Toxic Business: Africa’s Scavenger Entrepreneurs

toxic wasteIt’s a common site in most African cities – waste dumping sites where hundreds of scavengers search daily for pieces of scrap metal, plastics and other waste materials to sell for a profit. These scavenger entrepreneurs though are risking their lives in search of money for survival. In these dumps, there are toxic wastes that can be fatal.

Just this week on twitter the most famous tag word was “Trafigura”, the company accused of condoning the illegal toxic dumping of a mix of petroleum residues, sulphur and caustic soda that in August 2006 led to the death of 12 people and more than 100,000 Ivorians seeking medical treatment.

According to the Basel Action Network (BAN), a disproportionate burden of toxic waste, dangerous products and polluting technologies are currently being exported from rich industrialised countries to poorer developing countries.

And mass-scale instances of toxic waste poisoning such as that in Ivory Coast is not unique. In March 2008, hundreds of people in Mombasa complained of illness after a consignment of leaking chemical containers were dumped in Kipevu near the port. The symptoms experienced by the residents of the nearby slum were eerily similar to those who suffered from the toxic slops distributed in 18 dumping sites around Abidjan. Nausea, miscarriages and diarrhoea amongst other symptoms caused many to seek treatment.

In February 2009 a joint investigation by the Independent newspaper, Sky News, and Greenpeace also exposed the story of tonnes of toxic waste collected from British municipal dumps and sent illegally to Africa in flagrant violation of UK laws to ensure that “its rapidly growing mountain of defunct televisions, computers and gadgets are disposed of safely”.

Indeed e-waste is slowly emerging as a major sort of refuse, according to Kenya’s National Environment Management Authority. From these, the scavenger entrepreneurs risk their lives collecting metals for re-sale from disused computers, televisions, VCRs, stereos, copiers, fax machines and mobile phones.

Africa is indeed an ideal dumping ground. Apart from the inability of local environmental agencies (where environmental management laws exist) to adequately police dumping of waste, corruption also allows agents to dump waste throughout cities. And unfortunately, for the Continent’s scavenger entrepreneur’s this is the only way they can make a living.

In pictures: Kenya scavengers

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About yipe
Yipe an acronym for the Youth Interactive Portal for Enterprise is an organization that assists entrepreneurs to start up and manage their small businesses.

One Response to Toxic Business: Africa’s Scavenger Entrepreneurs

  1. Shallie Bey says:

    Thank you for this sobering and interesting article. I have been actively involved over the years with the development of a single community in a single city that has had serious problems due to illegal dumping and due to toxic waste from manufacturing.

    The situation you describe is almost too complex to get my mind around, even after having worked in this arena for several years. Further, even though I have spent my entire life working with entrepreneurs in one form or another, I have never thought about what you capture here in the term “Scavenger Entrepreneurs”.

    Thank you for opening my eyes to an entire new magnitude of this issue and the realization of another way to define entrepreneurship.

    Shallie Bey
    Smarter Small Business Blog

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