This is Africa (Part 2)

9 May 2017

This post is a continuation of our blog post of last week, which you can read here.

The first time I heard about TIA was when I did a project for a few months to repair a water pipe in Tanzania. Because the pipe that provided the village of water, was demolished by elephants (yes, that's also Africa...). After the first week, I paid the people that had worked on the pipe. The next day, they did not come, and the day after: same story. Why? Because their salary was enough for them to eat and drink for a few days. "But, but..." I tried, "The pipe still doesn't work and now the village is still without water." Yes, I was told, but: TIA.

Unfortunately this anecdote is not an exception, it’s often the rule… After months and months of waiting, the frustration and challenges hadn’t stopped. Luckily, you only had to wait a few days for this continuation of this story.

So after a healthy dose of patience and resilience, the real fun actually started when we began receiving answers to all our permits and transportation enquiries. In Cameroon, we were told our local partner could only apply for the permit if he would set up an NGO. So he set one up, with quite some effort. 5 months later, he was told that they actually meant that you can not get a permit as an NGO...TIA. In Rwanda, where paperwork took just 3 weeks, we were told the only way we would get a permit would be if Uganda was on board. And that was the start of 11 months of paperwork nightmare.

First, the documents NEMA (the Ugandan EPA) required, turned out to be unknown to others. Labelling the waste in a different way meant they used other rules and regulations than other institutions. We learnt that the documents we had were not sufficient for them. But the documents they wanted, were not accepted by other EPAs that had to approve our transport. It took 2 months to get this sorted. When we were almost there, 8 months ago, a new contact person at the EPA in Uganda informed us: “Uganda will not allow any waste transport at all” (TIA). A statement they withdrew 3 weeks later, but at that time, the new information was that our transport had to be discussed by the “Technical Committee”, which would next convene 6 weeks later. Which turned out to be 8 weeks, no sorry, 10 weeks... And then: “We have discussed, and we need to think about it some more” (TIA). The reason? It is the first time NEMA Uganda has done a transboundary shipment of electronic waste. After that we had to sign, deliver and set up nine (yes, nine) more documents about insurance, letters of recommendation, just about everything short of our birth certificate and then: we were allowed to export! And so started: the transportation paperwork.

Because being allowed to export is one thing. But actually being allowed to send a shipper to pick up the container, that’s something else. The nightmare continued and our enemy was now called the ‘transboundary document’. This is the document that our logistics partner needed to pass through customs and arrange for his local agents to arrange the transport. Shipping waste across borders is heavily regulated around the world, which is why this document is needed. Finding the logistics partner was quite easy, by the way. There were only two companies out of around 8 we contacted that were willing and able to take a container from Rwanda to Kenya, via Uganda (I guess it’s not a route often used…). And one of them was a few thousand euro more expensive than the other. So that was easy. But they had also never used this document for an African shipment. Meaning we now had another party that we needed to educate and get aligned. The logistics company also wanted to make sure it was not part of some e-waste scam, so they also rightfully asked for all documents and certificates. Which unfortunately meant that their European and African representatives had trouble getting on the same page on what was needed to allow the shipment to take place.

This probably still sounds like the proverbial slug getting out of the glass: two steps up, one step down. But we prevailed! We managed to get the authorities in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Belgium to agree on our approach. For this, we just needed a bit of help from five embassies, four ministries and several well-connected people - and had to convince just six governmental organisations. But the real reason I can now be very sure we will be able to report on several hundred thousand mobile phones being recycled is: my co-founder Reinhardt Smit and his great choice in local partners. They have heard TIA so many times in the last 11 months, I can only hope they will soon have the last word, and see the world the way I do: one of unparalleled opportunities.

Joost de Kluijver