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The human face of Ghana's waste economy

Young men scour Accra daily for anything recyclable; some earn more than university grads

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.