Return and get it: Making, unmaking and remaking in a West African scrapyard

by Krista Weidner
September 15, 2020

Search YouTube for content on Agbogbloshie—a 20-acre scrapyard in the city of Accra, Ghana—and you’ll find documentaries with titles like “The Most Toxic Place on Earth,” “ToxiCity,” and “Welcome to Sodom.”

“These are the images the media love to show around Agbogbloshie,” says DK Osseo-Asare, assistant professor of architecture and engineering design at Penn State. “Young African men and boys burning wires and cables to recover copper and aluminum, using Styrofoam and old tires as fuel, creating clouds of toxic smoke, harming themselves and the environment, all to make a little money.” 

But those media tell a story that’s incomplete, says Osseo-Asare, who is a Fulbright Scholar and TED Global Fellow.

In Agbogbloshie, more than 7,000 people retrieve scrap materials that have come from Accra, elsewhere in Ghana, and neighboring West African countries. Scrap dealers recover steel from cars, microwaves, and washing machines, and that steel becomes rods for new construction. Cookstoves are fashioned out of metal roofing sheets. Recovered aluminum is melted down and re-formed into decorations for buildings. Plastic that is sorted, washed, shredded, and even pelletized is sold to factories and used to help make new buckets and chairs. 

As well as “traditional” scrapyard fare (like junk cars), Agbogbloshie includes electronic waste, or e-waste—phones, computers, appliances—that scrap dealers disassemble for parts that can be resold or re-used.

“Make no mistake about it—there are young hackers in Agbogbloshie,” Osseo-Asare says, “and I mean that in the very best sense of the word. With minimal formal training, they teach themselves the workings of electronics. These ‘urban miners’ know how to take apart computers and which components they can sell for profit. They also know how to put devices back together, how to give them new life.

“We want to show people this counter-narrative about Agbogbloshie. Young people there are already makers. We want to empower them to do their work in a way that’s profitable and healthier for them and their environment.”

An endless stream of old phones

To imagine how a multi-acre scrapyard of e-waste can come to exist, we need look no further than our newest devices—and that box or drawer full of old smartphones, tablets, and chargers. Planned obsolescence: It’s the idea that our electronic devices and other products are meant to fail or become outmoded, so we will throw them out and purchase new ones.

“We all know this,” Osseo-Asare says. “Our televisions, our phones, our computers—we don’t buy these things with the intention of keeping them for a long time—or even fixing them. When it breaks, you trash it and get a new one.”

While this kind of design thinking is successful as a business model, it’s often done at the expense of vulnerable populations and ultimately leads to more and more e-waste.

As smart technology accelerates in industrialized countries, it’s also taken hold and is expanding in the developing world. “It’s starting to happen in parts of Africa,” Osseo-Asare says. “As billions of dollars are going towards smart technology, and building smart cities globally, e-waste all over the world is creating highly polluted environments where young, poor, vulnerable people are exploited.”

"There's innovation and hope and possibility in Agbogbloshie. The workers there are not voiceless or powerless—they have agency."

To push back against that model, Osseo-Asare and his colleague, French architect and strategic designer Yasmine Abbas, delved into an approach called participatory design: working with local people to find solutions that empower them.

“The Agbogbloshie project emerged out of our ideas about participatory design,” says Abbas, an assistant teaching professor of architecture who has done consulting in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, employing design thinking to drive urban innovation. “When we shared our ideas, people would tell us, ‘This all sounds well and good, but it would make more sense if you could show an application of it.’ So we set out to create a kind of case-study example to demonstrate what we’re talking about. It began as an inquiry, wondering how we could put our theories into practice.”

DK Osseo-Asare and Yasmine Abbas

DK Osseo-Asare and Yasmine Abbas

IMAGE: Stephanie Swindle Thomas

As Osseo-Asare and Abbas spent time in Agbogbloshie, observing and talking with the workers there, their inquiry led to the next question: What would happen if they connected self-taught urban miners and grassroots makers working in Agbogbloshie with students and young professionals in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) fields?

Over the last several years, the researchers have collaborated with more than 1,500 young people—about half professionals, and half scrap dealers and grassroots makers from Agbogbloshie and beyond. “Scrap dealers and young students and recent grads in STEAM fields don’t hang out in the same places,” Abbas says. “Our goal was to bring together young people from different backgrounds that otherwise would never meet each other.”

In interviews and conversations, the researchers and professionals sought to understand the activities and ambitions of the people who live and work in and around Agbogbloshie. “We worked with makers to spatially map the work areas so we could understand where different activities happen,” Osseo-Asare says. “Where is scrap stored? Where do workers disassemble components? We collected data about the waste stream and modelled these flows all the way from the import of products, to their reuse or recycling, and ultimately to their export.”

Conversations sprang up among scrap dealers and STEAM professionals about how they could collaborate to test and develop new machines and tools that change the way things are done in the scrapyard. Out of those conversations grew the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP).

Making connections

Part tech-startup, part design incubator, and part research project, AMP seeks to connect Agbogbloshie's e-waste, scrap, and recycling industry with technical skills and a social entrepreneurial framework. As one component of AMP, the researchers built a physical “makerspace”—a small, customizable kiosk that provides space for crafting, and was thus dubbed Spacecraft. Osseo-Asare and Abbas think of Spacecraft as a portal that connects local and global and connects making with remaking and unmaking. 

For the first Spacecraft, constructed in Agbogbloshie five years ago, the team made a rule for themselves: Everything had to be made from scratch using only materials made in Ghana or sourced from the scrapyard. They used recovered steel, bolts taken from junk cars, and welding machines made right there in Agbogbloshie.

“These kiosks are open-source, which means anyone can use them,” Osseo-Asare explains. “For example, each module includes a toolbox that makers can access. They can check out any tools they need, take them to where they’re working, and then return them.”

With the help of laborers, the researchers built the first module, and then held workshops in it to explore different ways it could function. “We wanted to know who would use it, and how it would hold up,” Osseo-Asare says. They tested the makerspace kiosk for three years, and based on the results of that testing, they’ve done some redesigning and upgrading for future modules.

“What matters to us, and what ultimately drives the design, is that these modules are available and cheap, so people with less means and education can use them easily,” Abbas says. “We’re always looking to improve the design and architecture of the kiosks, experimenting with different thicknesses of metal, finding ways to use fewer resources.”

Osseo-Asare and Abbas are quick to point out that Spacecraft is not a traditional structure. “Think of it this way,” Osseo-Asare says. “This piece of architecture is also equipment, or a machine. It can not only host something, but it can do something. It’s an object that makers can hack.”

Osseo-Asare and Abbas built another Spacecraft module this past year in Dakar, Senegal, in collaboration with a community arts and technology center. They held a workshop there for architects, students, and young makers, and since then, the module has served as home for a 3D printer, a pop-up shop, and a plant-growing space with embedded digital sensors. A third module, built in Agbogbloshie last summer, traveled to Germany for an international design exhibition, where it also hosted a maker workshop with architecture students to prototype a smart canopy device, or “scanopy,” that collects data on air quality and environmental conditions. After remaining in Germany for an extended stay as a makerspace, that module will eventually return to Africa.

Plans are under way for new models of Spacecraft to incorporate additional plug-in elements such as a water collection and filtration system, a robotic arm, and solar-powered electricity generators.

“We don’t see the Spacecraft modules as the miracle solution to the Agbogbloshie problem,” Abbas says. “We see them as a way in which we can spark conversations, ideas, and actions. For me it’s important to have something physical, something tangible that people can identify as a common space—a space that enables these interactions to happen.

“I like the idea that this is reconfigurable architecture that is mobile, and it becomes a portal to allow people from different worlds to come together and imagine different futures. As researchers, we’ve been sort of the glue or energy that brings those people together, but then the Spacecraft can act as a portal or a bridge to further those connections.”

A digital component

As well as the Spacecraft modules, AMP will include a digital information-sharing platform that lets workers communicate with each other to match needs with services. The digital piece, in the form of a mobile app for Android phones, is still in the works but will become an integral part of the project.

“As we spent time in Agbogbloshie, we soon realized that throughout the entire ecosystem, everyone was searching for something,” Osseo-Asare says. “Makers are searching for materials, parts, components, tools, and blueprints. End users are looking for someone who can repair a blender or an iron. And then there are scrap dealers who are seeking to collect scrap, process it, and turn it back into an input for new making. 

“We tried to untangle that knot of not knowing to allow people to find what they need to make what they want to make.”

The researchers also want the app to help scrap dealers in particular gain a better understanding of the hazards of some of the materials they work with. “We built the app specifically with the needs of the scrap dealers in mind first,” Osseo-Asare says, “because in addition to arming them with the information and technology they need to do their work more efficiently, we also want them to think about how to green their recycling processes. And for that they need incentives.”

For example, burning wire is the fastest and cheapest way to extract valuable copper. It’s a toxic process, both for people and the environment, but scrap dealers don’t have an incentive to do it any other way. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible,” Abbas says. “It’s totally possible to extract copper in an environmentally friendly way, by shredding and stripping wires instead of burning them. And there are some buyers who will pay more for clean copper than for burned copper. So the idea behind the app is to help these people connect.”

"This is reconfigurable architecture that becomes a portal to allow people from different worlds to come together and imagine different futures."

Osseo-Asare and Abbas emphasize that AMP—its components, activities, and goals—is a vast and far-reaching project. “It’s not a neat and concise design project, with perfectly finished products,” Osseo-Asare says. “It’s ongoing research-based design activity embedded within the community of Agbogbloshie. We’re constantly exploring alternative futures around design production and knowledge sharing.”

As the project garners global attention—Spacecraft was recently featured at an international “Digital Imaginaries” exhibit in Karlsruhe, Germany—the researchers are encouraged about increasing awareness of Agbogbloshie’s potential. “When we started our project, it seemed like everyone was saying that Agbogbloshie is horrible, it’s a dump and nothing else,” Osseo-Asare says. “Now, many people are saying, It’s not all horrible, it’s a scrapyard.”

In many conversations, Osseo-Asare says, AMP is being used as an example of what can be done. In fact, based on the researchers’ road map for AMP, the government of Ghana is collaborating with the German government to develop an e-waste upcycling platform. “There’s dialogue happening, and it’s exciting.”

Sankofa: Moving forward by going back

Sankofa is a word in Ghana’s Twi language that translates into “return and get it.” There’s a symbol for Sankofa, depicting a bird, feet firmly planted forward, turning its head to retrieve an egg from its back.

Osseo-Asare and Abbas often draw on Sankofa to explain their work. “A lot of young people in Africa think innovation is from the West, and so they overlook knowledge that exists in their own backyard—in their culture, in their community,” Osseo-Asare says. “Because it looks different from Western innovation, they tend to denigrate it. But Sankofa shows us that for a successful future, we have to draw on the past—our own past—to access that knowledge.

sankofa-bird carrying egg

Sankofa, a word in Ghana's Twi language that translates as "return and get it," is represented symbolically by a bird turning its head to retrieve an egg from its back. "Sankofa shows us that for a successful future, we have to draw on the past—our own past," says Penn State's DK Osseo-Asare.

IMAGE: sankofacollaborative.org

“Agbogbloshie reminds us that making is a cycle. It extends to remaking and unmaking, recovering the materials we need to make something anew. Let’s not call Agbogbloshie a dump. A dump is a place where you throw things away and leave them forever. A scrapyard is where you take things apart to remake something new.”

Recognizing the importance of scrapyards as part of a city’s natural cycle is an important step toward making recycling more sustainable, Abbas adds. “Recycling is vital for protecting lives and the environment, and for people to see that, we need to change mindsets. We need to give value to that space.”

As she and Osseo-Asare continue their work, they can see progress toward the five goals they’ve set for emerging makers in Agbogbloshie: to efficiently gather the resources and tools they need; to learn by doing and from others; to produce more and better products; to be able to trade to generate steady income; and ultimately, to amplify their reputations and potential as makers. 

“There’s innovation and hope and possibility in Agbogbloshie,” Osseo-Asare says. “The workers there are not voiceless or powerless—they have agency. As we work with the populations there, we want to make sure that agency is used for good. Our goal is always to harness the spirit of Sankofa to empower makers at the grassroots.” 

 

DK Osseo-Asare and Yasmine Abbas are faculty in the Stuckeman School at Penn State.

This story first appeared the Fall 2019 issue of Research/Penn State magazine. In June 2020, the AMP project was awarded the World Smart Cities Urban Innovation Prize.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 18, 2020