How Discarded Computers Are Poisoning Africa's Kids

Eight years ago, Anane began to notice more and more trucks driving toward Agbogbloshie, their beds full of computers. He took a closer look and started fighting back against what he saw. Anane collects stickers from many of the junk computers to find out whose toxins are burning here. He has labels from the US Department of Defense, British authorities and companies like Barclays Bank and British Telecom. "Some of the kids here will never see their 25th birthday," Anane believes.

He knows, though, that the companies and organizations whose labels arrive here together with their discarded appliances aren't the ones actually bringing this refuse into the country. The people directly involved are traders like Michael Ninicyi, head of Kofi Enterprise.

Kofi Enterprise is a small store filled to bursting with computers. The best goods are old Pentium machines that go for $90, DVD drive included. Printers and copiers are displayed under a yellow awning out front -- all machines from Germany, Ninicyi says. A copy of the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper, used for padding, sits wedged between two of the computers. Some of the cases still bear labels from companies based in, for example, the small German town of Kleve, the state of Brandenburg or the Rhineland. All these goods are functional and legal.

'This Business Is Good for Ghana'

Ninicyi wears creased dress pants, a gold necklace and fancy shoes. He's a man who has made it. His English is excellent, he speaks well and can defend himself well -- although he doesn't feel he needs to do so. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Ninicyi purchases his wares exclusively from container ships out of Hamburg. "Germans simply take better care of their appliances than anyone else," he explains. He doesn't want to say exactly who the sellers are. He buys the products blind, which is typical in this industry. As part of their cost calculation, the German vendors make sure that each container contains some working appliances, as well as some that could still be repaired. The rest, about 30 percent, is junk, which Ninicyi immediately passes on to the boys who come from Agbogbloshie with their handcarts. Containers from Britain have a much higher proportion of junk.

"This business is good for Ghana and for the other countries," Ninicyi says. He feels bad about the children, but he pays taxes, his customers pay taxes and people in Ghana get computers they can afford.

He is even familiar with a larger theory that would recast him as something akin to a development aid worker. The theory of the "digital divide," originally developed at the University of Minnesota, states simply that because poor people can't afford modern means of communication, and because it is knowledge that creates prosperity, poorer people will continue to fall behind and the divide will grow ever wider. Providing them with computers helps close the gap.

The theory has some weak points. First of all, it was developed in 1970, three years before a young student named Bill Gates even began studying at Harvard. There is also a second theory of the computer age, Moore's Law, named for one of Intel's co-founders, which effectively states that computer processing power doubles every two years. Software developers follow suit, making today's newest computers already out of date tomorrow and ready to be sent off to Sodom by the day after.

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