Agbogbloshie is a vast, scorched field, right in the middle of Accra, Ghana, dotted with rusting hulks and heaps of scrap. Hundreds of people work here in what looks like hell: smashing, burning, hawking, eating, and joking. This is the place where thousands of tons of the world’s electronics go to die.
On the banks of the dead Odaw River at the very edge of Agbogbloshie, groups of young men tend fires set to burn the plastic off old copper cable. The ground is pillowy with tiny bits of charred plastic and metal, and still smoking hot after the fires are long gone.
A kid wearing a blue Adidas T-shirt, purple damask shorts, and flip-flops emerges from a cloud of black smoke, coughing. Inusa Mohammed is 13. His expression alternates between grave concern—he hasn't made enough money, and it’s already mid-afternoon—and a beatific smile.
He takes a deep breath and goes in search of more fuel. The bigger boys use tires to keep the fires going, but that's professional-level scrapping. Inusa's just out here on a Saturday trying to make enough money to pay for his junior-high-school exams. He doesn’t plan to make a career out of it: He's going to get through school and join the Air Force.
This is the chaotic heart of one of the biggest economies in West Africa. A 15-minute drive from Parliament House, there are clamorous open-air production lines; factories churning out everything from paint to Pepsi; and the country's biggest markets. Agbogbloshie is one of the largest, a mile-long strip of wholesale stalls where traders from all over West Africa sell pineapples, onions, cattle, and car parts by the truckload. In the early days, anything they couldn't sell—rotten tomatoes, rusted-out car doors—got dumped on the marsh behind the market, attracting scavengers and savvy businessmen who could turn a profit from anything. Container-loads of trash from all over the country started coming straight here.