January 1, 2020
14 Min read time
A look at Agbogbloshie, Ghana, after the end of the second decade of the 21st century.
Last updated: March 25, 2020 18:35 GMT
The poverty, miserable living conditions, and the ecological ruin at Agbogbloshie, Ghana, have been the subject of many international headlines and essays over the years.
While there’s a sound logic to point fingers at the Western use-and-throw away consumer culture for a place such as Agbogbloshie, I’ll be arguing in this piece that this blame-casting business frequently goes overboard by absolving poorer countries for their part in it.
It does appear on the surface that poverty has a tight grip on the people around Agbogbloshie, but make no mistake — it is not only the poor who participate in this waste economy. It is a very profitable business.
Take the immediate photo below. The young men had been burning electrical wires for copper in the rain. But they are only the physical manifestations of the copper business at Agbogbloshie. The wires frequently belong to scrap dealers known as ‘masters.’ These bosses sit atop a very complex and deep network of hierarchical tribal systems that span geographies.
The wires being incinerated in the photo below were collected from local sources. From junkyards (wiring harness), electrical shops, building contractors, and households, where they pay a small fee for old and unused electronics that had been in Ghana for decades.
There are layers of people involved in the copper burning and e-waste business at Agbogbloshie. For copper:
- Itinerant collectors — small-time collectors travel far and wide with pushcarts to buy e-waste from households, wiring harness from junkyards, and other cables from electrical shops and building contractors. They also scavenge for scrap metal. Others use motorized tricycles and trucks.
- The collectors sell their wares to scrap dealers (known as ‘masters‘) at Agbogbloshie and other places for cheap.
- The scrap dealers‘ apprentices (known as ‘boys‘) use bare hands, stones, and hammers to break apart some of the e-waste for the precious metals inside, including insulated wires. The wires are bundled together with other cables and sent to the ‘Kilimanjaro‘ and ‘Bombay‘ burning sites. The ‘Kilimanjaro’ copper burning site is the open incineration site near the Korle Lagoon. ‘Bombay’ is the area on the large e-waste dump behind the headquarters of the ICGC church.
- Depending on the load, the ‘burner boys‘ can be paid between GH₵2.00 (around $0.35 as of April 2020) and GH₵200 ($35)..
- The ‘burner boys‘ then use styrofoam packing and scrap tires as fuel to remove the plastic sheaths off the insulated wires.
- The freshly recovered copper wires are then immediately carted away, weighed and sold, for instant cash.
- The wires now start their journey. A large chunk is shipped outside Ghana, where they are used as primary inputs in the production of new devices.
- It is this demand and supply that is fueling the toxic pollution at Agbogbloshie and destroying the lives of hundreds of young people.
But this tragic scene (photo above) is frequently misreported as ‘poor people in poorer countries burning e-waste from the rich West.‘ That is mostly not the case, at least, not for Agbogbloshie in the better part of the last decade. Local government officials, usually clueless on issues concerning toxicity levels, lurk behind headlines that misrepresent the facts to join a long line of blame-shifters.
A significant chunk of the e-waste ending up at Agbogbloshie is generated by people in Ghana.
Yes, the vintage televisions, stereo systems, desktop computers, etc. were imported, but they first add value to the local economy by several years of use by households and businesses before ending up at a place such as Agbogbloshie.
For me, the ecological collapse at Agbogbloshie could only have resulted from the shortsighted environmental policies of Ghana’s successive governments.
Characterizations such as those above frequently miss some key perspectives: local perception and knowledge. This raises several questions for me:
- What do the people themselves think?
- Why do they resist development interventions?
- Do they interpret their problems in the manner that we attempt to theorize them?
- Could what is seemingly a grave environmental collapse be an attempted solution to tackle another problem?
- If so, how do we retheorize their condition?
Some of the questions above interrogate the development discourse and practice, which seem to view poor people in developing countries as passive.
Passive poor people: we can’t help it but have others blame themselves for our condition.
Passive poor people: we can’t help it but have others blame themselves for our condition.
The answers to some of the questions above can be found in another question, which is this: where did all the trillions of dollars in aide money to the world’s poor go in the last 70 years?
These questions are quite relevant to Agbogbloshie and the several attempts (some with donor aide money) to restore its degraded ecosystem, in my opinion.
Use the table of contents below to navigate through the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about Agbogbloshie, Ghana.
Also check out these galleries
Brief History of Agbogbloshie
Agbogbloshie was a temporary settlement for refugees from what is locally known as the Guinea Fowl War (the Kokomba-Nanumba war of 1994).
A high ranking member of the leadership of the Agbogbloshie scrapyard has told me that small scrap activities started near the Old Fadama Police Station towards ‘Galloway’ as far back as the 1980s.
Things picked up around the late 90s after the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers Association was formed.
There are tales of Agbogbloshie being a thriving wetland with a small wildlife population in the 70s, and even the 80s. Not so much now, as you can see some parts of it in the video below.
The video above shows single-use plastic waste floating on the surface of the Korle Lagoon in Agbogbloshie, Accra, Ghana, as some of the plastics head to the sea. Fed by the Odaw River, the Korle Lagoon links to the Gulf of Guinea, the northeasternmost part of the tropical Atlantic Ocean.
Where is Agbogbloshie Located?
Agbogblshie is situated on the Korle Lagoon, near the center of Accra, Ghana’s capital city.
Fed by the Odaw River, the Korle Lagoon links to the Gulf of Guinea, the northeasternmost part of the tropical Atlantic Ocean.
Agbogbloshie is about a kilometer away from Makola, one of Ghana’s largest markets, and around 10 km away from the Kotoka International Airport.
Here’s a satellite view of the location of Agbogbloshie.
What is Going on at Agbogbloshie?
Scrap and electronic waste activities have raised toxicity concerns around Agbogbloshie for more than a decade now.
Hundreds of scrap workers toil in the toxic environment at Agbogbloshie every day trying to salvage usable components from the waste stream.
Agbogbloshie is also the largest open food market in Accra.
This is how the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations characterized Agbogbloshie in 2016:
“Agbogbloshie is a toxic threat. The burning of e-waste releases toxic fumes that spread throughout the community, threatening city dwellers. The toxic chemical fumes released get into the food market and get inside the soil throughout the area when it rains. Indeed, high levels of toxins have been discovered in soil and food samples, as these chemicals stay in the food chain.” – FAO 20161
Agbogbloshie is a toxic threat. The burning of e-waste releases toxic fumes that spread throughout the community, threatening city dwellers. The toxic chemical fumes released get into the food market and get inside the soil throughout the area when it rains. Indeed, high levels of toxins have been discovered in soil and food samples, as these chemicals stay in the food chain.”FAO 2016
There are several environmental and health hazards related to recycling at Agbogbloshie. Among them:
1. The open burning of electrical wires to recover the copper materials inside
While mechanical processes such as hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy are used to recover traces of valuable metals from electronic waste in other parts of the world, urban miners at Agbogbloshie frequently use styrofoam packaging and scrap tires as fuel to remove the plastic sheaths off electrical wires for the copper materials inside.
This releases a cocktail of highly toxic substances into Accra’s air, the soil, and groundwater.
This is a major source of air pollution in Accra Central.
Air pollution is a leading risk factor for premature death in Ghana. More than 28,000 people die from air pollution in Ghana every year, according to the World Health Organization.2
Don’t be too quick to start pointing fingers.
Contrary to what many documentaries would have you believe, the burning of electrical wires to recover the copper materials inside has little to do with the illegal importation of electronic waste into Ghana.
Most of the wires incinerated in the open at Agbogbloshie are collected locally — from auto repair shops (wiring harness), households, building contractors, and other junkyards. They also burn auto parts such as armature.
The burning of electrical wires at Agbogbloshie is a local problem that should be dealt with by the Government of Ghana — not Germany or the USA.
Don’t confuse this problem with the unsafe dismantling of e-waste at Agbogbloshie. They are not the same problem.
2. The unsafe dismantling of e-waste at Agbogbloshie
This problem usually involves the use of hammers, bare hands, and stones, to dismantle parts of old television sets, laptops, desktop computers, mobile phones, and other electronics to retrieve the valuable materials inside.
Wires from electronics are also bundled together and incinerated for the copper materials inside.
The unsafe dismantling of e-waste and the open burning of electrical wires to recover the copper inside raise very serious concerns about toxicity at Agbogbloshie.
Scrap workers, the public (Agbogbloshie is the largest open food market in Accra), and livestock come in direct contact with toxic substances such as arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants, at Agbogbloshie, every day.
In a study published in 2013, Jack Caranavos of New York University and other researchers found lead levels as high as 18,125 parts per million (ppm)3 in one of the soil samples taken from around Agbogbloshie. US EPA’s recommended standard for lead in bare soil in non-play areas is 1200 ppm and 400 ppm for play areas.4
A 2019 study by the Basel Action Network and the International Pollutants Elimination Network also found high levels of toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and chlorinated dioxins in free-range chicken eggs at Agbogbloshie.5
What are Some Toxic and Hazardous Materials in E-waste At Agbogbloshie?
Ghana lacks the capacity to manage hazardous substances in e-waste.
Certain hazardous materials in electronics have been banned for several decades now, but because the majority of the e-waste that ends up at Agbogbloshie are old, they are mostly filled with toxic substances that pose risks to human health and the environment.
1. Lead: This can be found in cathode-ray tube (CRT) screens, printed boards, and batteries, at Agbogbloshie. Children as young as 7 years use bare hands, stones, and hammers to dismantle electronics for the precious metals inside at Agbogbloshie.
The Agbogbloshe e-waste dump is strewn with broken CRT TV and monitor glasses.
Lead is known to cause severe impairment in children as it profoundly affects the development of their brain and nervous system.
According to the World Health Organization, there is no known safe blood lead concentration. This means that even a small amount of exposure can cause harmful health effects in both children and adults.
A study by Richard Canfield and other researchers in 2003 found a significant link between high blood lead concentration and a decline in IQ in children.
2. Mercury: This can be found in batteries, thermostats, and switches.
Exposure to mercury is associated with kidney damage, and it’s also known to impair neurological development in children.
As an e-waste and auto parts processing area, Agbogbloshie is filled with devices that contain batteries, thermostats, and switches.
3. Chromium: This can be found in a lot of electronic devices due to its ability to prevent corrosion. It also helps to increase the conductivity of electrical impulses.
Chromium is associated with occupational asthma, kidney, and liver damage, with the highly dangerous hexavalent chromium recognized as a carcinogen.
Other hazardous substances that can be found at Agbogbloshie include cadmium, dioxins, furans, and PCBs.
Is Agbogbloshie The Most Toxic Environment in the World?
Agbogbloshie is often erroneously listed as the most toxic environment in the world (in reference to Pure Earth & Green Cross Switzerland’s ratings).
Pure Earth (formerly the Blacksmith Institute) is a not-for-profit organization that focuses on cleaning up toxic pollution in some of the world’s poorest areas.
Green Cross Switzerland was founded by the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1993 to provide assistance to country’s facing serious environmental degradation.
Pure Earth and Green Cross Switzerland got together and made a list of the world’s top ten most toxic environments titled:
THE WORLDS WORST 2013: THE TOP TEN THREATS.
Agbogbloshie, Ghana, was the only toxic threat to start with the letter ‘A’ on the list, thereby earning it the top-most position.
The toxic threats locations were not ranked, merely listed in alphabetical order.
Many people who did not notice this began spreading the word that Abgogbloshie was the most polluted place on earth. This is not accurate by Pure Earth & Green Cross Switzerland’s rating.
You can see the list in this document.
For your benefit, I’ll provide the list below:
THE WORLDS WORST 2013: THE TOP TEN THREATS.
- Agbogbloshie, Ghana
- Chernobyl, Ukraine
- Citarum River, Indonesia
- Dzershinsk, Russia
- Hazaribagh, Bangladesh
- Kabwe, Zambia
- Kalimantan, Indonesia
- Matanza Riachuelo, Argentina
- Niger River Delta, Nigeria
- Norilsk, Russia
Is Agbogbloshie The Largest Electronic Waste Dump in the World?
It is unlikely that a scrapyard covering a total area of around 4,400 foots could be the largest electronic waste dumpsite in the world. China’s Giuyu6 covers more than 50 square kilometers.
According to Pure Earth and Green Cross Switzerland, Agbogbloshie is the second largest e-waste processing area in the West Africa sub-region. Most likely coming after the Olusosun landfill in Lagos, Nigeria.
The Olusosun landfill is often regarded as the largest dumpsite in Africa.
You can safely dismiss any headline that claims Agbogbloshie is the largest electronic waste dump in the world. Feel free to visit Agbogbloshie to determine the accuracy of this claim for yourself.
Who Profits From Agbogbloshie?
The valuable metal recovery business at Agbogbloshie is very lucrative.
According to a UN Environment Programme report, the estimated value of recoverable materials in e-waste is worth over $62 billion every year7. This is bigger than Ghana’s 2017 GDP of $58.9 Billion (World bank).
Low-level scrap workers and Accra residents suffer the most while the scrap dealers, their clientele, and the Government of Ghana earn from this.
The Government of Ghana earns from this through the use of recycled materials by the local industry and through export taxes.
The price of copper at Agbogbloshie as of January 2020 was GH₵10 (around $1.75/ Jan 2020 FX Rate) per pound. According to macrotrents.com, the global price of copper in the first week of January 2020 was around $2.80 per pound.
Some of the recovered copper wires from Agbogbloshie are exported, where they re-enter the global production circuits.
Some of the ‘burner boys’ earn as low as GH₵2 (around $0.35 as at the time of writing this) per burn, and sometimes as high as GH₵200 (around $35) or more on a good day.
The ‘burner boys’ are the least earned in the process from picking up the wires to exporting them out of Ghana.
And as I have argued elsewhere about this, removing the ‘burner boys’ from the picture won’t be solving the problem of the open burning of electrical wires at Agbogbloshie. The scrap dealers would find their replacement the following morning.
Read more about this perspective here.
Getting reliable data from scrap dealers at Agbogbloshie is a big problem.
Much of the information Agbogbloshie scrap workers provide cannot be verified.
I’m currently using a different method to gather some usable data.
I collect data at Agbogbloshie for my personal use — to have a far better understanding of the problem — and not for any academic purposes.
I’ll do my best to share some of them on www.muntaka.com whenever I’m able to find the time to process them.
Where Does The Electronic Waste in Ghana Come From?
Again, don’t be too quick to start pointing fingers here.
Most of the electronic waste in Ghana are generated by people in Ghana.
True, they were imported, but they first add value to the local economy, by several years of use by people in Ghana before ending up at a place such as Agbogbloshie. I can’t stress this point enough.
This is one from the Government of Ghana:
LMICs stands for low-and middle-income countries.
The claim above in the Ghana Health and Pollution Action Plan8 is spurious and problematic.
As I have repeatedly argued, imported computers and televisions sets are first used by people in Ghana before being cannibalized for parts at a place such as Agbogbloshie. They mostly do not go straight from the sea ports to a place such as Agbogbloshie.
If the e-waste were mostly imported purposely for recycling, then this should imply that most Ghanaian households do not use televisions at all or only use brand new LED TVs which cost a few hundred dollars and more (in a country with around $2000 GDP per capita).
The Basel Convention still provides for the importation of electronic waste for repairs and reuse under certain terms, so yes, electronic waste still gets in.
Secondhand electronics are not unique to Ghana. I doubt Agbogbloshie would have gained notoriety if e-waste is recycled in a manner that does not pose risks to human health and the environment.
“This was mainly done without any regard for the hazard that they pose to the environment or for the health risk they pose to the people living in the area,” the highlighted Ghana Government document above adds.
In fine print: Ghana is aware of this serious toxicity issues yet won’t do the heavy lifting even as it endangers public health.
It is clear the problem here is not the e-waste itself. It is policy and enforcement on the part of the Ghanaian government, which are lacking.
As a local myself, I can attest to how valuable used electronics are to the local economy. I have used the same secondhand Morphy Richards steam iron since 2012. It still works just fine.
I picked up the steam iron for GH₵60 (around $31 in 2012). Not sure if one of the latest built-in obsolescence clothes iron would have lasted this long even after being used before crossing the Atlantic to my parts.
According to the World Bank widget below, Ghana’s GDP per capita is around $2,200 (2018). Not exactly the country a lot of people can afford high-end gadgets.
Reuse is actually encouraged by the Basel Convention as a way to reduce the environmental footprint of manufacturing electronics.
Where Does Your Electronic Waste Go?
If you live in Ghana, your electronic waste most likely eventually ends up at a place such as Agbogbloshie.
There’s a small chance your electronic waste ends up at Agbogbloshie if you live in Berlin, New York or Tokyo, these days.
If they do end up in Ghana, while some may still go straight to a place such as Agbogbloshie, the majority are used by locals for years before ending up at a dump.
Has There Been An Attempt to Tackle Environmental Pollution at Agbogbloshie?
Yes, there have been several attempts over the years to tackle Agbogbloshie. None has worked so far, though.
Pure Earth, GreenAd, and the Greater Accra Scrap Dealers Association in 2014 inaugurated wire-stripping machines inside the Agbogbloshie scrapyard to help tackle the open burning of electrical wires. In short, this has not worked.
Read more about why the granulators are not working in the link below:
The German implementing Agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) with Ghana’s Ministery of Environment also jointly inaugurated a €5million health post and training workshop inside the Agbogbloshie scrapyard to help tackle the impact of e-waste in Ghana.
Read the link above to see my criticism of this facility, and why it won’t be doing much to help with the situation.
There has been too much emphasis on technical solutions to Agbogbloshie. This is a problem on its own, I think.
My question is this: how do you tackle problems in poverty-stricken landscapes without involving the people directly and without critical data?
See my criticism of the approach to tackling Agbogbloshie here.
Everyone can visit Agbogbloshie — both locals and foreigners. No need to pay a tour company.
But ask your self this: why visit a place such as Agbogbloshie?
Out of curiosity? Google map is a good start.
Photographic opportunities? Fine.
You can get there via trotro (a bush taxi-like city minibus), but they are a hassle.
I strongly recommend you ask for the Agbogbloshie scrapyard Chairman’s office if you are a non-Ghanaian. Tell whoever is available why you are there. You shouldn’t have a problem.
Be respectful of the scrap workers. Don’t photograph people without their permission. Ask their permission first, if granted, fine, if not, move on.
Some of the scrap workers ask visitors to pay money to photograph them. It’s up to you if you want to pay.
I have seen tourists point their cameras at scrap workers without their permission. They are not always happy about this. While the place may appear like a ruin to you, it’s actually a functioning scrapyard.
Toxicity levels at Agbogbloshie are no joke, so I wouldn’t recommend you arriving there in flip-flops, sandals, tank tops, or shorts. Do this if you want toxins to settle on your skin.
Agbogbloshie 2020 and The Farewell
It was the end of a decade, and for me, it was also the end of an era.
I grabbed the scenes below (and more) on December 31, 2019, to mark the end of my uninvited participation at that area of society. That is, on the open burning of electrical wires to recover the copper materials inside at Agbogbloshie, Ghana. I announce this with a heavy heart.
But I’m not totally moving out of Agbogbloshie. I’m merely moving a few yards away from the burning problem. I’ll spend sometime on the issue of children using bare hands, stones, and hammers to dismantle electronics for the precious metals inside before eventually bowing out to focus on other issues in society.
I have hinted in some of my writings about what I thought were some of the ways to approach Agbogbloshie over the time I have spent documenting and collecting great amount of data on the open burning of electrical wires.
During this period, I have followed the itinerant collectors/scavengers throughout Accra to see the sources of the wires, and for my use, I have also traced the journeys of some of the copper wires from Agbogbloshie to the exit points. I have also collected a great amount of air quality data around Agbogbloshie and beyond, to get a fair idea of the impact of the burning.
I gave out a lot of particulate respirators and gas masks around Agbogbloshie to help minimize their exposure to particulate pollutants from the open burning of electrical wires and radial tires.
I tried my best to help whenever the ‘burner boys’ brought their personal problems to me. This included cash, food, medical costs, accommodation, etc. For what its worth, I’m happy to have helped.
The open burning of electrical wires bothers me due to the health risks it poses to Accra residents.
But I think you can say that I lost in the end, and the Government of Ghana and its partners have won. This problem persists and worse than it has ever been.
I meet new young people who had just arrived to begin life as ‘burner boys’ almost every time I go to Agbogbloshie. I have tried to tie this problem to Africa’s bulging youth population, and one of the reasons why the Ghanaian Government and its partners should take another look at their strategy in tackling Agbogbloshie.
Ghana Government And Agbogbloshie
Prof. Kwabena Frimpong Boateng, Ghana’s Minister for Environment, Science, Technology & Innovation, announced in a room packed full of journalists on July 2, 2019, that, the open burning of electrical wires was no longer a concern at Agbogbloshie as the inaugurated Agbogbloshie Technical Training Centre has managed to curb it.
He went on to caution the Ghanaian journalists present to ignore all images coming out of Agbogbloshie as they may have been unearthed from the archives to mischaracterize the situation.
Let me clarify this again — the minister’s claim was not true in July 2019, and it is not true as of March 2020, when this article was updated. The problem persist and has never been this worse (from all accounts).
Note that the Agbogbloshie Technical Training Centre, for now, trains the scrap workers on how to safely dismantle e-waste. But whatever they are thought is never applied in reality. I also heard that they train young women on how to make soap and other items including ‘bofrott’, a local snack. It’s a training centre, and does not provide for whatever the minister claimed. Again, thanks to the German Government for this. For my part, I see the point. I hope it all works out in the end.
For me, the problem was not knowing how to be vocal about the toxicity issues and the degraded human condition at Agbogbloshie, but to use some of the mediums I’m most familiar with — photography and the internet — to spread the word. I have sufficiently done this as the internet archives about Agbogbloshie will demonstrate.
I was able to quickly stop by and use new photographs to prove that the local government’s claims were false. This was important to me because the majority of the people who are most concerned about Agbogbloshie are non-Ghanaians living outside of Ghana, who may not be able to independently verify these claims. Taking recent photographs and posting them on the internet was a way to keep everyone updated about this situation.
Unauthorized use of photos online
A quick one about photos online. Unless otherwise stated, no photos on the internet are free. I’m actually no fan of watermarking photos as it diminishes their appeal, in my opinion. But I have had to start doing this to ward off online photo theft.
A lot of photographers cannot post some of their best works online out of fear they may be stolen and used without their permission.
I have had issues with some International organizations and Ghana’s top media outlets going on one of my companies websites, steal photos, reuse, and caption them as ‘file photo’. Some didn’t even bother at all to credit them. They used them as if the photographs were their own.
Photographers spend thousands of dollars on gears. Think about it, how would they pick up the next great lens if you steal their creative work without having to pay them? You are not entitled to reuse photographs you see on the internet. If you don’t own the copyright to them, don’t use them. Simple.
Reach out to the copyright owners, and some of them wouldn’t have a problem letting you use them for editorial. I’m always happy to send the RAW files to organizations and media agencies who reach out to me on a photo they’d like to use for editorial. As long as you are not going to profit from the photos, I’m always happy to help. I have given out a lot of photographs to the world for free and always happy to see them used.
Just stumbled upon these by the Harvard Business School (December 2019), Duke University, and the United Nations Association of Germany (Deutsche Gesellschaft für die Vereinten Nationen – DGVN – Jan 2020 ):
These were duly credited. I shot the first one (plastic pollution) with a mobile phone while walking along the coast on an October (2018) morning. I’m sure I’ll find several hundreds of references and credits if I bother to look around. I was happy to give both photos, and more, for free to the world for everyone’s use. So, always reach out to photographers about their work. Copying them from their website might land you into trouble.
Many thanks for tagging along. I hope my part in this has been helpful to anyone who cares about this situation.
And so ends this chapter.
Leave your comments and questions below, and I will try my best to answer them within 24 hours.
© 2020 Muntaka Chasant
January 1, 2020
14 Min read time