The human face of Ghana's waste economy

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ACCRA, Ghana — If you stand by the six-lane highway that connects downtown to western Accra at 3:30 in the afternoon, you'll see them coming. In pairs, dozens of young men pushing self-assembled carts made of used car axles and wooden boards. If it's been a good day, their carts will be topped with scrap metal or electronics, but on most days, the carts are loaded with construction materials, computers, household appliances, and car parts.

By this time in the afternoon, the scrap collectors have spent the day going into every nook and cranny of Accra, visiting households, businesses, empty lots and garbage dumps. They're now on their way back to Agbogbloshie, the heart of Accra's informal scrap business. 

By 4:30, the collectors have weighed their goods. Aluminum and copper are weighed on one scale; iron on another. Each pair of boys belongs to a sub-group specializing in a particular type of waste. They are paid for their acquisitions by the elders at the top of the leadership hierarchy of their sub-group. 

Once the group has collected enough materials, vans are loaded up with waste bound for various local manufacturing businesses. These include metal refineries, jewelry manufacturers, and cook-wear manufacturers.

The push-cart collectors constitute just one group of the thousands of men and women working in the informal waste economy of Accra. Aside from those operating out of or on-site in Agbogbloshie, there are the “Korli Ba”, a word meaning “bottle” in Hausa. 

Like the scrap collectors, the Korli Ba are primarily men in their twenties who go door-to-door collecting bottles. They bring their goods to neighborhood collection points where they are paid for their findings by the elders managing the collection point. In addition to the Korli Ba, there are hundreds of collectors involved in recycling low-density plastic sachets used to sell “pure water” (purified water commonly sold on the streets of the city). 

Here the collectors are mostly female, often the very same vendors who sell the “pure water”. In addition to those working in the streets, there are the scavengers at the landfills.

The income of those working in waste collection varies widely. The scavengers typically earn less than door-to-door collectors since goods are soiled through transport, and because most high-value goods are sorted out prior to disposal. 

Nevertheless, you would be surprised to learn how much they earn. In the scrap business, income is determined by street-smarts: the ability of an entrant to learn fast and to find the right people to teach him the “ins and outs” of the business. Many scrap collectors earn more each month than a young civil servant with a university degree.

Samson is one such boy. He's been in the business for four years. He tells me he earns a minimum of 30 Ghanaian Cedi per day; 50 Cedi on a good day. Working six days a week, he earns about twice the starting salary of a civil servant. There are others like him who earn a lot more; many who earn less.

A migrant from northern Ghana, Samson is Muslim. Unlike many of the young men who work in Agbogbloshie, Samson is fortunate to have a place he calls home. He lives with his family in Jamestown, a neighborhood not far from Agbogbloshie. 

He wakes up at 5:30 every morning, begins work at 6:30 and closes the day 12 hours later, at dusk. He prays five times a day and uses his earnings to pay for food and the educational expenses of his five younger siblings. He saves, and on occasion, he gives “chop” money to hungry collectors when they've had a bad day.

Working mostly with used car parts, Samson knows that unlike the younger men working with post-consumer electronics, he will likely live to grow older than many of his peers. Not far from where he works, young boys bust computer shells, and burn tires and plastic electronic covers to extract the valuable metals inside. In the process, they expose themselves to highly toxic fumes.

The informal waste economy of Accra is not dissimilar from that which is exists in many large cities of Africa. Those working in this sector provide the local government, as well as the developed world, with an enormous service: they reduce the environmental impact of consumerism by extending the life-time of materials. 

In addition, they provide the economic benefit of reducing the amount of waste bound for landfills, thereby reducing the high cost of waste transportation and disposal.

The sector, however, receives neither support nor acknowledgement from the government. In fact, there is a surprisingly adversarial relationship between the government and the collectors.

Entering Agbogbloshie one must be careful not to scare the collectors. When they see a white person, they immediately become apprehensive. Why? They operate on land that could be taken away from them at any moment by the government or a foreign investor. The collectors are right to be worried. The government has been making threats on the land for years.

Over the course of the past decade, the government of Ghana has taken out tens of millions of dollars in loans from donor organizations to “clean up” Accra. Yet, instead of investing in expensive, high-tech measures to westernize waste management in Accra, some say the government would do well to start first by looking inwards to recognize and support the work of the informal waste economy, and enhance the safety and efficacy of its operations.