LAURENCE THUO WEAVES IN AND OUT of the numerous stalls run by jua kali (informal blue-collar workers) that pack the alleyways of Ngara Market near Nairobi’s bustling Central Business District. In one, fundis (informally trained technicians) dismantle computer central processing units; in others, they refurbish keyboards and screens, or repair blenders, hair-dryers, and speakers. At some stalls, Thuo cracks jokes with the men and slaps them on the back familiarly. “We don’t have a hierarchy here,” he tells me. “We share resources and information. There’s more than enough to go around.”
It takes a little while to figure out the layout, but a network of stalls in this market makes up the headquarters and many workshops of E-waste Initiative Kenya (E-WIK), an electronic-waste recycling company Thuo founded in 2015. We stop by a stall where a student from Nairobi Technical University bops to K-pop as he probes into the motherboard of a television. “Age distribution is important. Mentorship is critical to how skills are passed on,” Thuo explains.
He speaks from experience. As a child, Thuo had destroyed his dad and grandfather’s radios with a knife, picking them apart out of sheer curiosity about their construction. Throughout high school, he frequented repair workshops — hanging around the fundis and eventually taking up informal apprenticeships. The more he tinkered with hardware, the more ideas on how to recondition abandoned electronics blossomed in his mind. Thuo first started collecting discarded electronics in his home community in Kiambu County, 14 kilometers outside Nairobi, in 2005, when he was 16 years old. Initially, he went door-to-door, taking unwanted units off of people’s hands to either refurbish or salvage for parts. Over the years, he developed a distribution system selling refurbished electronics to a demographic that otherwise could not afford such equipment. It did not take long for folks to start coming to Thuo, either with their discards or to purchase a cell phone, computer, or other electronic item. Once his venture coalesced into E-WIK in 2015, some even wanted to join him and learn to do what he does.
Over the past few decades, e-waste recycling has created economic opportunity for many local enterprises in the Global South.
In a society with high unemployment rates, Thuo’s venture offers income to many. Formal training isn’t required to become an excellent fundi who can dismantle a motherboard or build transformers with ease. George Njau, the company’s chairman, for instance, can fix about three laptops a day, nearly 90 units any given month.
“Even now, some people don’t believe that there is money in this business, but I’ve lived off of waste for 15 years and have trained hundreds of people on how to do the same,” Thuo says. “We need to start seeing waste as a resource.”
While consumer electronics represents less than 1 percent of Kenya’s municipal solid waste, these materials hold the highest potential for rebirth. A motherboard, for example, contains gold and rare earth materials.
Indeed, over the past few decades, e-waste recycling has created economic opportunity for many local enterprises in the Global South, especially in sub-Saharan countries like Kenya and Nigeria, or Asian nations like India, Pakistan, and China. A significant portion of this waste, however, is not being generated in these countries. Thanks to globalization and supply chain economics, it is being shipped from the Global North to poorer nations where environmental regulations are laxer and labor is cheaper. (The US, for instance, exports up to 40 percent of its e-waste.)