the environment ministers called for a wide range of actions to strengthen environmental-education programmes and apply technology-supported learning.
According to Cunningham, the main objective of the network is to build technological capacity for eLearning in environmental issues. He notes that developing quality-assured and relevant content for eLearning courses across Africa will be difficult. He has worked in office automation and technology support for twenty years and participated in international conferences, especially the 2008 eLearning Africa in Dakar.
A survey conducted by UNEP last year revealed that over seventy percent of African institutions dealing with environmental matters do not have any strategy in place to utilise modern information and communication technologies to support their education, training and outreach activities. Furthermore, in the area of environmental education, the survey pointed to the need for more networking amongst institutions to address priority environmental issues.
China is already producing some 2.3 million tons of hazardous e-waste domestically, second only to the United States with about 3 million tons.
According to UNEP, countries such as Kenya, Senegal and Uganda, with low present day eWaste volumes, but would benefit from developing pre-processing technologies like the manual dismantling of eWaste.
The UNEP report recommends that these countries establish eWaste management centers of excellence, building on existing organisations working in the area of recycling and waste management. The eWaste in these countries is composed of old desktop and laptop computers, printers, mobile phones, pagers, digital photo and music devices, refrigerators, toys and television sets.
Achim Steiner, Executive Director of UNEP, said, “The African Environmental eLearning Network provides an ideal framework to foster both North-South and South-South collaboration in the use of ICT to support education, training and outreach on priority environmental issues across Africa.”
He says UNEP must act as a catalyst by providing technology support to partners in Africa and fostering cooperation between the education and environment sectors.
The partnership between InWEnt and the regional eLearning centres in 2008 and 2009, established basic environment training by eLearning in practice in eighteen African countries, mainly in East and West Africa.
During the upcoming eLearning Africa conference in Lusaka, Zambia, UNEP in cooperation with the conference organiser ICWE, will organise a one-day seminar entitled “Pan-Africa eLearning for the Environment Network.” The seminar, a precursor to the eLearning Africa conference, will look at the progress made in building the network and will also chart the course of its future direction. UNEP will also expand its eLearning training programme to Southern Africa in collaboration with the Environmental Council of Zambia (ECZ) and with the support of its training partners InWEnt, NOLNet and KeLC.