By David Njagi
After causing a financial stir in the local scrap metal market, the far East appears to be eyeing Africa’s electronic waste, and Kenya is not likely to escape their corporate drool.
Scramble for what is now internationally referred to as ‘urban mining’, or scavenging for precious metals, such as iridium and gold is already causing a stink among the two leading destinations, Japan and China, as their traditional source markets continue to shrink.
Local dealers have not missed this emerging niche market, and some like mobile phone service provider, Safaricom, are reaching out with an electronic waste recycling programme.
This follows the recent mobile phone switch off directive by the government, which rendered hundreds of handsets dysfunctional.
Safaricom is cleaning the environment of the gadgets through a new initiative which provides disposal bins for waste such as old phones, chargers, batteries, toys, laptops and music players.
“The project will disassemble the gadgets and use what can be recycled locally to make plastic chairs and poles,” says Sanda Ojiambo, the head of corporate responsibility at the company.
What cannot be recycled locally will be shipped out of the country to other partners to be disposed in an environmentally friendly way, she says.
According to a 2009 United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), electronic waste in Kenya account for 17,000 tonnes, where 150 tonnes are disposed mobile phones.
Europe too appears to be growing claiming its turf with for instance, China’s increasing appetite for electronic waste as the world metal prices skyrocket.
It is now emerging that damaged cell phones are artificial deposits for precious metals such as gold, silver, copper, iridium, indium and a host of other metals that are reportedly in short supply at the world market.
Cell phone vendors say that this type of investment remains highly untapped, as most damaged mobile phones end up in popular waste dumping sites such as the Dandora landfill.
Safaricom chief executive officer Bob Collymore confirms that the Nokia brand vendors are engaged in mobile phone waste recycling.
But the country office for the Erickson company could not comment about the emerging market for cell phones, although officials confirmed that the damaged products are ferried back to Sweden.
Experts however point out that aircraft and ship building consume most of the world metals in supply, although space and nuclear science too are reportedly eating into the world’s metal deposits.
Studies of the current world prices for some of the precious metals revealed that they have in the last few years been hitting record highs, with gold scoring as one of the most demanded, yet undersupplied metal.
According to a study conducted by a Japanese based recycling firm, Yokohama Metal Co Ltd, a tonne of ore from a goldmine produces just five grams ( about 0.18 ounce) of gold, while a tonne of discarded mobile phones can yield 150 grams (about 5.3 ounces) or more.
The same volume of discarded mobile phones, says the study, also contains around 100 kilograms (about 220 lb) of copper and 3 kilograms (about 6.6 lb) of silver, among other metals.
Although the push for electronic waste recycling by environmentalists was at first met with a lot of dissent by corporate organizations, it is now emerging that this type of investment could attract lots of potential from both the low and high end markets.