In Africa, waste often gets a second round

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In Africa, waste often gets a second round

Mohamed Sissoko (50), a shoemaker in the city of Atar in Mauritania, uses a needle and thread to repair a pair of sandals. “I suspect that this footwear would have been in the trash with you in Europe for a long time,” he laughs. “But here in Africa we are going for the second round.” Sitting on the floor in front of his shop, he puts a new sole under the shoes. A makeshift canopy, made from a few old canvas bags, provides shade.

Sissoko, a migrant from neighboring Mali, is certainly not the only repairer. Several colleagues are located around him. There’s a refrigerator overhaul company around the corner, a metal smelter a few blocks away. “I’m also a producer of new shoes,” says Sissoko, pulling out of a bag a pair of bright blue leatherette sandals. “Own design. For those who want to spend a little more.”

Sissoko takes pride in his work. “There is too much money with you in Europe,” he says. “That makes people decadent. You do not appreciate things that are far from worn out.”

Sissoko thinks it is nonsense that Africans are saddled with waste from Europeans in this way. “Poverty makes people smarter and more convenient,” he says. “You in Europe have lost the art of repair. Here in Africa we still have that knowledge.”

Africans are recycling champions. Refrigerators, cars, televisions, clothing: appliances that end up in the trash in Europe are given a second chance in countries like Mauritania. Because labor is many times cheaper there, with hourly wages less than a euro, repair is worth the effort. Crafts that are slowly dying out in Europe, such as a television repairman or shoemaker, are still very much alive in Africa. Only when things are really used up, do they go into the trash.

The throw-away culture, which sometimes takes on serious forms in the Western world, is therefore much less extreme in Africa. In the Netherlands, old age alone is often a reason to throw things away. The fact that devices still function excellently does not stop people. You hardly see old-fashioned televisions in the Netherlands, although they were often indestructible. People necessarily want a flat screen. The same applies to smartphones.

TV repairman Yacouba Ndiaye in his used spare parts shop, Nouakchott, Mauritania. Photo of der Aa

“In Africa, quality proves itself faster than in Europe,” says Zayda Bilal (44), owner of an inn in the city of Ouadane. “That’s why we like old cars here. At least they used to make stuff that could take a beating.” She herself drives a fifteen-year-old Nissan Patrol, which is reminiscent of the cars in the Mad Maxmovies. “An old rally car,” says Bilal. The white bodywork is full of dents, parts are loose or have disappeared. “But the engine is indestructible. That is the most important.”

In Africa, waste often gets a second round

Also read: Old clothes? It can just end up like the insulation in a car

Modern cars usually don’t survive long in the harsh Mauritanian desert climate. There are sensors and electronic valves everywhere, which often suddenly malfunction. If the engine does not run properly, a special computer program is needed to read the problem. “But in all of Mauritania there are only a few garages that have such diagnostic equipment,” says Bilal. “If you’re unlucky, you’ll never get a broken car to start again.”

The advantage of old cars is that they function without on-board computers and other electronics. Partly for this reason, outdated models from Europe remain as popular as ever, especially from the Toyota and Mercedes brands. “They are just a bit more robust. And because there are so many on the road, almost any mechanic can fix them.” Bilal’s Nissan is actually too exotic. “When I recently had a problem with the injection pump, I had to visit a specialist in the capital, more than 500 kilometers away. That is of course not convenient.”

Bicycle wheel becomes hoop

Children in Africa grow up playfully with recycling. They often make their own toys. For example, they manufacture airplanes from old cans. They put parts together with a hammer and old nails. Pieces of plastic, cut from old PET bottles, serve as windows. Worn bicycle wheels, with spokes removed, are popular as hoops. The dexterity that children acquire in this way will be useful throughout their lives.

The knack for repairing things disappears as wealth increases. The richer layers of the population give their children, just like Dutch parents, toys from the toy store. Playstation is immensely popular in Mauritania and elsewhere in Africa. Games are not to be dragged on. And then there is of course the disastrous influence of social media, which prevents children from learning all kinds of skills.

They find a solution for almost every technical problem here

“I enjoy the inventiveness around me every day,” says Just Buma (73), a Dutchman who has lived in Mauritania for 25 years. “They find a solution here for almost every technical problem.” At the same time, Buma, who set up a waste project in Mauritania, among other things, points out that you should not go into business with the first repairman. “You have to find out what the right address is. Because in addition to specialists, there are also a lot of bunglers here.”

Batteries in the trash

In the Netherlands, consumers are being held hostage by the power of large companies, says Buma. “Everyone is talking about sustainability. But large companies consciously put their stuff together in such a way that they can no longer be repaired themselves.” Dismantling a device is often not possible due to special screws that hinder it. If you go to the store because something is broken, they say you better buy something new. Or take the lights that everyone uses as bicycle lights. When the batteries run out, they go in the trash. “In the past you just had a dynamo, that was really sustainable.”

Environmental organizations criticize the export of old things to Africa, because Europe saddles poor countries with a waste problem. The reality is more nuanced; reuse is sometimes good for the environment. Car manufacturer Toyota states that about a quarter of the CO2 that a car emits in its lifetime is caused by its production in the factory. Although old appliances are generally less efficient than modern appliances, reuse can still provide environmental benefits. Each product has its own break-even point.

Mali, Bamako: collection of old car parts in Bamako, Mali. The parts are given a new destination, for which a lot of it is melted down locally. Photo Gerbert van der Aa

Zayda Bilal bent over her Nissan Patrol’s engine because of a fuel supply problem. Photo Gerbert van der Aa

Photos Gerben van der Aa

It is significant that per capita Mauritania only produces 0.6 tons of CO . per year2 emissions. In the Netherlands this is more than fifteen times more. Incidentally, the emissions of harmful substances such as lead and dioxins due to careless recycling and waste incineration are higher in some places in Africa than in Europe and America.

“Repairing is often easier than it seems,” says Yacouba Ndiaye (39), who repairs televisions in the capital Nouakchott. In his workshop along the avenue General de Gaulle, he solders a new printed circuit board into a device. “Often repair is simply a matter of replacement,” he says. “In recent years I have collected so many old appliances that I almost always have a suitable part lying around. And if not, everything can be ordered directly from China.”

Illegal in a boat

There is indeed no shortage of parts in Ndiaye’s workshop. Dozens of flat screens are against the walls, or are half apart in an adjacent room. Behind his workbench is a shelving unit full of disassembled parts. Sometimes replacing a part isn’t even necessary to fix a television, says Ndiaye. “Reinstalling the software is often enough to get a device up and running again. Almost all necessary programs can be downloaded via the internet. And if it doesn’t work right away, you can go to all kinds of forums.”

In Africa, waste often gets a second round

Also read this interview in the System Leavers series: ‘Almost everything we buy ends up being waste, so it starts with buying less’

In his youth, Ndiaye had a dream to travel to Europe. “Illegal if necessary, in a boat.” But now the flat screen specialist is happy to have stayed in Africa. “Life in Europe is not easy if illegal. You can also be successful in Mauritania.” With the repair of a television he quickly earns 2,000 ougiya, about 50 euros. “A good technician always has a job in Africa,” says Ndiaye. “I really have nothing to complain about here.”

In Africa, waste often gets a second round
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