“Technology has become part and parcel of our lives which means increased use of devices like phones and computers. When they stop functioning or we have no use for them anymore, it is important to dispose of them in a manner which encourages us to recycle and repurpose them as a way of taking care of our environment,” said Sanda Ojiambo, Head of Sustainable Business and Social Impact, Safaricom. Kass Fm
Taking care of the environment is our responsibility as inhabitants of this planet. There are many ways in which we can conserve the environment from planting trees to recycling plastics and also reducing our consumption of natural resources like water or using it well. Electronic waste is something we don’t think about so much yet we have so many gadgets and electronics which have a certain lifespan after which they are unusable because they are not working or have become obsolete.
Safaricom is doing something about Electronic Waste. We caught up with Safaricom’s Head of Corporate Responsibility Sanda Ojiambo to find out what Safaricom Foundation is doing in the area of electronic waste and what you can do to make the planet a better place.
Kindly elaborate on the Safaricom environmental management initiative on e-waste management and how it works.
Safaricom does a lot of projects with the community and the environmental initiative is purely on the business side of the company under the sustainability docket. Just to clarify, Sustainability is all about the path and the decisions that the business makes for the future versus the corporate social investment which is community-focused. What we do in the sustainability docket is framed by the sustainable development goals (SDG’s). There are two specific SDG’s that we have looked at, which shape our work; SDG 7 on clean green energy and SDG 12. That calls for responsible production and consumption. There is also another SDG 13 that talks about climate action but it is not within what we are doing at the moment.
We looked at Safaricom and asked ourselves what was our overall footprint; a footprint can be generated by a number of things from energy, waste and emissions. Our environmental docket looks at all of that, specifically around waste in terms of what we generate, use, help re-use and manage it. We also make decisions about the waste that we generate.
One of the key decisions that we made was our commitment to being a plastic-free organization. This came well before the NEMA ban, we were already conscious about the impact that plastics have in our overall value chain, supply chain and environment. We removed all plastics from our shops a few years back and we actually realized a lot of savings, some of them financial. We saw that it was cheaper to not use plastics and also to give back to our customers so that they could use and reuse for many other things.
We also look specifically at managing waste as a whole, outside our offices we have bins where we can all dispose our waste into; from plastics to paper and food waste. The last time we formally looked at our results we saw that we are recycling up to 97% of our waste. Papers are being recycled for something else, food waste is processed for other purposes and then there is e-waste which is on a special category.
Given that the waste program has been running since 2015, was there a specific decision that led Safaricom to embark on the program?
Yes definitely. Though we don’t produce handsets, they are our main medium of business. E-waste primarily for us as a business comes from handsets and network bases that have been decommissioned.
Unlike any other kind of decommissions, you are not just going to toss it away. Something I have seen in our Kenyan culture is that we really stretch the lifetime of a phone, once you are done with a phone you hand it down more to the next person. Our question is, how is this equipment managed?
It is important to stress from the get-go that mobile phones, batteries and chargers are not harmful. What makes them harmful is when elements such as batteries are not well disposed of and results in rust and the material that comes off is possibly toxic and could enter the food or water stream. This is what we are trying to address, a phone in itself is not harmful at all.
The discussions actually started in the early 2000s, the foundation had invested in an organization called the Waste Electrical and Electronic Management Centre (WEE Centre). They were setting up innovative ways of managing all the e-waste that came up. The foundation invested in them and then we realized that we also had a role to play in waste management at Safaricom PLC so we partnered with them to help us collect, manage and recycle our e-waste. Basically, that’s how it all started.
We expanded the vision because we felt as a responsible company, it was our role not only to collect phones but anything and everything that is electric and electronic because the processing capacity is the same and the collection mechanisms are the same as well. Since we had also invested on the processor, we saw it as a good opportunity to get into it as much volume as possible of the waste.
At the moment we collect anything from laptops, battery pads, televisions, microwaves, fridges (which require special collection), chargers, LED lights. Network waste is managed separately through our network companies.
Other than the WEE Centre, are there other partners that are involved in the recycling process and management of the E-waste?
Not that I know of, but there are many collection points. WEE Centre has its own, we primarily use our Headquarters and retail centres. We have a partnership with Eldoret poly, we have started working more directly with the government, most recently the PS of environment Betty Maina issued a circular to government ministries to look at how they can be disposing of e-waste through the WEE Centre as a whole.
We visit the WEE Centre frequently, we were there most recently for the International E-waste Day. They pretty much handle operations on their own, they have collection vans and trucks and have their own collection points. They have trained a lot of young people to carefully take equipment apart, recycle and reuse.
How has the program shaped your staff in the way they go about waste? Have you noticed any reduction in the waste being produced?
I would like to hope that it shapes us all, I hope that none of us has a drawer full of unused phones, chargers and batteries. We have a call to action for everyone when they are cleaning to clear out the stuff that is not being used. I hope that the message has come through to everyone. Even if they do not dispose of the e-waste at this point, it is important for people to know that when they actually decide to dispose of it, there is a place they can take the waste. I think this is the most important thing because most of the time we keep e-waste because we don’t know how to handle it.
As a company, it has continued to build our narrative as a responsible company, we are looking into how we can continue to dialogue with the Ministry of Environment and other stakeholders like NEMA and others so that we can complete the legislation on e-waste.
As at now, there is no formal legislation that has been passed, there are a couple of documents that are currently in review. It shifts the dynamics for example in our industry, what happens in many other countries in the west is a terminology called producer responsibility where it’s really the producer of the handset that is responsible for the safe disposal.
Though we are not handset producers, we have taken up that responsibility because we provide communication services for our customers and subscribers. I think if we then have that kind of legal framework, people will pay more attention to what they produce and how they produce it. People need to look at products that have more longevity, for instance, we import a lot of used laptops, we need to look at what age we import them and for how much longer we can use them.
Do you think your costumers have changed in terms of how they dispose and recycle waste?
I think a lot more could be done to create that awareness. There are two types of awareness that I think is most important. The first is to tell consumers that the equipment itself is not harmful, its the poorly disposed of equipment that is harmful. There also needs to be awareness about where people need to dispose of it.
As at now, I don’t think we at the stage where we can confidently say that Kenyans know what e-waste is and what to do with it. There is a lot more in terms of awareness that needs to be done.
There are lots of opportunities, the bigger ones lie in working with apex organizations, and neighbourhood organizations. Person to person might be quite time consuming and very ineffective. Also, communicating messages in a way that makes sense to the common mwananchi so that they can understand what e-waste is and its implications.
Besides WEE, NEEMA and the government, are there any other partners that you are looking to bring onboard?
There are gaps collection points so if we were to get more people to work in those spaces to make sure that they are more secure, and visible that would be good. More partners that would be able to disseminate the information to a community level in such a way that would make sense to young people. Ultimately, partners that would help when it comes to the filing of the legislation and having more people supporting it would be very important.
In truth, the WEE Centre doesn’t have enough volume yet in terms of processing so I don’t think we would need a second or third processor but at some point, if the volume goes up then we will definitely think about expanding.
What do you think other companies need to do in order to minimize their E-waste?
Waste as a whole needs to be looked at in terms of plastic, without having to rely on legislation. It should be a form of responsibility to understand whether you need the plastic and its implications. For e-waste, looking at any corporate, after every two years employees get new laptops. Where does the old laptop go? Though some are refurbished and donated, most of them are actually kept in basements.
We were in a forum recently and someone said that a corporate freed up an entire floor for new staff just by clearing up its e-waste. This is telling about how there are often basements full of e-waste, not only does this occupy a lot of space, it also costs money to rent out the basements. You would never do that if it was food waste or something that smelled. So you have to look at the storage implications of having such a substantial waste and the cost of having it there.
You then need to ask yourself what you can do to be more responsible because there is no point in keeping all that stuff that could possibly affect the environment. Its a call to action for people to clean out their equipment, if it cannot be reused then it can be sent to WEE for collection or send it to our local collection points in our shops for safe and secure processing.
WEE Centre also issues certificates of disposals so you can be rest assured that the waste has been handled in an appropriate manner. The certificate is a summary of what has been disposed of.
I personally used the process a while ago after a lady from where I live expressed that she wanted to buy a new washing machine but didn’t have the space to keep the old one. From that conversation, a call to action was sparked and we ended up collecting around half a tonne of equipment from about thirty houses. We collected iron boxes, old desktops, old microwaves, and freezers that had stopped working.