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.
“We want to create truly sustainable solutions for rural communities in the Lake Victoria region. To live up to this aim, we need to make sure that electronic and electric devices are part of a safe second-life and recycling process. Therefore, we set-up collections points at our WeTu Hubs and provide incentives to turn in these products.”
— Marah Köberle, WeTu Project Manager
Strategically placed throughout the beachy villages on Lake Victoria in Western Kenya, brightly painted walls depict sanitation techniques, clean water usage, and solar energy in local dialects. This bold messaging is just one component of WeTu’s approach to behavior change and community empowerment, the latest message to be added to the walls: proper e-waste disposal and management.
In Kenya’s Lake Victoria region, only about 35 percent of the population has access to clean drinking water and 20 percent is connected to central power grid. WeTu is a social enterprise founded by Siemens Stiftung to provide innovative solutions for energy and drinking water in communities around the lake. In 2019, WeTu was selected as one of the eight winners of the inaugural Global LEAP Awards Solar E-Waste Challenge and will be using their community-integrated approach to pilot the first e-waste management activities in the region.
WeTu’s Innovative Approach
WeTu works in collaboration with technology companies around the world to pilot and test new technologies that meet the unique needs of fishing communities. Combining social and ecological business models, WeTu aims to improve living conditions in the region, create jobs, and establish new economic opportunities.
Marah Köberle manages partnerships and development opportunities for WeTu and explained the unique model: “WeTu and Siemens Stiftung act as an incubator for new technology. Through private sector partnerships, we assist companies in prototyping and testing the technology and business cases. It is an opportunity to introduce innovative products to the market here in Kenya.”
Some of the technologies currently used and tested in WeTu’ seven hubs, or centers, include solar water pumps and filtration systems, solar cargo bikes and bodas (motocycles), solar boat motors, and solar lanterns distributed to fishermen. However, with the introduction of new technology to the region, WeTu wants to ensure that products do not become a threat to the community once their reach end-of-life.
“We are introducing all of these solar-powered solutions but we can’t just make these products available and leave. We need to think about the full life-cycle of the products we are bringing into the region,” explained Stephen Omondi, e-Mobility Coordinator. The most popular product and the biggest e-waste generator is the solar lantern.
WeTu first introduced solar lanterns in 2008 and over the years as technology has evolved, WeTu has upgraded to find the most appropriate products for their communities: “The models that we are using now work best for the fishermen use-cases. They are water resistant, cost-effective, and last 2–3 years. We really care about their quality and durability. We invited the manufacturer to come to Kenya to hold a repair workshop. We are thinking about second-use and repair, but we also want to have a plan for when the lanterns go out of service,” said Köberle.
After over ten years of operation in Lake Victoria region, WeTu has established very close relationships with the community. WeTu’s Head of Operations, Steven Agola, first joined WeTu as a hub attendant in 2008 and plays an important role in developing and maintaining trust within the community, “Over the years we’ve been engaging with the community through decision-makers, schools, students, and other stakeholders. It is important that change comes from within the community.”
Much of WeTu’s work requires behavior change from the individual to the community level. The first challenge was convincing the community of the utility and benefits of solar lanterns, “We had to sit down and show the fishermen the numbers — we explained that the solar lanterns were more durable, safe, and cost-effective long-term. It took some time but they really appreciate the [lanterns] now,” explained Agola. As solar lanterns have become a critical component of fishing businesses, WeTu is turning their attention towards a new issue: e-waste management.
E-Waste Management Challenges
Like the rest of Kenya, in the Lake Victoria region there has been a major influx of off-grid solar products over the past decade. The lack of formal e-waste infrastructure has inspired companies like WeTu to start their own recycling project to manage their products when they reach end-of-life (EoL).
Informal collectors and repair shops dominate the e-waste market in rural areas across sub-Saharan Africa, in Kenya there are only two registered formal recyclers [one is Solar E-Waste Challenge winner WEEE Centre], both based in Nairobi. “The majority of solar products use lithium-ion batteries, like our lanterns and e-mobility solutions. As li-ion batteries don’t have a high market value, they are not as useful to collectors as the lead-acid batteries. We can’t just make these products available and leave. We need to think the whole way and what we are bringing into the region,” explained Anthony Mutua, e-waste Coordinator at WeTu.
The Global LEAP Awards Solar E-Waste Challenge
WeTu applied for the Solar E-Waste Challenge to address the growing levels of EoL solar lanterns stored in their hubs. Their Global LEAP Awards Solar E-Waste Challenge has three main components:
- Sensitize and incentivize community members and stakeholders to return e-waste
- Establish their seven hubs as e-waste collection points
- Develop an e-waste pre-processing/dismantling plant at their newest hub
Through social marketing, WeTu aims to educate the community on the dangers and risks of e-waste and offer incentives for users to return products to designated safe locations rather than disposing of them at home. WeTu will use non-cash incentives, like drinking water or fishing lantern vouchers to incentivize community members and a cash-based program for the informal sector.
“Our goal with this project is to demonstrate a sustainable e-waste value chain that leverages on a community-integrated organization structure. We want to show other organizations across sub-Saharan Africa with similar projects that introducing e-waste sensitization into your model will add value to both the community and your business,” said Omondi.