WMC News & Features

Women living at Accra’s toxic scrapyard

Wmc Features Hauwa Ibrahim Abgogbloshie 021419
Hauwa Ibrahim stands near the Korle Lagoon in Abgogbloshie to sell fura — millet balls mashed in cow milk. The 17-year-old is one of thousands of women who trade in the scrapyard every day, exposing themselves to toxic fumes from crude e-waste recycling methods. Photo by Shola Lawal.

Every evening, after Hauwa Ibrahim, a hawker at the Agbogbloshie scrapyard, finishes with her selling, she walks some 20 minutes to the living shack she shares with several other girls on the yard. Then, she downs ice-cold soda to ward off the waves of nausea she battles all day. It’s from all the smoke in Agbogbloshie, where men burn scrap for a living. In Agbogbloshie, simply staying here for an extended period of time could be life-threatening.

Located in Central Accra, on the banks of the Korle Lagoon, Agbogbloshie is one of Africa’s biggest e-waste hubs. This former wetland is a dumping ground for second-hand electronics shipped in illegally from the U.S, Europe, and other African countries. More than 6,000 men work here as scrap collectors, refurbishers, scavengers, and recyclers. Damaged electronics are repaired and sold to second-hand stores in the Agblogboshie market a few hundred meters away. The condemned ones are smelted in huge bonfires, after which valuable metals such as copper, silver, and platinum are removed by hand. It’s crude recycling that releases toxic fumes and pollutes the air, soil, and waters around Agbogbloshie.

Although the nearby lagoon, filled with metal parts and trash, has a putrid smell, it’s the burning of electronics and wires that really gets to 17-year-old Hauwa. A native of Zabzugu, a small town in Ghana’s less-developed north, Hauwa genuinely loves her job as a hawker, except for when the burning starts. It happens every day, and sometimes, when the burners have gotten a great deal of scrap, it goes well into the evening too. Boys as young as 12 often take part. When the burning starts, the entirety of Agbogbloshie is covered in soot, and it’s hard to see anything.

“I don’t like the burning at all,” Hauwa says in her native Dagbani language. In the midday heat, her face is laced with beads of sweat from carrying her burden of millet balls all morning. Hauwa dropped out of school to sell fura — millet dough balls — because she wasn’t making good grades. But the pollution in Agbogbloshie makes it hard to work. “I always feel like I’m going to throw up,” she says.

Agbogbloshie was ranked top as one of the world’s most polluted sites in 2013, and it’s easy to see why. Everything here is coated in a layer of soot and grime. The grounds are blackened and stripped of vegetation. Mountains of metal and plastic dot the site. A coppery smell fills and hangs in the air, escaping to the back of the tongue to sit for hours. It’s this sensation that Hauwa tries to wash away with a cola every evening.

Up to 13,000 metric tons of e-waste is shipped into Agbogbloshie yearly. The 15-acre graveyard houses every imaginable electrical item: TV sets, fridges, motorcycles, computers, DVDs, even airplane parts. Throughout the day, trucks carrying metal parts come and go. Importing second-hand products to Ghana contravenes the Basel and Bamako Conventions — international treaties preventing cross-border movement of hazardous waste which the West African country ratified in 2005. But enforcement of these laws is lax, and mislabeled containers find their way through the port. The men who work here are from low-income families and say they do not have any other means of survival. Many are from Tamale, in the Northern Region, where “we don’t get any jobs,” says 37-year old Yusuf Ibrahim, a scrap dealer who has worked in Agbogbloshie for over a decade.

A short walk into the heart of the scrapyard reveals the burn site. Here the vision is blurry and the smell of burning wires is overwhelming. Scrap dealers like Yusuf say despite the hazards, dealing in e-waste is profitable and leaves them with enough money to send to their families up north. But the true cost of dealing with e-waste is dire. The workers break open smelted parts with their bare hands, exposing them and those around to heavy metals like lead and mercury. Health conditions like cancer will likely be the long-term result, Dr. Kwame Baah Amoh, an Accra-based general practitioner, points out.

Women in Agbogbloshie don’t deal in scrap, but the situation for them is just as bad. Pregnant or nursing mothers are at special risk: The breast milk of nursing mothers living in Agbogbloshie is heavily contaminated with toxic pollutants that can be passed on to their babies, according to research in the International Journal of Environmental and Public Health Research.

The implications are disastrous. Thousands of women work here and live in Old Fadama, a nearby slum. Many of them sell food to the scrap dealers, and in the process unknowingly expose themselves to toxicants from dismantled electronics. Ramatu Bilya, a nursing mother, is one of them. Ramatu sells cold drinks to the workers every day until late in the evening when they stop working. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, she fanned herself and her infant son, who latched onto her breast, with a notebook. Having been in Agbogbloshie for two years, Ramatu says she no longer minds the sickening smell from the burning and waves it off with a laugh.

But the young mother is more at risk than she acknowledges. According to a 2009 United Nations Environment Program report, women and children are especially vulnerable to lead, cadmium, and mercury exposure. Short-term effects could include gastrointestinal and respiratory problems, says Dr. Amoh. Worse, long-term exposure to these metals has been proven to cause miscarriages and impair cognitive development.

Meanwhile, the trend of e-waste dumping in Ghana is gaining more strength. At least three containers of e-waste are shipped to Ghana every month from Australia alone, according to Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports. The Global E-waste Monitor, a periodic e-waste report collaborative developed by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), United Nations University (UNU), and sister organizations promoting sustainable management, predicts that the world will generate up to 52.2 metric tons of e-waste by 2021, but only a small fraction of it will be collected and recycled. Recycling e-waste is costly — only one-fifth of global e-waste was recycled in 2016, according to UNU. Countries like Ghana, where the majority of people are low-income earners who prefer to buy used electronics imported from the West, provide a cheap alternative to recycling. The effects of that trade are evident in places like Agbogbloshie.

There are ongoing attempts to train the scrap dealers in Ghana on proper handling of e-waste. In 2012, DK Osseo-Asare and Dr.Yasmine Abbas, Ghana-based architects, launched the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP), where interested workers learn how to design workshop spaces from scrap metal. But most of the men here work long days and have little time to commit to interests outside of their businesses.

Nationally, E-MAGIN (E-waste Management in Ghana) is the European Union–funded project whose mission is to create awareness and spread best practices in e-waste recycling across Ghana. Pockets of informal recycling hubs, smaller than Agbogbloshie, exist across the country. Workers here have been targeted, says Ebenezer Kumi, a program officer with Adelphi, one of the organizations facilitating the project, and more trainings are slated to be held later in the year. But the program does not seem to be having much impact in Agbogbloshie for now, as none of the workers Women's Media Center spoke to was aware of it.

But programs like these don’t take into special account women working in places like Agbogbloshie, even though they are more vulnerable. “For now we don’t have any studies coming up that would focus on [women],” Kumi told WMC.

Although the Ghanaian parliament approved the Hazardous and Electronic Waste Control and Management Act in 2016 to regulate the importation of e-waste into Ghana, enforcement was poor. But after taking office in 2017, President Nana Akufo-Addo announced plans to regulate e-waste recycling and to build a massive e-waste recycling facility expected to create 20,000 jobs in Agbogbloshie. Yet, that plan could take years to bear fruit.

A poor recycling culture in Ghana itself is escalating the threat of e-waste. While imported e-waste causes a lot of harm here, e-waste scavenged from parts of Ghana also ends up in Agbogbloshie, Yusuf is quick to point out. Although many news stories point accusing fingers at the West for making Ghana a dumping ground, a United Nations Environment Program report found that 85 percent of the 1 million metric tons of e-waste present in Ghana and neighboring West African countries is actually from the region.

Over 70,000 people, many of them women and children, are affected by the pollution in Agbogbloshie: The Agbogbloshie market situated by the main road is only a few meters from the burn site and is forever thrumming with customers buying tomatoes, onions, and yams — food that could be contaminated.

Five months ago, when Hauwa left Zabzugu to sell millet balls here, she had no idea how terrible the pollution was. Now, every day is a constant reminder that she requires medical help. “I need to be checked by a doctor because of the smoke and the smell,” she confides. The cheery fura-seller says she needs to be healthy enough to work and send money back home to her poor parents and hopes to make enough to start a family soon. But today, there are more pressing issues, the most important of which is surviving Agbogbloshie.

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