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NGOs Importing Used computers may close as ban bites PDF Print E-mail

By A Joint report

On July 1st 2009, at the 2009/10 budget, Syda Bbumba the minister for Finance announced a ban on the importation of  used computers.

Mrs. Bbumba’s pronouncement caused a stir in the IT industry because not much of the population can afford brand new computers in Uganda and this was a blanket ban, with no specifics.

However, industry players say they are not against Uganda having e-waste control regulations but they should not be ambiguous and stakeholders should be consulted.

They suggest that the cost of recycling computers should be built in the price, which becomes a company’s responsibility to take care of e-waste, as is done elsewhere in the world. Punitive measures should be in place to respond to policy failures.

The hardest hit industry by the ban, could be the education sector, especially the various non-governmental organizations that provide used computers for schools.

Non-government organizations like Camara hard hit by ban
Camara, an Irish registered non-government organization has been working for two years in Uganda, and hoped that through their services, they would address some of the obstacles that many schools face: high cost of ICT equipment, poor quality of refurbished computers on the African market, inexperience in equipping computer laboratories, shortage of qualified ICT teachers, and a shortage of quality maintenance providers at an affordable cost.

Established and registered in 2005 in Ireland, the organization operates as a social enterprise in two business lines; education delivery and computer re-use.

But since the ban on used computers was announced, Camara has stopped bringing in used computers and is considering moving its operations to Rwanda. 

“We had a shipment on the ocean and had to redirect it to Kenya after the ban. But after a re-assessment of the ban, we managed to get in a few,” said Ms. Trisha Olsson, Africa regional director, Camara.
Consequently, the organization brought in 1000 computers less giving the bulk of them to Kenya.

“The government wants to implement regulations on e-waste but has to make very clear specifications on which computers are eligible for the market,” said Olsson.

Arguing that if government’s decision, was based on the fact that there are companies willing to establish assembly plants for ‘clones’, this could be counter productive in the long run because clones possess a relatively shorter life span compared to refurbished computers especially the HP and Dell brands.

“The government should have emphasized better management of e-waste,” said Olsson. 

At Camara, the prices build in an e-waste fund. When the computers outlive their usefulness, they are taken to the organization warehouse, dismantled, plastics recycled and the hazardous material is collected and shipped back to Ireland.

Sourcing the used computers from Irish, British companies and individuals; Camara, a West African name meaning ‘one who teaches with experience,’ cleans hard drives off data, refurbishes and loads them with educational software before setting them up as learning centres in schools in Africa and Ireland. 

The reused computers cost Ushs 120,000 ($60) charged for the full set of the computer hardware, open source software, a year of maintenance and training of two teachers to learn basic ICT skills. The cost is also at a nominal rate so that schools attach a significant value to them.

Camara brings in computers that are Pentium III or IV, have at least 256 MB of RAM, 8GB hard drive and a CD/DVD drive, and the monitors must be between 15 and 17 inch.

Schools are encouraged to buy between 20-30 computers because a fewer number could mean temptation by the school to use them for administrative purposes.
By sourcing for and refurbishing used computers, the organization extends their lifespan by five years, which is also environmentally friendly.

With two per cent of global carbon emissions attributed to ICTs, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study published in February 2010 revealed that reusing a computer “is 20 times more effective at saving life cycle energy use than recycling.”

The report noted that global e-waste is growing by about 40 million tons a year, highlighting the need for action in the face of an increasing threat to the environment and public health.

The report further showed that much of the immediate problem is being faced by developing countries, which are being used as toxic dumping grounds.

But by collecting redundant computers from Irish and UK businesses, refurbishing them and reusing them in Africa and Irish schools, Camara provides a green solution for corporates wishing to reuse their computer equipment in a socially responsible way, while contributing to a valuable community project.

Impact of the Project:
So far 60 schools in seven districts across Uganda have benefited from Camara’s initiative and 2000 computers have been sold since 2008.

Camara’s goal is to distribute about 20,000 computers to schools in the next five years, a 5 per cent coverage of all Ugandan schools.

However, Camara’s operations though threatened still have hope. Many industry stakeholders have approached the line ministries to reconsider the nature of the indiscriminate policy.

“I have met with the Ministers of finance, trade and industry, education and ICT and they all seem willing to help with the situation but they also admit the difficulty of doing so in their individual capacities,” says Olsson.

Camara officials say that the government should think hard about the ban because particularly if Ugandan children do not get access to computers from an early stage, then they will never compete with their Rwandan, Kenyan, and Tanzanian counterparts in the ICT sector.

And if Camara’s and other similar organizations’ work is disrupted by this ban, then schools which hitherto have been beneficiaries could get affected as far as accessing ICT equipment is concerned.

Camara has been hit by the ban in many ways.  Already they have stopped training because there is less money coming in from computer sales.

However, if the ban is maintained, then Camara will be forced to relocate to some other country, and Olsson suggests that Kigali could be one possible host for the Africa headquarters.

“I know that East African Community (EAC) member countries tend to have similar regulations in place and may be Rwanda will follow soon with a similar ban, but I am sure we would operate there very well.”

Governments’ response on ban to import used electronics
The government is already reconsidering the ban after complaints of its blanket nature. It now wants to have a more targeted approach to focus on technology that is harmful to the environment. 

Gagawala Wambuzi says the ban was intended to phase out all items that are harmful to the environment but pointed out that it in this case the age of the appliance might not even be a factor but the technology.

By Esther Nakkazi and Ronald Musoke

Give your opinion on what measures Government should put in place to increase access to ICT equipment for the education sector while keeping the environment safe. 

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