Hacking Life: Electronic Waste Salvaging in an African Digital Age

By Samwel Moses Ntapanda

What is, where is, and to whom does e-waste matter? Several discards studies have explored these questions at length. Most of the studies have been on waste in general (Alexander & Reno, 2012; Fredericks, 2018; Hawkins & Muecke, 2003; Millar, 2018; Nguyen, 2019; O’Neill, 2019; Pye & Schroth, 2010; Strasser, 2000). Some have focused on the materiality of specific discards (Gregson et al., 2010; Hansen, 2000b). However, electronics waste is new as a global phenomenon and in anthropology. Geographers are on the front seat of e-waste studies (Lepawsky, 2010; Lepawsky et al., 2017; Lepawsky & Billah, 2011; Miller, 2012; Zhang, 2009).

Nevertheless, I explore the same questions to understand the value and valuation of e-waste. To do so, I am following e-waste encounters and material-specific entanglements in Dar es salaam cityscapes. I am presenting walking as a method of understanding value and valuation during waste salvaging. Walking has not only aided me to collect data about my informants, but it also placed me at the centre of the data. Walking with my informants exposed me to more than how e-waste is valued, transformed and utilised. The connection to the soil, dust and puddles, urban vegetation and concrete, the shadows and thousands of sunrays droplets under Naam and Flamboyant trees, the smell of food and rotten garbage, perfumes and sweats, tranquillity and noise, words and gestures are equally important in the process of valuation.

In this case, I argue that value is not only produced during the exchange and social relations between actors; there are multiple factors and actors at the margins of exchange that influence value (Alexander & Reno, 2012; Appadurai, 1986; Dumont, 2013; Lepawsky & Mather, 2011). I am digging in to understand different value transformation practices during salvaging, and tracing e-waste in the city´s landscapes (Gregson et al., 2010).


The Zanzibar Port; a gateway for used goods

The sunset in stone town, the old town of Zanzibar archipelago, is always magnificent except during the rainy season when the weather can be violent following the monsoon winds. The evening show has just started at Forodhani Food market, groups of young boys jump in spectacular diving styles into the ocean. Forodhani is a beautiful seafood and traditional Zanzibar evening food market. It is built on a concrete bank that gives enough depth for the divers and scenic sunsets. 

The sun is more orange than the imagination of a beautiful sunset. Food stalls are installed at the centre of the square; leisurely people are coming in for evening snacks. The aroma of fried fish, beef mishikaki, and Zanzibar pizza cooked with local spices engulf the market. My stomach feels empty, and the smell enhances my appetite. The smell reminds me of my childhood in the mid-savanna plains a thousand kilometres from here, when the vuli (first rains) start after a long kiangazi (dry) season. The petrichor knocked me to my knees to connect with the earth. 


About three hundred meters from the market, a large container ship is docking at the harbour sending waves to the walls of the food market pushing the divers in all directions. That is the Zanzibar/Tanzania entry port for goods from abroad. 

The Zanzibar port is famous for its accessibility of cheap used products from the middle and far east, Europe and North America. There is a whole history behind this scenario. As Chris Gregory suggests “anthropology is the study of the living, it must start with a history” (Gregory, 1997) . In a nutshell, the port has been popular after sultan Sayyid Said moved his capital from Oman to Zanzibar to control the west Indian ocean trade route. The strategic importance of the port presented severe diplomatic discussions during the 1885 partitioning Berlin conference (Wilkinson, 1996). After independence and during Ujamaa period, the port was mainly used to export cash crops to industrial nations. However, it gained its popularity after the fall of socialism and the adoption of liberalisation in the early 1990s. Many Arab descendants Zanzibaris have relatives living abroad especially Oman, United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. Many of the descendants fled prosecution in the wake of 1964 Zanzibar revolution (Keshodkar, 2014). With liberalisation, doors were open for business. The 1990s is a critical time to Tanzania and the problem of e-waste. Apart from the end of the cold war, it is during this period when massive electronics production skyrocketed, planned obsolescence takes the central role in the designing, and awareness on production and accumulation of e-waste became the viable future threat. At the same time, Tanzanians living abroad saw an opportunity on used-goods business. The massive consuming and discarding culture that had emerged in the developed countries and the thirst for consuming by Tanzania population, that had come out of many years of socialism policies, which controlled peoples consumptions, made used goods a profitable business (Hansen, 2000a; Koponen, 1986). Although currently Chinese cheap products have snatched the market, still today, majority of lower and mid-lower-class Tanzanians prefer used products from the west. 

Walking with Electronic Waste

Electronics, kitchen wear, clothes and shoes are popular used goods that come through Zanzibar. Goods will cross to mainland Tanzania, where the demand is higher compared to Zanzibar. However, not all of the products are deemed to stay in Tanzania, the ports of Zanzibar and Dar es salaam serve as entrance gates to the whole great lake’s region.

From the port starts a long journey of electronic devices that witness the transformation of their value in many ways. From here, the arrival, is my starting point of following used electronic devices, however not any particular device. During the journey, devices will encounter other actors, in different workspaces, transformed, acquire temporal value, some going back to the value circle and others stay in the environment and human bodies. 

During my fieldwork, I had the thirst of finding the end of life for these devices. I employed mixed methods to understand e-waste and human encounters. Not only limited to participant observation and interview, but as I also mentioned above, I adopted walking through the city with my informants during scrap collection. I wanted not only to understand but also be exposed, through my body i.e fatigue, smell, sweat, drink, eat and see, to their connection with their labour, knowledge, skills and with the city and the world. 


I see the city of Dar es salaam as a workshop in a techno-data scale. Infrastructure and organisational arrangement play an essential role in shaping waste and humans’ relations. Dar es salaam faces the same challenges as many other cities in the global south. Infrastructures are in wane, low technological capacity and lack of proper data consolidation. These problems result in mushrooming of activities out of the realm of the state, creative ways of dealing with waste issues that lead to ingenuity in ways of value creation from waste.

Zooming to the micro-scale, I spent most of my fieldwork in two workshops. The first is an electronics-repairing workshop in Uhuru street located inside the business hub district of Kariakoo. The street consists of approximately two to three hundred repairers. When I first started spending my time at Uhuru street, it looked very chaotic, and fundis (local name for repairers) were fighting for clients. When a person walks along the street and looks like s/he wants a service, everybody was trying to invite them to his table. However, later, I discovered everybody had a specialisation on a specific technical expertise. 

Fieldwork at Uhuru street and Mahakama ya friji

Ironically my two field work sites have contending names, Uhuru street which means freedom and Mahakama means a court. While at Uhuru the main activity is repairing of electronics, Mahakama ya friji focus on repurposing and mining of metals out of defunct electronics.  


One day I was sitting chatting with Hussein (one of my informants), someone walked to the table with a Samsung A5 phone. The phone had a cracked screen and was off. First, Hussein had to find out where the problem was. He checked the battery, then the sockets that transfer power to the phone and after if the screen was working correctly. He discovered that it was the screen that had a problem. However, he did not have the tools to detach the screen from the rest of the phone. He had to go to another person who had expertise and tools. Usually, a phone will go through several fundis before it is repaired. 

Specialisation matters a lot at Uhuru street, someone like Msomali who specialise in software gets more work compared to Hussein on hardware. These kinds of specialisations I found so interesting on how ingenuity is diversified. When people think about informal workers, the first thing that cross their mind is unskilled or uneducated people. However, people like Msomali who know so much about mobile software’s, defy our preconceptions of what we call informal workers.


I also spent time at a scrap workshop in Kinondoni known as Mahakama ya friji (Refregerator court). There are around twenty waste collectors who walk every day to collect scraps from the streets and bring them to the workshop. At the workshop, the object is dismantled and different parts are taken out to be used for different purposes. Inside the workshop, there are around fifteen hand workers who make different things out of scrap materials. The main product from hand workers is cookstoves. 

There are also three scrap dealers with small warehouses attached at the front of the workshop. At one end of the workshop, there is a small bar which has a pork roasting kitchen owned by a lady known as Dada Ligu. On the other end, there is a Charcoal dealer´s warehouse which borders the wall of District´s Occupational Safety and Health Authority (OSHA). Further down after the charcoal store, there are two small kiosks opposite with three more scrap dealers. Behind the workshop, there is a car repairing garage, a tuition school, District´s blind people association and women food vendors. At this workshop, different kinds of products are manufactured from scrap materials, including e-waste. 

Opening for Ingenuity

Apart from many other factors, this workshop proliferates from a failure in the city´s infrastructures and policies. However, failure opens a platform for creativity and ingenuity. Let’s think through this observation at the workshop. A refrigerator brought by a scavenger; the box will be sold to a fundi depending on the weight of the aluminum. The fundi will dismantle it to separate the aluminum and insulators. The insulators will be converted into a chicken incubator. The aluminum will be made into a cookstove. The gas compressor will be chopped to extract copper and other metals. Metals will be sold either to industries for new products or export. 


The cookstove will be used for several months/years before picked by a scavenger and return to the workshop to sell it as scrap material. The scrap is sold to smelting industries to make iron rods, that eventually will return to the workshop to make cookstoves coils. The same will happen to metals sold abroad, new products will be made, and the chain starts again. This journey of material seems to have no end. 

Vampires in the Machine

However, the story might not be happy as it sounds, although most things transformed into new values. Toxins embedded in electronic devices ends in the environment and bodies, including humans. I am not a toxicologist to determine what these toxins do in the environment and bodies. Nevertheless, it is known that electronics contain toxins like lead, mercury, PBDs, CBBs and many others. These toxins are connected to detrimental health effects in human bodies, including certain types of cancer and respiratory problems. 


However, I am not interested in connections between toxins and diseases; rather, I am into people’s perception and understanding of toxins. What do they know about these toxins? How to they connect toxins with their daily life? As one of my informants explains to me, “we live with vampires, they are in our hands, food and bodies”. 

There are a lot of concern from my informants and the general public in Tanzania about a wave of non-communicable diseases that are swiping over the country. People cannot connect diseases to any specific thing. However, modernity and modern lifestyle become central in people’s imagination of what causes these diseases. Electronics being the pillar of the post-industrial era, people start questioning what is in there? Vampires!

E-waste does not arrive to settle in Tanzania. Toxins and other less valuable materials might stay over; however, that is not always the case, certain toxins like PBDs are passively transported through air to settle in the northern part of the global( ETDEWEB, n.d.). Recent studies in the arctic have discovered a huge amount of PBDs that are supposed to come from tropical areas where the soil contain less organic matters to bind these compounds (Daelemans et al., 1992). At the same time, valuable materials like copper, brass, stainless steel, platinum, rhodium, and palladium are exported back to Asia, the Middle East and Europe for manufacturing new things eventually entering into the cycles of e-waste. 

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