African tech companies turn environmental sustainability to their advantage
The world trashes more and more electronics every year. A new ITC workshop shows African tech companies how handling e-waste better can save money and create new exports
Esther Yeboah uses a lot of devices. She works for 365 Impact Ltd, a company in Ghana that uses tracking devices to monitor trucks and tractors, and to gather humidity data for farms.
Her office was filling up with computers and other tech that they no longer used, devices that could end up in a landfill if not disposed of properly.
Known as electronic waste, or e-waste, from old devices accounts for 70% of the world’s toxic waste. That poses a severe risk to human health, and to the environment.
During the pandemic, the world moved online, using more and more digital devices. The environmental cost of information and communication technology (ICT) also grew – contributing to the climate crisis that is more obvious every year.
As the world uses more devices, e-waste is expected to grow by 8% a year. But old electronics don’t have to end up that way. They can also be upcycled -- stripped down to their most basic components, which then become a resource to make new electronics.
In the southern Ghanaian city of Kumasi, old computers get dismantled so that the metallic parts can be reused. Iron, copper and gold get separated out and then exported to countries like Belgium and Germany, said e-waste specialist Raldwin Richard Asiedu.
No wasted devices
“There is never a waste appliance, whether it works well or it’s completely dead,” he said. “You can still use the device, depending on the components.”
“For example, a laptop, it has to be properly dismantled,” he said. “A laptop screen is always useful. You can use it for making picture frames, mini tables or coffee tables. Keyboards can be used for learning materials in school for children in kindergarten or nursery.”
“If you go into the motherboards, there are printed circuit boards that can be recycled,” he added.
Doing that requires connecting with companies that have the know-how. That kind of knowledge sharing was one of the most important outcomes of a workshop in December, where Esther and Raldwin were among a group of IT companies and tech start-ups who learned how to reduce technology’s environmental impact.
The recent Greening ICT workshop, run by the Netherlands Trust Fund V’s Ghana Tech project, also looked at how to reduce the energy consumed by electronics and ICT sustainability certification.
“It was an opportunity for us to learn how to save energy as managers of offices,” Raldwin said. “For me it was more like a dual knowledge, where you learn more about energy saving, and how to save the environment, with what you do with your electronic devices when they’re at their end of life.”
The workshop does not just aim to increase tech companies score on operating in an environmentally friendly way. It also aims to lay out tangible benefits, such as attracting clients, talent, investors – while saving on costs.
In 2021, during the pandemic, the workshop was held virtually. In 2022, it continued in person.
Some energy-saving tips are surprisingly easy to implement. For example, using cloud databases saves energy compared to installing new servers. And reducing the brightness of screens from 100% to 70% can save one-fifth of the energy used by the monitor.
That saves companies on their energy bills as well. Other strategies are also good for budgets. For example, after the training, Esther said she now realizes that new devices aren’t required for every project.
“Going forward, when considering whether to buy any other gadgets, we’ll consider if it’s necessary to buy a new one or a used one,” Yeboah said. “If not for that training, I don’t think that we would have thought about a second-hand device.”
The Netherlands Trust Fund V (NTF) (July 2021 – June 2025) is based on a partnership between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands and the International Trade Centre. The programme supports MSMEs in the digital technologies and agribusiness sectors. Its ambition is two-fold: to contribute to an inclusive and sustainable transformation of food systems, partially through digital solutions, and drive the internationalisation of tech start-ups and export of IT&BPO companies in selected Sub-Saharan African countries.