Dealing with electronic waste in developing countries

January 16, 2020


From landlines to mobile phones, typewriters to computers, pocket digital cameras to mobile phone with cameras, countries such as Tanzania have jumped few steps ahead of digitalization compared to other developing nations. This has contributed positively to the economy. There are more jobs, inclusion, and better health and efficiency, but it has come at a cost in terms of culture and tradition.

In 2017 the Reuters news agency reported that the number of internet users in Tanzania reached 23 million, which is almost half of the total population, and majority of those users were using handsets such as phones and tablets to reach the internet.

A recent report from the Tanzania Bureau of Statistics shows that 24 percent households own a television and 43 percent of households own a radio. When it comes to telephones only 0.2 percent of households have a landline where 78 percent have a mobile phone. These electronics have made our lives simpler, have reduced transaction costs and distance, saved time, promoted inclusion, and brought the outside world closer. They have also contributed to jobs creation and efficiency in many parts of the economy and society.

Yet electronic equipment is made with many toxic substances which might have direct or indirect negative implications on our health and wellbeing. Many studies such as published by the Association of Metallurgical Engineers of Serbia and the Journal of Hazardous Materials confirm that gadgets such as cell phones have high level of toxic metals which need to be carefully stored in order to ensure safety. 

In that regard it is crucial at this stage for countries such as Tanzania to establish recycling or systematic collection and processing of electronic waste. This is important because these devices have a very short life span and most people keep their old gadgets in their homes.

That’s where the Accelerator Lab comes in.

The UNDP Tanzania Accelerator Lab, which was launched last December, will be working closely with partners to search for solutions which can turn these wastes into opportunities, and solutions which can minimize the potential impacts of these wastes in our home.

To begin to come to grips with the scale of the situation I recently visited the city of Mwanza’s landfill, which is still under construction, and I could not spot any electronic waste. That triggered several questions. Where is the waste? Who collects it? And if it is collected, how is it recycled? Is it exported? If so, who is exporting it and to where?

In many European countries, electronic waste has been banned from landfills because of toxic components linked to cancer and other health problems. This doesn’t happen often in developing countries.

Fast growing cities such as those in Tanzania are generating more electronic waste in quantity which need consistent approaches to counter this issue. Those involved in waste management need to apply technical l and high-level policies to control and manage electronic waste. We need to raise awareness on how to manage electronic waste, the negative effects of living with it in our homes, and the possibility of converting this challenge into a business opportunity.