By Martin Oteng-Ababio & Maja van der Velden
Agbogbloshie is an urban area in Ghana’s capital Accra, housing a vegetable market, a scrap metal yard, a large slum, an industrial area, and a household waste dump (see photo below). Agbogbloshie is a thoroughly polluted place and the people working in the scrap trade are exposed to serious health and safety risks, but this trade also generates much needed jobs for young men and contributes to an important repair and recycling culture.
This complexity is lost to the Western media. Media portrayals focus almost exclusively on Agbogbloshie as an electronic waste dump, drawing on the dramatic imagery of burning cables and tires for the extraction of copper.
The latest is Welcome to Sodom, a 2018 documentary directed by Austrian filmmakers Florian Weigensamer and Christian Krönes. In its title, and in its portrayal of “this apocalyptic society”, the film perpetuates the tendency to mythologise a reality that needs no exaggeration. In the process, the film gets most of the relevant facts wrong.
Anthropology and ethnographic research are ideally suited to explore the lived realities of the people living and working in Agbogbloshie. Our fieldwork in Agbogbloshie enabled us to view the documentary from a critical perspective and to challenge the myths in the logline of the documentary, one sentence at the time:
1. Agbogbloshie, Accra is the largest electronic waste dump in the world.
- The part of Agbogbloshie where electronic waste is dismantled is not an e-waste dump, but a scrap metal yard run by the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers Association. All kinds of machinery and household equipment, cars, buses, bicycles, generators, air conditioners, computers, etc. are taken apart for scrap and spare parts on an area less than half a square kilometre!
- The myth is often repeated that it is the largest e-waste dump in the world, despite the fact that there are many other sites in the world, specialised in e-waste, that are many times larger. For example, Giuyu, in China, employed at its peak 100,000 people and covered 52 square kilometres.
2. They call it “Sodom”.
- “Sodom and Gomorra” is the name outsiders have given to Old Fadama, the slum in the Agbogbloshie area, which houses around 100,000 people.
3. About 6,000 women, men and children live and work here.
- The vast majority of people working in the scrap metal yard are young men; most of them live in Old Fadama.
4. Every year about 250,000 tons of sorted out computers, smartphones, air conditions tanks and other devices from a faraway electrified and digitalized world end up here. Illegally.
- The documentary shows how electronic waste is brought in by pushcarts and motorised tricycles. If 250,000 tons of illegally imported e-waste was brought into the scrap metal yard every year, this would amount to 35,000 computer monitors or 14,000 air conditioner units or 4 million mobile phones every day. Everyone spending a few days in Agbogbloshie knows that these numbers are absurd.
- The most likely source for this estimate we could find, is from a 2011 report published by the Secretariat of the Basel Convention. The report estimated that in the period 2009 – 2011, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria imported a total of 250,000 tons of electronic waste each year.
5. Cleverly interwoven, the destinies of the various protagonists unravel the complex story of this apocalyptic society.
- Calling Agbogbloshie an apocalyptic society suggests the vulnerabilities experienced by its inhabitants and workers are somehow uniquely appalling[. They are not. The vulnerabilities experienced by the people of Agbogbloshie are terrible in and of themselves, but they are morally unbearable precisely because they are a normal part of the global economic system that sustains modern overconsumption. There are many slums in the world and even more small scrap metal yards where electronics and other equipment and machinery are dismantled with rudimentary tools, with resulting health and safety risks for the workers involved, including children.
6. And you can be sure – it will most probably be the final destination of the smartphone, the computer you buy today.
- The mobile phone or computer you buy today will most probably not end up at Agbogbloshie. Here’s why: almost 50 million tons of electronic waste was produced in 2017. Research has shown that the main e-waste trade routes are not from high-income to low-income countries, but regional. Electronic waste is still being imported into Ghana, but most waste is generated as a result of the domestic consumption of electronics.
Myths Don’t Help
By perpetuating these myths, busted before here, here, here, and here, Welcome to Sodom presents an uncomplicated objectionable image of Agbogbloshie as an e-waste dump. The film also presents electronic waste as a “First World” problem, ignoring the fact that Ghanaians themselves consume large amounts of new and second-hand electronics.
Electronic waste is a huge global problem; it is not a problem that stops by guilting some consumers in rich countries into stop buying new electronics every year. Ghana needs practical and maintainable electronic waste policies, which recognise the importance of the informal repair and recycling sector and secure the health and safety of the people involved in this trade.
Martin Oteng-Ababio is Head of the Dept. of Geography and Resource Development of the University of Ghana. Maja van der Velden is Co-director of the Sustainability & Design Lab of the Dept. of Informatics, University of Oslo and is a visiting researcher at the Dept. of Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit. A longer version of this blogpost is published on the SMART project’s blog.