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I Was Looking for Africa’s Biggest Electronics Dump but Found a Community of Creators Instead

Osman, 65, in his workshop, where for the past 32 years he has melted aluminum cans to make make cooking pots for local women.

It is known as Africa’s biggest e-waste dumping site, a place where the outdated, discarded electronics from the West come to die. Locals dissect their components and sell them on to third parties, mainly from China and Nigeria. Yet Agbogbloshie, a sprawling slum in the center of the Ghanaian capital Accra, is much more than that.

Home to more than 8,000 people from Ghana’s four main tribes, Agbogbloshie has for years received unwanted international attention for the way some of its residents choose to make a living. Copper is worth good money in this part of the world, and it can be found hidden in the wires and motherboards of old PCs, laptops, and mobile phones shipped to Ghana from the United States and EuropTo extract the precious metals, young men from all parts of the country — mainly from the predominantly Muslim north — burn a huge amount of plastic, generating toxic fumes that have a devastating impact on their health and the area’s population.

That’s the backstory, or at least the story that first brought Agbogbloshie to the attention of the world’s news editors.

After all his monthly expenses are paid (rent, gas, electricity), Abdul Rhaman, 18, gets to keep 300 Ghanaian cidis scavenging for copper among the discarded gadgets dumped in Agbogbloshie.

What is less documented, however, are the secondhand computer shops and internet cafés scattered across Accra that rely on the used and recycled computers hailing from Agbogbloshie. Offices, schools, and homes all over Ghana also use, in some way or another, electronics that have passed through Agbogbloshie. Without Agbogbloshie and its activities, a vast number of Ghanaians would be unable to access the internet.

A local drives past a pile of electronic waste, a ubiquitous sight along the roads of Agbogbloshie.

The area doesn’t make for pretty pictures. It is polluted, and the conditions are dirty and unsafe. But what I also witnessed was a community marginalized and criminalized by their government. Left with no choice, they managed to create a whole economy founded upon recycling all kinds of waste. The neighborhood is composed of blacksmiths, carpenters, mechanics, artisans, and small business owners. Electronics waste is just a tiny component of a much bigger picture.

Spare parts from old electronics represent a major component of Agbogbloshie’s economy.

Journalists are no longer welcome, however. After years of negative coverage by Western media, the Ghanaian government decided to take matters into its own hands. In June 2015, soldiers bulldozed their way through the neighborhood, using tear gas and nightsticks to force residents out of their homes. Hundreds were injured. An estimated 20,000 people were left homeless.

Three years after that raid, the tension on the streets of Agbogbloshie is palpable. After a few exchanges (verbal and financial), some locals relented. “I will talk to you, but you have to promise this won’t get me in trouble,” one man said.

The acrid smell of garbage and burning metals and plastic is the first thing you notice when you arrive at Agbogbloshie, though to me it just smelled like several places across Accra. The tenacity of the local community is obvious.

Abdul Rhaman, 18, searches through rubble looking for copper among the discarded gadgets dumped in Agbobloshie. After all his monthly expenses are paid (rent, gas, electricity), Rhaman gets to keep 300 Ghanaian Cidis. His health is in fine shape, he said, and he doesn’t want interference from the authorities.

“Politicians only care about us when is election time,” one young man sorting through old wires shouts at me as I walk past.

“The international community and the international media don’t see things the way we see things,” says Baffoe Peprah, a local guide who has lived in the area for two years. “The issue of hygiene and health is no issue to [the Agbogbloshie community]. They don’t want any government intervention. They just want to continue with what they are doing so they can feed their families.”

Agbogbloshie is also home to a large number of blacksmiths and welders. Here, a young man puts the finishing touches on a residential gate.

This way of thinking is anathema to most of us in the West. But the same people who feel shocked or disgusted by pictures of children in Agbogbloshie playing among scraps of metal are the same people who upgrade their iPhone every couple years. And what happens to the handsets they pass on?

Like a lot of issues concerning Africa, the root of the problem isn’t here. Western countries have the technology and money to treat and recycle their own toxic waste, but it’s cheaper to send it to poorer parts of the world, where regulations are lax and people are unable to defend their own interests.

“This is not the only place in Ghana [that deals with e-waste],” said Idrisu, a 28-year-old Muslim from Savelugu, in northern Ghana, and the unofficial spokesperson of a group of e-waste recyclers. “Any food I want, inshallah, I can eat. Any clothes I want, I can wear,” he tells me in broken English.

“We thank God for this work we are doing. We just want the government to stay away.”

A young carpenter works on a piece of wood. Agbogbloshie also has a thriving timber market.
Idrisu, 28, has been working in Agbogbloshie’s e-waste business for six years. A Muslim from Savelugu, in northern Ghana, he told me he is in good health and just wants the authorities to leave the community alone. “We are creators, not criminals,” he said.
Osman (center), with his sons Razak and Sidu. Osman is teaching them how to turn old aluminum cans into cooking pots. At 65, he is ready to let his kids take over the business.
Abdul sits by his stall, where he sells screws made with aluminum from the cans dumped daily in Agbogbloshie. The screws cost one Ghanaian cedi (22 cents) each and provide enough income to feed him and his family.
Although impoverished, Agbogbloshie is home to a great number of traders. Here, a young carpenter (who didn’t want to be named) is busy sawing slabs of wood, which will be sold in the local market.
Atta, 31, has been working with metal scraps for 10 years. Married with two children, he makes around 1,000 Ghanaian cedis ($220) a month.
Mahmud is one of the many mechanics living and working in Agbogbloshie. As I was walking over to talk to him, he said, “You can take my photo, but my master doesn’t want me to talk to you.” By “master,” I think he meant employer.
Left: Razak, 25, at his father’s workshop, puts the finishing touches on a cooking pot. Right: Sidu, 20, works at his father’s workshop.
Agbogbloshie has very limited facilities and very few toilets.

Felipe Araujo spent two weeks in Ghana documenting people’s daily lives (and partying a little). He is a photojournalist based in London. You can keep up with his work on Instagram and at his website.