RWANDA : How the Country has Tamed Electronic Garbage

Electrical and electronic waste is the fastest-growing garbage in the world; Rwanda Green Fund-backed investment has turned around how e-waste is managed in the country. By Pius Muteekani Katunzi.


A technician working at the facility


The Rwanda government has invested $1.5 million in an electronic and electrical (e-waste) management and dismantling facility located in Bugesera district, eastern province, 35 kilometres out of Kigali city.
Electrical and electronic waste is the fastest-growing garbage in the world. Many developing countries, which also tolerate dumping in form of importation of cheap and near-obsolete devices, do not seem to have an elaborate plan of how to manage this hazardous waste.
Rwanda, however, has stopped importing used computers. Existing old ones in the country have to be harvested for valuable materials and other parts recycled, thus limiting the hazardous impact. The country is aggressively pursuing the twin lofty dreams of being a green country and the technology hub of East Africa.
During an interview with The Observer, Olivier Mbera, the programme manager, said the $1.5 million facility offers an “end-of-life” solution for electrical and electronic waste while preventing a negative impact of the same on people’s health or the environment.
Mbera says the new plant will help conserve natural resources, create green jobs, and reduce risks from hazardous materials to human health and environment. Up to 1,000 jobs will be provided in the first phase of the project.
Mbera said Rwanda did an inventory of e-waste in the country which found that unwanted television sets, computers, mobile phones, kettles, refrigerators and the like far outstrips the ability to collect and recycle them.
According to the 2017 United Nations report on e-waste, in 2016, some 44.7 tonnes of e-waste were generated globally. Locally, this would be equivalent to over 6,000 heaps of garbage as high as Crested Towers building.
But those numbers are not conclusive. The UN estimates the numbers based on amount of electronics put on the market each year and their average lifespan. Mbera says Rwanda has a potential of generating between 10,000 and 15,000 tonnes of e-waste per year. The facility is able to process 7,000 tonnes of e-waste annually.
From the last six months of testing, the facility has collected 120 tonnes of e-waste; recycling 400 computers, 279 tonnes of carbondioxide equivalent emission mitigated and 60 tonnes were dismantled.
Mbera said that previously, government rented warehouses where they kept electronic waste.
“But a lot of it also was just abandoned at garbage collection places like any other garbage and ended up in a landfills where groundwater and atmosphere were exposed to the hazardous materials that keeps these gadgets working,” he explained.
The country has also begun an awareness campaign against exposing one’s life to hazardous waste.
Mbera explained that the facility will also salvage some valuable metals or materials from abandoned computers. Over 15 types of electronic and electrical equipment are dismantled and recycled to generate other valuable materials.
“The e-waste facility in Bugesera is the second of its kind in Africa, and it is so advanced that it can recycle 7,000 tonnes per year. Sustainable e-waste management is a robust engine of green growth as both consumers and recyclers play their part. We are proud of what we have achieved with support from the Rwanda Green Fund,” Mbera said. Africa’s only other such facility is found in South Africa.

How it works
When devices are delivered, they are sorted, tested, then dismantled. Those computers with minor defective batteries or broken monitors are not dismantled. Instead, they are fitted with new batteries and other lacking parts and later donated to schools.
There is an agreement between the recycling centre and the ministry of education to donate refurbished computers to primary schools. Rwanda has a laptop-per-child policy, which is intended to entrench ICT training in primary school.
E-waste is, however, not entirely garbage. Valuable materials are hidden in this electronic waste. Mbera said they recover aluminum, copper and other precious metals embedded in the circuit boards. The facility has not yet started smelting the metals from the circuit boards. So, most is exported to Japan for $50,000 per tonne.
The Rwanda Green Fund is a national environment and climate change investment fund. It invests public and private projects that have the potential for transformative change and those that align with Rwanda’s commitment to build a strong, green economy.
It also provides expert technical assistance to ensure success of its investments. In April 2014, the Rwandan government, through Green Fund initiative, allocated about $1.5 million to establish the e-waste recycling facility under the country’s National E-Waste Management Strategy.
The strategy includes a national framework for recycling, a countrywide collection scheme and a dismantling facility linked to recycling industries in and outside Rwanda.

Green jobs
The facility directly employs 30 people and a number of students have been given internships. Once 30 collection centres are established in each district across the country, more than 1,000 jobs will be created.

Why Africa is vulnerable
Most countries on the continent are eager receivers of ‘gifts’ such as near obsolete computers, toxic used batteries, fridges and cookers.
In 1998, some African countries passed the Bamako Convention, which prohibited importation of any hazardous waste, including old desk computers, cellular phones and other electronics. Notwithstanding that convention, African is still the biggest recipient of old electronics from the developed world as ‘hazardous aid’.

Future
For now, the Bugesera plant is wholly owned by the public which dumps but there are plans to involve private investors. It is restricting itself to e-waste from within Rwanda, but Mbera told The Observer that they envisage importing and processing e-waste from the region.
There are plans to build a smelting plant to extract precious metals for more profitable export. The Bugesera facility has demonstrated the Rwanda government’s concern for public health considering that batteries contain lead and mercury which are dangerous to human life.
The trash it processes can be turned into something friendly and useful to the environment and health of the people.