The Hardware Scavengers of Ghana

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Agbogbloshie, just west of downtown Accra, the capitol of Ghana, is one of the places where electronics go to die. Mobile phones, computers, monitors. Some item of value can be scavenged from almost any piece of electronics.

Kwei Quartey is a physician and novelist who grew up in Ghana. As a kid, he barely glimpsed the Agbogbloshie dump, just west of downtown Accra, the nation's capital. "You hear people say, 'I'm never going into that area,'" Quartey told me. But he decided that he needed to visit the place because he wanted to set the opening scene of his book, Children of the Street, there. He showed up and asked one of the kids living there for a tour of the place. An impromptu guide, Issifu, showed him what the recyclers were up to.

As you can see in the photo gallery above, the young men who work the dump pull and recycle the metals, particularly copper, out of old electronics. Quartey said that most of them are from northern Ghana, and form something of "an outcast class by themselves." They break down electronics with hammers and hands, mostly to pull out the metals inside of them, which they sell to local businesses.

You have to admire the resilience of these kids, who've come up with a way to make a living on the margins of society. But it's a tough, nasty business. If they need to separate rubber from copper, they burn it, so they inhale the fumes day after day. Many live in Agbogbloshie, so they're exposed to all the chemicals in the e-waste that moves through the place. These kids are shortening their lives, but they don't have any other options. A Ghanian journalist, Mike Anane, has devoted a lot of time to describing the lives of the kids who make ends meet this way.

Where does all this e-waste come from? Most of it is shipped to Ghana in the form of "donations." Unfortunately, some of the gifts that come from the rich countries amount to junk because the electronics are too old. Even if different groups can make use of the hand-me-down technology for a while, eventually the electronics become useless and that's when they end up in Agbogloshie. "This is where the foodchain, so to speak, comes to an end," Quartey said. 

While computer technology changes quickly, phones change even faster. And the global ubiquity of mobile devices today means that they'll be ubiquitous trash tomorrow. As we consider the future of mobile technology and all the neat new devices it will have, we can't ignore this part of the gadget lifecycle. Because one day soon, someone like Issifu or his colleagues will be picking apart yesterday's New Hot Thing.

Via Monga Bay

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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