Why ban used computers?

Uganda is the only country in the world to ban the importation of second-hand computers. Businesses are fighting the ban.

Now that the Government has passed a ban on the importation of all used computers, a group of importers of refurbished computers in Uganda have petitioned the office of the President asking him to review the ban. This is included in a petition dated December 15, 2010, drawn up by over 200 organizations and businesses, which claim that the importation of second-hand computers contributes approximately 17 million dollars annually to the country’s economy. The ban on the importation of secondhand computers came into force in May, 2010, as had been passed in the previous budget of 2009.

Claims by the petitioners, who refer to themselves as the E-Waste Special Interest Group, are backed by a 2009 study by the Private Sector Foundation.

On top of the losses in revenue, the petitioners claim that the ban affects many other players in the economy, such as ICT technicians, small and medium businesses, telecoms, private individuals, UMEME and educational institutions across the country.

According to dealers in EM Plaza, located on Kampala road, 80 percent of importers have gone out of business and sales have fallen by a whopping 60 percent. Alex Lubulwa, head of DIREE (Dealers in Reconditioned Electrical Equipment) had to close down one of his two shops on Kampala road and let go of three employees.

Robert-Jan Nieuwpoort of Second Life Ltd, a company that sells secondhand computers, has been forced to reduce his staff from twenty to four.

The petitioners claim that the ban has also made it six times harder for Ugandans to access computer technology. A school that would have been able to purchase ten or twenty computers, can now only purchase two or three. Also, there were at least ten charitable ICT organizations and over 200 ICT enterprises operating in Uganda before the ban. Many of these have been forced to temporarily relocate to neighbouring countries, with the rest soon being forced to follow or shut down.

The stated purpose of the ban was to combat the accumulation of electronic waste in Uganda. However, the petitioners stress that they do not seek to dump containers of electronic junk on Ugandan soil. There is simply no financial benefit to any organization in importing poor-quality or nonworking refurbished computers.

They would be unable to sell or provide them to schools. And, unlike certain other African countries that have become dumping grounds for toxic electronic material, the petitioners claim that the transportation costs of importing computers simply for dumping them in Uganda is too high for it to even be considered.

Although the bill was drafted in part to curb dumping, the petitioners argue that dumping has been a problem primarily for coastal countries, as the transport inland of toxic electronic materials costs more than the value of dumping. Uganda is the only country in the world that has instituted a total ban on the importation of used computers.

According to Lubulwa, the head of DIREE, no research was done by the supporters of the ban or can be availed to account for this ban.

“It is not until we approached NEMA for evidence of the dangers of second-hand computers that they came up with a brief on the possible dangers. There was nothing beforehand. They say the motherboard has dangerous components, but these are the exact same components found in mobile phones and video games,” said Lubulwa.

According to two delegates of the e-waste special interest group, Shakeel Padamsey and Kyle Spencer (Nieuwpoort and Lubulwa are also delegates), the government should be more worried about domestic, rather than imported waste. And the greater concern should be the accumulation of discarded mobile phones, radios, televisions and other electronic waste. Focussing on used computers ignores the wider issue.

“So now only new computers can come into the country, because they are apparently not poor quality. What happens when they get old? It will be the same problem all over again,” they argue. “Besides, Ugandans do not go around dumping computers. In our experience, they lock them up in a store or use them as tables and ornaments. Uganda does not have heaps of rubbish comprised of electrical equipment.”

Lubulwa also argues that even if Uganda were to build a recycling plant to deal with e-waste, there would soon be a problem of not enough waste.

“According to our research, there are only one million computers in Uganda”, he says, “With no one buying new computers, it would not be long before that plant would have to be shut down.”

The petitioners seek to reassure the government on the problem of e-waste. They claim that their organizations offer a warrantee for computers sold and a large number of the organizations already collect and recycle all the computers they bring in to the country when they reach the end of their lifespans. Most of the electronic waste that initially enters the waste stream can and is being collected and salvaged. Additionally, private companies are paying for electronic waste at landfills, such as the Kitezi landfill in Kampala, where e-waste is purchased at 150 shillings.

Interestingly enough, as much as the threat of e-waste pollution is being brandished about, evidence shows that this is something NEMA may have had a handle on a long time ago. Together with UNIDO and Microsoft, NEMA approved a plan to build a recycling plot for refurbished computers and a plot of land was made available to Second Life Ltd to take over the project. As soon as the ban came into effect however, things started to go awry.

“Second Life as an investment company commenced operations In Uganda in 2006 predominantly to sell ICT products and handle e-waste management”, explains Nieuwpoort. “This was after we conducted market research with Microsoft and UNIDO. We were awarded the license in April, then everything went silent. All I can say is, the land for the recycling plant was taken away, and my repeated visits to UIA and NEMA have yielded only silence.”

Ugandans now have the choice between purchasing brand new computers from recognized manufacturers or ‘clones’, assembled computers imported from China.

According to the government, they are alternative and more efficient solutions to second-hand computers.

However, the petitioners believe that the argument that new computers are ‘better’ than refurbished ones is misleading. The vast majority of the used computers being imported contain Pentium 4 processors and are able to run all the high-end software that users require. This includes all modern Office, engineering, multimedia, graphic design, and programming software and tools.

Clone computers, although technically “new”, are poorly manufactured and of such poor quality they often last for a maximum of six to nine months when used frequently, and are therefore far inferior to refurbished branded computers. In addition, the poor workmanship in cloned computers do not allow them to be easily repaired. When they break, they usually can only be thrown away. Rwanda does not have a ban for the importation of second-hand computers but does ban the import of clone computers.

Most clone computers cost upwards of 750,000 shillings, while a name-brand new computer prices can start at 1,200,000 shillings. Many organisations provide high quality refurbished branded computers for as little as 120,000 shillings – often including teacher training, maintenance, open-source educational software and support.

Several dealers in refurbished computers expressed suspicions that ICT Minister Hon. John Nsambo is benefiting from the ban because of his connections with Inter-Connection Uganda, a company that sells refurbished computers. It is alleged that he gets waivers to sell used computers, as well as importing Tropix computers, a type of clone. A ban on used computers forces consumers to consider Tropix, which they might not otherwise have done.

However, an interview with Inter- Connection revealed that connected as he may be to the company, it is suffering as much as any other business. Sales have gone down by 75%, and they are now struggling to adjust to purchase new computers.

Sales manager, Mariam Aujat, did not deny the Minister’s connection to the company.

“It’s true, he is connected to the company, but it has not stopped us from suffering as much as anyone else. As a company, we refuse to purchase clones because their shelf life is just too short. When parts get faulty, it is next to impossible to repair them. So it is not true that we sell Tropix clones,” said Aujat. The Minister could not be reached for a comment.

The Minister for Finance, Planning and Economic Development, Hon. Bbumba Syda had this to say regarding the ban: “If these dealers can offer concrete solutions to the problem of e-waste, and we as government see that they are viable and sustainable, then the ban will be lifted. Until then, the environment is our number one priority.”

This comprehensive solution, according to the petitioners, can only be achieved by working hand in hand with all the stakeholders, such as suppliers, regulatory bodies such as NEMA, government ministries, NGOs and the community at large in a private-public partnership, collectively contributing towards Uganda developing an e-waste policy. They believe that a comprehensive e-waste strategy and a license on the importation of all electronic goods should be at the heart of tackling the dumping and polluting of Uganda by electronic waste products.

Will the government negotiate this compromise or will it sacrifice the access to cheap computers for thousands of Ugandans for the sake of a questionable risk to the environment? The ball is now in the president’s court, and the petitioners have no choice butto wait for his serve.

By Lindsey Kukunda