Agbogbloshie: Dumping no more

By Dagna Rams

Agbogbloshie, Ghana, is tied to e-waste dumping in the collective imagination. This narrative began with an international media report in 2008 by National Geographic. The articles that followed talked about Ghana as “a global graveyard for dead computers” (New York Times) and “the place where thousands of tons of the world’s electronics go to die” (Atlantic). These narratives link Agbogbloshie to electronic waste-making practices in Europe and North America. Much has been said about the “dumping” framework – whether it is disputed or nuanced – but less about why people in Ghana would mobilise to recycle waste into metals. Agbogbloshie is a part of an emergent globalised scrap economy that links even the most peripheral markets to global metal flows. I argue for the need to pay closer attention not to the inflow of waste to  Agbogbloshie, but to the flow of recuperated metals out of Agbogbloshie.

Beyond Common Myths About Agbogbloshie

Before looking at the significance of the outflows, let us first consider the productive power of the “dumping” narrative. On the policy front, in Ghana, the focus on dumping meant that the country has adopted its own e-waste legislation that prohibits imports of e-waste and that some academics deem not compatible with the larger socio-economic context of the country (Oteng-Abagio et al., 2020). Personnel at Ghana’s Customs Excise have been trained to police incoming containers. They work in conjunction with Interpol under the auspices of ominously named projects, Eden, Enigma I and Enigma II, each of which aimed to make sure Ghana’s badge as an “e-waste dump” is revoked. On the research front, authors worked to establish if Ghana is indeed an e-waste dump or whether such a characterisation is unsubstantiated: Ghanaian NGO Green Advocacy located its studies in Ghana’s ports and determined that the proportion of electronic waste in in-coming containers is small vis-a-vis overall electronics’ imports (Amoyaw-Osei et al., 2011). Grace Akese’s and Karoline Owusu-Sekyere’s doctoral projects pick up this thread in Agbogbloshie showing that it is not e-waste but car scrap that accounts for the majority of material flows to the scrapyard. The research into inflows is an important effort, but brash readings of it might lead to a double-bind: either the West is responsible for dumping and hence obliged to pick up the environmental costs or the dumping stems from local consumption and the wider, trans-continental responsibility is distributed, at best indirectly rather than directly.

While the question of inflows and their volume has been studied, the question of what happens with the e-waste and scrap once it is recycled is largely unknown. A subtle racial divide is in play as can be can be drawn from Lepawsky (2018) and Burrell’s (2012) research on e-waste imports: while many of the importers of electronics are from the African diaspora, the outflows go through and to foreign managed companies with operations in Ghana, as well as in Asia and Europe. My own research shows that rather than sourcing their metals from Agbogbloshie and similar places directly, the companies operate through middlemen, who keep the different actors connected but also invisible to each other. To compound the difficulty, junior workers in places like Agbogbloshie are kept out of the loop by their seniors as to who these middlemen are, compounding the system of multiple shadows.

As my research shows, it is this shadowy system that has historically propelled Agbogbloshie into existence and has since sustained its on-going operations. In other words, it is the demand for the scrap (including e-waste) and not the occasional wastes that come through its ports that pumps the economy. Indeed, until the 1990s most of e-waste and car scrap lingered in landfills. Mechanics in Ghana remember burying damaged car parts in the ground, while non-working computers would be stockpiled in people’s homes or businesses, not unlike in Europe and North America, where perceptions that such equipment is too precious to throw away persist (e.g. Ongondo et al., 2011). Prior to the 1990s in Ghana, the scrap sector was mostly limited to the circulation of copper and aluminium that was collected through networks of Muslim men for artisanal production of pots and jewellery, with some of it going for international sale to Europe through a few Ghanaian entrepreneurs. The metals in circulation were at first limited but increased thanks to one man, Boniface Amandi who, at the age of 20 grew – by his own account – “fascinated by scrap and had to get it”. In mid-1970s, he knocked to the door of Valco Aluminium, at the time an American-owned smelter, and offered to buy aluminium dross that lingered in the company’s outskirts, a situation linking contemporary e-waste debates in Ghana with colonial and post-colonial political ecologies of the Akosombo Dam. The executives not only sold the dross to Amandi, but also connected him to buyers of scrap in Europe.

Urban Mining, Not Waste Dumping 

The 1990s in Ghana saw a steady linking together of local scrap to international markets. Independence-era Tema Steel was privatised and bought by Indian entrepreneurs. Tema Steel was imagined by Kwame Nkrumah, much like Valco Aluminium, as an example of added-value industrialisation to diversify out of extractive economies. Soon other iron smelters propelled by international capital and technologies opened their doors to Ghana’s iron scrap dealers to provide them with the stock. Since iron scrap comes in significant volumes and is easy to find in Ghana, the scrap economy boomed and drew in ever greater numbers of migrants from the country’s savannah North. In the early 2000s, Kufour’s government worked to advertise the country to foreign investors. More scrap metal buyers from abroad came to the country increasing the demand for all types of scrap metals including precious metals from e-waste. Soon all sorts of brokers vied for the country’s scrap. They would front individual scrap dealers with capital to mobilise their scrap hunts and ensure the growth of the stock of recovered metals. Ghana’s 2014 ban on the exports of iron scraps diminished the scrap “el dorado”, as one former scrap exporter called the past, but non-ferrous metals and e-waste metals exporters were free to pursue their business.

While my research can point fingers to specific companies that infuse the scrap trade in Ghana with money, their partners in Europe and Asia are a business secret. Some idea about who those actors might be can be found in the work of Knapp (2016). She introduces the term “flexible mining” to capture how refineries like Umicore in Europe and its competitors in recent decades expanded their ore supply chains to include scrap metal. What is different about flexible mining, according to Knapp, is it does not rely on traditional extraction from “below-ground” but from scrap “above- ground” (Knapp, 2016: 1890) and as a consequence it can disentangle from national laws and politics, and evidently from the actors that feed its stocks. Flexible mining allows for the refineries to recast their work as within the brackets of “sustainable development” alongside a scientific consensus that recycling of metals can reduce exploitation of natural resources, saves energy, and diminishes pollution. The regulations that pertain to smelters outside Ghana and refineries (i.e., in Europe and elsewhere) can have indirect influence on the scrap dealers. For example, while there is no interdiction in Europe or elsewhere to smelting burnt copper, such copper fetches lower prices for scrap collectors.

The focus on dumping has meant that the “e-waste in Ghana” has come to be associated with waste and dumps, making scrap work sound akin to scavenging for treasure. With few exceptions, journalism on the subject tends to imagine people picking up e-waste from dumps and scrambling for a living out of other people’s rejects. In fact, scrap is becoming ever more expensive in Ghana and scrap is considered a form of capital. This has a twofold significance. On the one hand, the value of scrap means that to enter the business one has to have a capital or a connection to someone with a capital. On the other hand, scrap represents a source of wealth to those who generate it.

chimneys of two steel smelting companies

Photo 1: A view of chimneys of two steel smelting companies in Tema Industrial Zone that purchase scrap from scrap dealers. 

The prices that circulate in Agbogbloshie and other scrap markets are surprisingly high. Prices of iron are often higher than those on the London Metal Exchange (a standard reference for metal prices), while the coming of international non-ferrous metal exporters to Ghana increased the prices of other metals. The LME is also used by scrap dealers in negotiations with the brokers. For example, scrap dealers in Agbogbloshie buy copper for around 70%-75% of the price of the LME. Given transportation, middlemen overhead, currency exchange, these are still higher prices than their peers get in Europe, a situation I came to appreciate, when developing friendships with female scrap dealers in Ghana, who were supportive of the economy and would link it to their own capacity to gain financial autonomy from male partners.

There are various theories to explain the fluctuation in scrap metal prices experienced by workers in the sector in Ghana. Official narratives point to high collection numbers that bring steady volumes of scrap, which in turn compound the otherwise small profit margins (‘at this point, in Ghana scrap you only make money from the volume’). Other suppositions relayed to me pointed to possibilities of using scrap for capital flight and money laundering. Although such suppositions are difficult to prove or disprove, throughout my fieldwork I stumbled into arrangements between scrap dealers and middlemen from abroad. Lonely containers would be placed somewhere around Agbogbloshie and slowly fill up with e-waste and get picked up once full. Such arrangements would typically take place on a one-off basis. Middlemen would be secretive enough for their Agbogbloshie colleagues to only have a single photo of the business partners together or a telephone number as proof of the connection. Perhaps less surprisingly for those with experience in the scrap sector, throughout my fieldwork, I would also observe forms of ‘creative invoicing’ by metal buyers (e.g. writing numbers on invoices in a foreign language), lack of invoicing or tampering with the scales.

The re-arrangement of perspectives from dumping to mining opens up new questions about the creation of value and redistribution of profits between refineries or smelters and the people that get mobilised for the collection, segregation and processing of metals. Are people in Agbogbloshie being under-paid for their efforts? Or is their profit within the margins permitted by a recycling sector driven by an economic profit? How would profit margins have to be readjusted to limit the negative externalities that arise from the current practices of cheap recycling? To answer these questions requires a closer examination of the emergent world of globalised scrap, an examination that integrates different parts of the supply chain. My own research in Agbogbloshie reveals the presence of actors that infuse the sector with capital and the prevailing situation on the ground is one of scrap metals extraction, rather than e-waste dumping.

Bibliography

  • Amoyaw-Osei, Y., Agyekum, O., Pwamang, J., Muller, E. M., Fasko, R. ,  Schleup, M. (2011) “Ghana E-Waste Country Assessment: SBC e-Waste Africa Project”, Secretariat of the Basel Convention,  http://www.basel.int/portals/4/basel%20convention/docs/ewaste/e-wasteassessmentghana.pdf
  • Burrell, J. (2012) Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Lepawsky, J. (2018) Reassembling Rubbish: Worlding Electronic Waste. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Liboiron, M. (2016) “Redefining pollution and action: The matter of plastics”, Journal of Material Culture, 21 (1).
  • Knapp, F. (2016) “The birth of the flexible mine: Changing geographies of mining and e-waste commodity frontier”, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 48(10), 1889–1909.
  • Oteng-Ababio, M., van der Velden, M., and Taylor, M.B.. “Building Policy Coherence for Sound Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Management in a Developing Country.” The Journal of Environment & Development, January 14, 2020, 107049651989821.
  • Ongondo, F.O., Williams, I.D., and Cherrett, T.J. (2011) “How are WEE doing? A global review of the management of electrical and electronic wastes”, Waste Management, 31(4).

Dagna Rams is a doctoral candidate in social anthropology at the University of Lausanne (UNIL). She is currently a visiting scholar at the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study. Her dissertation Scrap-worlds in Ghana: between migrant economies in scrapyards and international markets of metals draws on 12 months of ethnographic research in Accra and Kumasi in Ghana to understand the development of a scrap economy at the crossroads of Ghanaian livelihoods, international circulations of metals, and emergent circular economy regimes.The project was reviewed and approved by the Research Commission of the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lausanne in 2016.