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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

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.