How the Fablab uses e-waste to teach kids about sustainable tech

Young participants at Fablab's Jerry Can workshop check out some computer parts.

Young participants at Fablab’s Jerry Can workshop check out some computer parts.

On a sunny day in downtown Dakar, children from the ages of 10-15 gathered at a workshop hosted by the Fablab creators from Ker Thiossane to learn how discarded electronics can be used to build a working computer. The children were asked to sit around a table covered in scattered, shiny bits of a recycled desktop computer as two instructors held up the pieces and asked, “who knows what this is?”

Common e-waste from computers and cell phones can be dangerous to human health and the environment if not handled properly. In Dakar, these materials often arrive from more developed countries that deem the materials too expensive or too risky to dispose of on their own shores. So while some cities across West Africa struggle to manage the increased import, and sometimes illegal dumping, of electronic waste in their communities, the Fablab team is finding ways to use e-waste to help the environment and provide local children with valuable lessons on innovation and sustainability.

Cell phone shells in the Ivory Coast

Modou N’gam is a digital animator and one of the engineers with Ker Thiossane’s Fablab. He said e-waste is a problem in Dakar but he hopes by using the e-waste safely to teach neighborhood children how different technologies work, groups like his can be part of the solution.

“That’s the danger in people getting these machines, it’s rare you will find a computer on the street here, because as soon as it arrives at the port, vendors who have a brother or are connected to someone who works at customs get access to these machines and often break them apart trying to get parts, not knowing they’re letting harmful gasses out in the process.  So we buy them intact from the vendors and test to see which parts still work. Then as engineers, take them apart safely, repair what needs fixing, and use the working materials to show the youth how to construct their own computers using the recycled materials.” – Modou N’gam


Children attend the jerry can workshop to learn how to self-construct a computer.

During the 3-hour workshop, Fablab instructors talked with the children about the function of each piece from the recycled computers and even shared details like the voltage required to make the components work. Then, the children were given the chance to build their own computer using an empty 25-liter plastic jug known as a’Jerry Can’ as the case.

“Our biggest concern is that we use the minimal tools required. There’s nothing to drill into and nothing to weld. If something requires welding or drilling, it usually requires a lot more study. It just goes to show that really anyone can build a Jerry, a panhandler on the side of the street, a vendor selling phone credit, even a child,” said N’gom as he explained the group’s process for working with the young workshop participants.

Instructor at Jerry Can workshop reveals contents of home made computer.

Toward the end of the Fablab workshop, kids get an opportunity to personalize their Jerry Can computers with paint and hook them up to monitors to give them a test run. For 15-year-old Amadou Ba, building computers is harder than he thought, but he said, still fun. “Yeah it was really hard, cutting the jug and then figuring out where everything should go, but it was cool, I saw people carrying pieces like these in a cart in my neighborhood, but I didn’t know what they did.”

A report by the United Nations University on global e-waste concluded that countries like the U.S. and China, which make up 65 percent of the world’s e-waste, often choose to split the distribution of their waste between West Africa and Asia because of more lenient import policies. Figures showing exactly how much of the world’s e-waste goes to West Africa are currently not available, although a study done by the Nigerian Geological Survey Agency shows more than 3 percent of the 0.36 metric tons of e-waste improperly destroyed in Nigeria was imported.

In 2014, 41.8 metric tons of electronic waste was generated globally, according to a global study done by the United Nations University. Projections indicate that figure will increase by 2mt by the end of 2015. Senegal has limited data on e-waste collection and recycling but the Information Technology Agency for the State of Senegal, one of  a few government sectors dedicated to e-waste solutions, signed agreements in September to begin recycling e-waste before the end of 2016.

Until then, groups like Ker Thoissane’s Fablab will continue to lead the way at the community-level for coming up with creative solutions to Senegal’s environmental challenges.

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