Africa's biggest recycling hub?

20 November 2015

The transformation from throw away to circular economy is one of the biggest challenges of our time. It is a relatively new concern in research and policy which we are beginning to address in the Green Transformations Cluster at IDS. This is why I recently re-visited a vehicle repair and metal working cluster located in Suame/Kumasi in Ghana. The manner and extent of recycling achieved in this cluster is beyond anything found in Europe. Recycling has been practised here for over 30 years and involves huge numbers of people but has received little attention in recent research.

Mechanics at Suame Magazine

Collective efficiency in 1987 – prolonging vehicle life

I first visited the Suame cluster in 1987. At the time recycling was not on my radar. I was interested in grass roots industrialisation - researching the growth constraints and growth potential of small enterprises. I was fascinated by the collective efficiency achieved by the thousands of small workshops (Schmitz 1990, Dawson 1992).

This agglomeration of small producers and traders was (and is) locally known as the ‘Magazine’. Its growth was partly due to the unavailability of imported materials and spare parts. This resulted in an increasing necessity to repair and recycle – in particular cars, lorries and small buses. Local workshops found ever new ways of prolonging the life of vehicles. Most interestingly, producers and traders were highly specialised in particular operations or products and some small engineering workshops emerged that produced new or reconditioned old parts.

A European engineer might have considered their machines as rudimentary and thought of the whole Magazine as a hopeless scrap heap. Indeed none of these workshops could have existed on their own but together they achieved an impressive collective efficiency which helped to save the Ghanaian economy from collapse of the transport system. And the Magazine provided a lot of employment – at the time it gave earning opportunities to around 40,000 people.

Recycling in 2015 - adaptation and specialisation

Now, 28 years later, some 200,000 people work in this industrial cluster, spread over 12,000 businesses.

While this is a rough estimate, it is clear that the cluster has grown considerably. Unavailability of spare parts is less of a driver but the need to make a living continues to be a major driving force. The work is hard but earnings seem a little better than in most other parts of the Kumasi economy. And some entrepreneurs have become rich employing dozens of ‘apprentices’. 

Specialisation within the cluster seems to have deepened further. This time around I was particularly interested in whether the cluster could cope with the electronic challenge. The new generation of vehicles has fuel injections, windows, door locks and other functions that are controlled electronically. Does this leave the local workshops stranded? The answer is no. They are capable of responding to the challenge – or at least some of them are.

While the skills base of the cluster lies primarily in mechanics, some have acquired skills in electronics. Some of these specialists work within the larger workshops but typically they are self-employed, providing their electronics expertise to other workshops for a fee. For example, an electronic diagnostic – to identify where the problems lie – costs 50 cedis (£9). Sometimes the repair can be rectified by replacing faulty components (brought from specialised traders); sometimes the electronically controlled part is replaced by a mechanically controlled part. For example, I witnessed the replacement of an ‘electronic engine’ with a ‘manual engine’ – quite a complicated operation but not infrequent. Second-hand reconditioned engines are widely available in the cluster.

There seems no end to the recycling and remaking. Lorries and cars are disassembled and then reassembled with reconditioned parts – or where required with new parts such as piston rings, gaskets or plugs. A problem which appears unsurmountable for one workshop becomes an opportunity for another.

Recycling is a by-product of the struggle to make a living

It is however important not to romanticise what goes on in Suame. This is not a cluster driven by green objectives. Planetary boundaries and resource depletion are not concerns you would hear being talked about here. Instead, the concerns are focused on making a living or making a profit by offering very cost-effective transport solutions. Recycling is a mere by-product of such concerns.

Turning it into a more complete success story would require a combination of joint action of local entrepreneurs and state involvement. Joint action is not easy because competition between the workshops is intense. It is however necessary for working effectively with the local state in improving infrastructure and regulations. And the state would need to implement regulations which ensure that repaired and reconditioned vehicles are safe. Such regulations exist but are not always enforced. Effective road-worthy tests – including exhaust controls - would probably increase business for the Suame Magazine but for the time being test certificates can be bought without passing the test.

Local scarcity and poverty as drivers of recycling – differences between Ghana and the UK

It seems that the drivers and pathways towards a recycling economy in a country like Ghana are different from, say, the UK. In Ghana the recycling is driven by the need of poor people to make a living and by the scarcity of materials. In the UK it is a result of prosperity which generates huge amounts of rubbish and junk we need to get rid of. Recycling is a response to this waste problem and to the concern with global resource depletion. This difference in drivers seems a good starting point for developing a research agenda on the pathways to circular economy in different contexts.

Comparing countries would generate new insights. Comparisons over time would also be illuminating. The situation in the UK in the 1940s and early 1950s was in some ways similar to that of Ghana today. Rates of recycling were high because many materials were in short supply and because recycling offered earning opportunities for poor people.

We know that small – often informal - enterprises play a big role in recycling from research in India (Chaturvedi et al. 2015) and other countries (WIEGO 2015). What is special about Suame is that the local enterprises do more than just collecting, sorting and selling materials. They complete the value chain by (re)making a finished product or providing a complete service. Accra for example has a cluster of auto-parts traders in Abossey Okai. Kumasi, however, has a cluster of traders and makers in Suame. This makes the Suame Magazine so interesting from both a resource efficiency and urban livelihoods point of view. While in Kumasi I talked to colleagues of the local Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology but they did not know of any recent studies of the remarkable Suame cluster.

If readers of this blog are aware of studies which examine the Suame Magazine and include the recycling issue please get in touch with me.

Image reproduced, with permission, from 'Kumasi: Suame Magazine's Artisans Unveil Ghana-Made Car at Manhyia Palace', OMGGhana.com.

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