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Global LEAP Awards Innovators: Insights from the Solar E-Waste Challenge

Published: 28 September, 2020 | Authors: Hannah Blair Monica Wambui

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The Global LEAP Awards Solar E-Waste Challenge is a program to support innovations in off-grid solar e-waste management in sub-Saharan Africa. For more information on the Challenge, see Background below.

Halfway through the inaugural Solar E-Waste Challenge, key themes emerged from the eight projects implemented across sub-Saharan Africa. From adapting messaging to encourage customers to return products to growing recycling infrastructure, the Challenge is demonstrating that e-waste initiatives are often more complicated than expected, but the need for sustainable and scalable solutions is becoming more urgent.

Developing Impactful Awareness Campaigns 

Lack of awareness on the hazards of e-waste and proper disposal mechanisms presents a huge barrier to solar e-waste management across the continent. Awardees are piloting awareness campaigns aimed at educating customers on the risks of keeping e-waste at home or improper disposal. Communications efforts also encourage them to return faulty or end-of-life products to designated collection centres. The companies are testing outreach through radio and television advertisements, mobile messaging, field agents and community theater.

In Southern Zambia, SunnyMoney is offering vouchers to customers who return their end-of-life products. While SunnyMoney’s primary customers are parents, they disseminated the message through field agents, headmasters, teachers, and students. By the time news of the incentive scheme reached the parents, there was some misunderstanding.

“Messaging about the incentive scheme got muddled. Customers arrived at the collection points with varied expectations and few products were actually returned,” Courtney Paisley, Project Manager at SunnyMoney explained. “However, collection agents explained the process and had better success once speaking with customers face-to-face.”

For the remainder of the project, SunnyMoney will emphasize in-person communications.

Targeting Incentives to Drive Product Returns

According to recent study, consumers expect to receive financial incentives to give up or return their products. Awardees have been piloting cash, voucher and merchandise incentives. They found that successful incentives must meet these three criteria:

  • Effective. An effective incentive is one that results in customers bringing-in or back faulty or end-of-life products.
  • Useful. A useful incentive offers a tangible benefit to customers (such as another product or discount vouchers)
  • Sustainable. A sustainable incentive can be implemented beyond the life of the pilot.

In Western Kenya, WeTu is piloting a scheme with three incentives: 1) vouchers to redeem clean water from WeTu water ATMs, 2) reduced fees for WeTu fishing lanterns or 3) free WeTu merchandise. Also in Kenya, d.light is offering a 50% discount on their entry-level S3 light for customers returning e-waste, regardless of company affiliation or warranty. However, both companies have received less returns than they expected. To address this issue, they plan to also incentivize field agents with commissions to return collected products.

SunnyMoney field agents sell new solar products and collect default products

While each incentive scheme has experienced some level of success, sustainability beyond the Challenge timeframe is uncertain. In the second half of the project, companies will pilot non cash-based incentives targeted at addressing affordability and sustainability concerns.

Engaging the Informal Sector

Across sub-Saharan Africa, informal collectors and repair agents dominate the e-waste market. Some markets, like Nigeria, have well-organized hierarchical informal e-waste ecosystems while others, like Rwanda, are more dispersed and less organized.

“E-waste is typically harvested for positive fractions, whilst the hazardous material is dumped or burnt by the informal sector,” explains Adrian Clews, Managing Director of Hinckley Recycling. “Recyclers and government bodies must engage the informal sector to improve health and safety.”

Awardees like Hinckley are piloting initiatives to formalize their relationships with the informal sector. However, these relationships have proven more complicated than the companies anticipated.

A scrap collector takes apart a solar battery in Jinja, Uganda

In Uganda, Fenix International is working closely with scrap dealers and solar customers to collect and buy back e-waste. In the first half of their project, Fenix tried to reach customers to buy back e-waste through their dispersed field agents. However, they found that customers were asking for the financial equivalent of much more from Fenix agents than they would receive if they sold their broken or defective solar components to informal collectors. One possible reason Fenix gave for this divergence was the familiarity between scrap collectors and community members – why sell to a company when you could support your uncle or nephew’s business?”

In the remaining months of the Challenge, Fenix will pilot different ways to engage with scrap dealers directly rather than buy back default products from customers.

In neighboring Western Kenya, Solibrium Solar developed a first of its kind map of the regional solar e-waste ecosystem, locating informal solar technicians operating throughout Kakamega County. In Zambia, SunnyMoney is building the capacity of local repair technicians by trading high-quality solar parts for repair and establishing a network of official SunnyMoney repair technicians through training and certification.

Growing the Off-Grid Solar E-Waste Infrastructure

Across sub-Saharan Africa there is insufficient formal recycling infrastructure to meet the needs of the off-grid sector. Many of the Challenge projects are the first initiatives in-country to formally address any e-waste, let alone solar e-waste. Currently, the main components of solar products—lithium-ion batteries, solar panels and printed circuit boards—must be shipped outside the continent for processing, which places a huge cost burden on solar companies, and has negative environmental repercussions.

“The recycling sector in Nigeria is need of external support to develop local capacity to treat hazardous e-waste,” says Clews. “Exporting material in line with the Basel Convention is time-consuming and expensive. Without an Extended Producer Responsibility system in place, funding is reliant on B2B transactions which limits the growth of a badly needed sustainable e-waste recycling sector.”

One aim of the Challenge is to increase the capacity of treatment plants in Kenya, Rwanda and Nigeria. However, significantly more investment is needed to bolster e-waste management capabilities of recyclers on the continent.

Insights from the projects demonstrate how complex and contextually-specific solutions must be, and the limitations of the Challenge funding and timeframe leave much of the problem untouched. Effective e-waste management requires reliable legislative, institutional capacity, and investment. Across the continent, governments must offer support to boost regional infrastructure, collaborate with informal workers, and introduce regulations to support e-waste initiatives.

What’s Next?

The Solar E-Waste Challenge was born out of a collaboration between Shell Foundation, USAID and UK Aid stakeholders concerned about the environmental and human impact of off-grid solar e-waste. The second round of the Solar E-Waste Challenge identified four Awardees to implement innovations in off-grid solar battery management and reuse. However, in order to ensure that sustainability of the sector long-term, there is a critical need for further collaboration on the issue.

The Efficiency for Access Coalition in partnership with GOGLA will publish a final report with in-depth case studies on the inaugural Solar E-Waste Challenge projects in 2021. For further information, check out the Global LEAP Awards Medium Blog Spotlight Series highlighting each project and follow @LEAP_Awards on Twitter.  

___________________________________________________________________________________

Background

As the off-grid solar industry grows in sub-Saharan Africa, management of default and end-of-life products has become an increasing concern. In 2020, the sector is forecast to contribute 10,000 tonnes of materials to the waste stream, up from an estimated 2,500 tonnes in 20141.

In January 2019, the Global LEAP Awards launched the inaugural Solar E-Waste Challenge, making $1.1 million in grant funding available to support e-waste management for the off-grid solar sector in sub-Saharan Africa. The Challenge sought to address growing levels of e-waste and catalyze innovations in take-back and collection, product/battery repair, refurbishment, and recycling.

The inaugural Solar E-Waste Challenge is supported by Shell Foundation, USAID and UK Aid through the Scaling Off Grid Energy (SOGE) and Transforming Energy Access (TEA) programs. The Challenge is administered by CLASP as Co-Secretariat of the Efficiency for Access Coalition.


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