Electronics Consumption, Waste and the Informal Trade Sector in Sub-Saharan Africa

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Central Sch of Speech and Drama
Department Name: Faculty

Abstract

Bodies of Planned Obsolescence: digital performance and the global politics of electronic waste (BoPO) is an art-science research network that engages with the global economy of electronic waste (e-waste). The project has established a network between artists, scientists and cultural studies scholars in Africa, China and Europe through workshops in Lagos (Nigeria), Hong Kong and London. It was funded by an AHRC Research Networking grant during 2014-15 (AH/L01582X/1) and has been awarded two smaller grants for contributions to the AHRC Connected Communities Festival and the Somerset House Utopia Fair in 2016.
The present application for Follow-on Funding for Impact and Engagement under the highlight notice for International Development is concerned with the dissemination and development of new applications of the network's research outcomes through a series of activities in Nairobi, Kenya, as well as a presentation and networking event in London. The proposed Follow-on activities are aimed at exploring the transferability of research findings and the practice-based methodology of BoPO in the context of international development initiatives in informal trade and street vending in Sub-Saharan Africa.

During the lifetime of the original research networking project, three new avenues of inquiry were identified, which are highly relevant to the planned Follow-on activities:
1. Although e-waste processing in Europe is often seen as a more or less independent industry, in Nigeria and other Sub-Saharan African countries, e-waste management cannot be considered in isolation from repair and trade in both old and new devices and parts.
2. While most literature on e-waste recycling focuses on core devices (desktop units, laptops, monitors), peripherals (chargers, mice, keyboards, cables) tend to be largely overlooked. Practical engagement with e-waste processing in Nigeria made us aware that these devices make up a substantial part of the waste stream. More attention should be paid to their trade and disposal in research and policy making initiatives.
3. Especially with regards to peripherals, used devices imported from Europe are not the only relevant source of e-waste in countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Street hawkers and market traders sell large quantities of new, cheaply made phones, cables, chargers, and other small electronic items, which break easily and quickly.
The Follow-on activities in Nairobi in October and November 2016 will draw from these three newly identified avenues in various ways:
-A presentation by network researchers at the 'Street Vending and Urban Development' conference in Nairobi in November 2016 will address the prominence of peripherals among street vending articles and take this as a starting point for an exchange on sustainability and informal trade with street vending representatives, policy makers and NGO civics. Another element of this conference contribution will be an exchange with policy makers and NGO civics on possibilities to apply BoPO's practice-based art-science methodology in the broader context of International Development activities in informal trade.
-Two artworks created as part of the research network around theme of peripherals will be centre pieces in a two-week exhibition which is planned at a community library in the Kibera slum settlement in Nairobi, alongside artwork by local Kenyan artists and other BoPO outputs. The exhibition will stimulate reflection on the implications of informal trade strategies on waste production and ecology.
-The three new pathways of inquiry outlined above will form the core concepts for a one-day workshop that will be organized for high school students at the French School in Nairobi.

Planned Impact

The planned events will deliver pathways to impact in various ways:
1. The panel session at the conference will allow BoPO researchers to present the network outcomes to relevant policy makers and NGO civics, including the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat), The Institute of Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), and the Kenya National Alliance of Street Vendors and Informal Traders (KENSAVIT). Following the presentations, networking meetings are foreseen to discuss further practical applications of research findings, as well as possible future collaborations after the funding period.
2. Media partner Africa Uncensored will disseminate reports on the funded activities through their online platform. Africa Uncensored has a broad reach in the field of critical media scholars, policy makers and international development workers worldwide. Coverage on this platform is envisaged to stimulate further reflection on the transferability of research outcomes.
3. The high school workshop will stimulate students to engage in creative activity based on critical reflection on the core issues of the BoPO project. This embedded pedagogical model is envisaged to impact the way students approach art and creative processes in relation to cultural criticism and ecology in their future work. Depending on the outcomes of this workshop, a model for an e-waste workshop for under-18 students that can be run independently by schools may be developed in collaboration with school tutors. This would create further pathways to impact.
4. Following the activities in Nairobi, the presentation and networking event in London will disseminate a reflection on the activities to relevant UK-based stakeholders in the field of art and international development.

The activities will also reach out to new audiences:
1. The location of the exhibition in an accessible venue in the Kibera settlement means that the event will be attended by members of local communities who would be unlikely to engage with the research project otherwise.
2. The high school workshop presents the research project and its outcomes to an audience of young people who would also be unlikely to visit the project's events if they took place elsewhere.
3. The UK-based presentation and networking event will reach policy makers and artists who have not previously engaged with the project.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title Artwork: Powerless Space (Coke piece) 
Description Powerless Space (Coke piece) by Dani Ploeger. 
Type Of Art Artwork 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact Exhibited at the Alliance Française in Nairobi. To be exhibited at event at Whitechapel Gallery in April 2017 
URL https://creators.vice.com/en_us/article/dani-ploeger-alternatives-plastic-waste-nairobi
 
Title EXHIBITION: Connectivity: More Is Less? 
Description Connectivity: More Is Less? ran at the Alliance Francaise in Nairobi through February 12, 2017 and also included the artists Greenman, Moroko, Kevo Stero, and Joan Otieno. See more of Dani Ploeger's work here, which was supported by The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact Widening awareness of the research project. 
URL https://nairobinow.wordpress.com/2017/01/20/exhibition-connectivity-more-is-less-jan-26-feb-12-2017-...
 
Title Orodha 
Description The artefact is a found object. A defunct slide projector, collected from a second hand market in Nairobi, Kenya. The drive for continuous technical innovation breeds obsolescence. Some of these obsolete objects, on their way from being useful devices to 'common rubbish' (Douglas), become 'orodha,' a Kenyan Kiswahili term for 'junk' or 'waste,' used in relation to such goods when intercepted for second hand trading. Having lost any imaginable use-value, the orodha object operates simultaneously as the ultimate fetish commodity (reduced to mere exchange value) and its implosion (its future use-value as near-tabula rasa). 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact The piece was presented including a reference sheet with short essay as part of the Evening of Im-materials at V2_Lab for the unstable media in Rotterdam. It formed the starting point for a debate on materiality and technology that took place between several artists, scholars and curators that evening. 
URL https://v2.nl/events/an-evening-of-im-materials
 
Description 1) In November 2016, outcomes were presented at the Urbanization and Street Vending conference at the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA), and informed discussions on the challenges of regulating informal trade in low-cost electronics by UN representatives and local policy makers. 2) In November 2017, outcomes were presented at the "1ère Semaine Imagin'ère de l'Ecologie" in Paris and formed the basis of discussions on electronic waste policies by NGO stakeholders, and ecologists working in the public and private sectors.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Policy & public services

 
Description Article: Artists Find Alternatives for Plastic Waste in Nairobi 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Article on the work of the project under the subject of sustainable art for Creators online magazine. Creators is VICE's arts and culture platform.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://creators.vice.com/en_us/article/pi-project-biggest-installation-in-the-world
 
Description Digital Futures: Dreaming Zero-Waste: The art of fixing electronics in Europe and Africa V&A 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact A public workshop combining digital art, hands-on electronics repair, and a live-video exchange with a thriving electronics repair community in Kenya.

'Dreaming Zero-Waste' was a half-day workshop event encouraging participants to rethink their everyday interactions with technology and electronic waste, and to start fixing their own electronic devices instead of throwing them away. Free and open to the public, the event offers a presentation of digital artworks created around the theme of technology, longevity and waste, and there will be an opportunity to interact via video live-stream with an active e-waste repair community in Nairobi, Kenya. These elements will be the setting for a repair workshop where visitors will get hands-on guidance in basic electronics repair skills provided by London-based social enterprise The Restart Project.

As part of the event, artist Dani Ploeger will be traveling to Nairobi to meet local repairers. By facilitating a dialogue with this community, the event seeks to propose the inventive approaches to electronics repair that are widespread in Kenya as an inspiring example to counter the technology throw-away culture that is prevalent in the UK and other European countries.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/digital-futures-dreaming-zero-waste-tickets-24331759949#
 
Description EVENT: Gadgets As Objects: Making Art With Discarded, Violent And Sexy Electronics 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Symposium at British Institute of Eastern Africa,

The capabilities of everyday technologies appear to increase exponentially. Faster, smaller and cheaper devices are becoming available to ever more people, who replace them more and more quickly. The parallel increase of electronic gadgets' rate of obsolescence and their growing prominence in everyday life appears to move towards a condition I like to call the 'paradox of late techno-consumerism': consumer electronics are thrusting towards being experienced simultaneously as intimate, precious extensions of ourselves, and disposable items that can be discarded and replaced at any time without any emotional attachment. This development raises questions concerning the - often neglected - materiality of electronic devices in relation to bodily intimacy, waste and the experience of (technologized) safety and violence in public space.

In my work, I foreground the objectness of everyday technologies, and deliberately subvert their promises of luxury and progress. I have made a porn/art smartphone app that is available from an adult app store, undergone an operation in which electronic waste was installed on my abdomen by a body piercer, and slow motion recorded the impact of an AK-47 fired at an iPad. I propose these apparent acts of decadence as a set of alternate perspectives on our role in techno-consumerism.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.biea.ac.uk/event/gadgets-as-objects-making-art-with-discarded-violent-and-sexy-electronic...
 
Description Public event at Whitechapel Gallery, Lonon, "Technologizing Throw-Away Culture" 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact More than 50 people attended the event. The event combined an exhibition of artwork and found objects with a panel discussion by participants. The discussion opened up to a lively exchange with and between the audience, which consisted of academics working in the fields of recycling and art, and several NGO stakeholders working in volunteering/social enterprising in relation to e-waste.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.cssd.ac.uk/event/technologizing-throw-away-culture
 
Description SEMINAR: Shopping as Research 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Shopping-as-Research in Cheap Electronics: Examining the Rise of Low-grade Consumer Technology in Kenya
Seminar at British Institute of Eastern Africa

Dr. Dani Ploeger (The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, Chaterine Chapman (freelance journalist, VICE / NBC), Alexia Manzano (photographer), Greenman Muleh Mbilleh (artist, Maasai Mbili), Joan Otieno (artist, Dust Depo Nairobi), Dr. Christopher Williams (Institute of Education, University College London)

Research and artwork that engages with electronic waste (e-waste) has thus far mainly been focused on the export of - often still working - second-hand devices from the Global North to the Global South. Despite rapid obsolescence due to software requirements and fashion, these devices themselves have usually remained technically functional for many years after the original owner discarded them. After having been used by their new owners in countries in the Global South for a period of time, these devices then eventually end up on e-waste dumps in these countries.

However, especially in Africa, an increasing amount of e-waste is generated by low-grade new electronic devices and peripherals (mobile phones, data cables, battery packs etc.). These new devices, which are imported directly from China, Malaysia and other producing countries in East-Asia, often break shortly after purchase and are instantly discarded. This trend is also becoming apparent in Europe, where retailers like Poundland are offering an increasing assortment of peripherals of equally low durability. Thus, a change in the dynamics of global trade in new- and used- electronics is taking place.

As part of the art-science research project Bodies of Planned Obsolescence: Digital performance and the politics of electronic waste, a group of artists and academics from Kenya, the Netherlands and the UK have been examining this development through psychogeographical explorations of various trading sites for consumer electronics in Kenya, ranging from shopping malls in Nairobi to rural markets. While drifting through these places, they purchased a range of USB phone charging cables and documented various aspects of these objects, their surroundings, and the stories accompanying them.

In this panel presentation the project participants will give an overview of some of their experiences and finding during their explorations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.facebook.com/events/1845143805763340/