The Global LEAP Awards are an international competition to identify and promote the world’s best, most energy-efficient off-grid appliances. In 2019, the Global LEAP Awards launched the inaugural Solar E-waste Challenge to identify innovations in solar e-waste management across sub-Saharan Africa. Through a rigorous evaluation process, the competition selected eight winners spanning five countries to implement projects in consumer awareness, take-back and collection, product reuse, repair & recycling. This blog series explores solar e-waste ecosystems and provides insights into each company’s unique challenges and opportunities.
“The end game is to find solutions that can be replicated in other places to ultimately make it easy for everyone — consumers, solar companies, informal sector actors, governments — to recycle in a sustainable way.” –Joseph Oliech, WEEE Centre, Kenya
As one of the first formal recycling centres in East Africa, WEEE Centre is deeply committed to protecting consumers from the harmful effects of electronic waste. Through the Global LEAP Awards Solar E-Waste Challenge, WEEE Centre is conducting a national awareness raising campaign and increasing capacity for collection, refurbishment and recycling of off-grid solar products.
Tech Boom in Kenya
WEEE Centre was founded as a service of Computers for Schools Kenya (CFSK), an organization committed to training and supplying ICT devices to schools in Kenya. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) program initially processed faulty or end-of-life computers, but in 2012 the government asked them to open the facility for public e-waste disposal.
Over the past 8 years, WEEE has operated as a social enterprise and now employs more than 600 team members across the country. Their recycling services are increasingly needed as the growing middle class, greater availability of products and reduction in cost leads to the rapid uptake of electronics in Kenya.
“We have a serious problem with public awareness on proper e-waste management in Kenya. You see people buy a cheap phone, it breaks, and they keep it as a souvenir. They think that someday it will have value or they give it to their children to play with, not knowing that the kids will be exposed to toxins,” explained Project Manager Joseph Oliech.
Because electronic waste can have long-lasting negative impacts on human health, WEEE Centre addresses the challenge as a community health issue.
“We are concerned about toxic substances leeching into the water bodies — it could poison people individually or demolish the food chain. We don’t want people ingesting heavy metals because it got into the crops.”
Growing E-Waste Management Capacity for Economic Empowerment
WEEE Centre uses a dispersed incentive and collection model, partnering with SMEs across Kenya to source materials. They also work to economically empower youth across the country by training them on repair, maintenance of electronics as well as e-waste collection.
“In Kenya, almost 40% of youth are unemployed. We engage youth to collect and pre-process e-waste, this gives them the opportunity to earn income and contribute to a very urgent need in their communities.” Through the Solar E-Waste Challenge project, WEEE Centre aims to train more than 1,000 youth across the country to repair solar products. As trained solar technicians, they can work across the market to extend solar product lifespan, segregate e-waste and direct it back to the WEEE Centre.
In order to create a financially viable business, WEEE Centre is extracting valuable materials from some of the collected e-waste to be sold or reused in the production of other electronics. “We are conducting e-waste management as a mechanism for environmental conservation, which is also an opportunity for economic development and empowerment of the youth through reclamation of valuable components through a process called urban mining,” articulated Mr. Oliech.
Mr. Oliech speculates that a tonne of e-waste can produce more gold than a tonne of gold ore. The Centre extracts rare earth metals from collected fractions through the “urban mining” process, which has far-reaching economic and social benefits. Mining for metals and valuable materials in e-waste can reduce environmental degradation caused by mining the earth and also reduces pollution caused by improper e-waste disposal (like dumping, burning, or burying materials).
The Global LEAP Awards Solar E-Waste Challenge Project
Over the past several years, WEEE Centre experienced an influx of solar products, but did not have a plan to deal with growing stockpiles. They applied for the Solar E-Waste Challenge to pilot potential solutions and processing mechanisms.
Through the Challenge, the WEEE Centre will focus on collection, refurbishment and recycling of off-grid solar products. The Centre will conduct a nationwide awareness campaign to increase public knowledge on the importance of solar e-waste recycling and existing e-waste collection points. Their team will also create strong linkages with companies in the region to act as the designated facility for disposal.
Over the life of the project, the WEEE Centre aims to:
- Raise public awareness & stakeholder engagement on e-waste disposal and recycling
- Expand the facility’s processing capacity
- Directly employ 40 employees and indirectly employ over 1,000 youth involved in collection, refurbishment and pre-processing of solar e-waste
While Kenya is a signatory to a number of international treaties, including the Basel Convention, the Vienna Convention, the Stockholm Convention and others, that control the Trans-boundary movements of electronic waste, these regulations cannot be properly enforced if citizens and the informal sector do not understand the importance of proper management.
“In our public awareness raising, we include messaging on repair and refurbishment. We are training refurbishers and agents to work with local distributors or manufacturers. Through the Challenge, we hope people will better understand their products and seek first line support before they can dispose of them.”
WEEE Centre is also procuring equipment and machinery to grow their capacity for off-grid solar recycling. With greater capacity, they hope to partner with major players in the solar ecosystem — and fellow Solar E-Waste Challenge Winners — including WeTu and Solibrium, among others.
“The Challenge has presented a unique opportunity for collaboration with the other Winners. We believe that our engagement in this Challenge will help us expand the capacity of the Centre and also acquire machinery that will help us manage e-waste at scale and in a better, more efficient way.”
WEEE Centre’s recycling facility in Nairobi also hosts second round Solar E-Waste Challenge winner Aceleron Energy’s off-grid solar battery lab. Through this partnership Aceleron acquires bulk EoL batteries collected by the WEEE Centre for upcycling.
As the Solar E-Waste Challenge projects wrap up at the end of the year, WEEE Centre hopes to provide a model for other e-waste recyclers and solar actors operating in sub-Saharan Africa.
“We expect to provide valid and sustainable solutions for e-waste management in sub-Saharan Africa. We are trying things for the first time and we believe that at the end of the day, we will be able to help other players replicate our e-waste management model. The end game is to find solutions that can be scaled in other places to ultimately make it easy for everyone — consumers, solar companies, informal sector actors, governments — to recycle in a sustainable way.”