Geographies in Depth

‘Tokunbo’: How African nations are battling with the sale of 'zombie' appliances

A man wears a face mask at Dutse Alhaji market, as authorities race to contain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Abuja, Nigeria May 2, 2020. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

African countries are trying to crack down on the sales of used and imported appliances. Image: REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Peyton Fleming
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  • African countries are working towards eradicating the sale of second-hand refrigerators and air conditioners, imported from Europe.
  • The demand for cooling devices has doubled or tripled over the past decade, particularly as climate change brings ever hotter days.
  • These devices are cheap to buy, but come with a number of problems.
  • They are expensive to run, release a number of pollutants into the environment, have a short shelf life and use a lot of electricity.

On Nigeria's bustling streets, stalls selling stacks of well-worn, energy-sucking refrigerators and air conditioners are known as "tokunbo", a Yoruba word that means "from abroad".

Millions of people flock to such markets across Africa each year to buy the imported appliances at bargain prices, particularly as their incomes rise, along with their ability to invest in cooling technology.

In many African countries, demand for cooling devices has doubled or tripled over the past decade, particularly as climate change brings ever hotter days, their governments say.

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But once the cast-off appliances are carted home, there is no guarantee they will come back to life - and if they do, the cost to run them can be exorbitant, both for their users and the environment, environmental groups say.

Africa is often the last stop for cheap, outdated "zombie" fridges and air conditioners discarded mostly from homes in Europe and then illegally resold.

But some African countries are now pushing back against the trade, which can lead to heavy demands on limited power supplies and release now-banned coolants that act as important drivers of climate change.

Ghana since 2013 has enforced a ban on imports of used cooling appliances and Rwanda approved a similar ban last year, along with regulations requiring new cooling equipment to meet minimum energy performance standards by next year.

A half-dozen African countries have joined a United Nations working group, launched in April, that aims to find ways to curb the flow of these appliances. But success is still largely elusive.

"They come in branded as new, but when they're off-loaded it's mostly near-end-of-life e-waste," said Leslie Adogame, executive director of SRADev, a Nigerian nonprofit environmental health research group.

"They're certainly cheaper to buy, but they use a lot more energy, don't meet environmental standards and usually have a very short shelf life," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Used air conditioners and refrigerators, most of them imported, are unloaded at the Alaba International Market, a large open market in Lagos, Nigeria, June 2020.
Selling used air conditioners and refrigerators. Image: Leslie Adogame

Cool imports

Nigeria and other West African countries with high summer temperatures and close proximity to European shipping ports are especially popular destinations for used cooling appliances, which arrived stuffed into containers, cargo vehicles and even used cars.

Reliable statistics on the trade are hard to come by for Nigeria, but Ivory Coast and Senegal have both seen a doubling in used refrigerator imports since 2010, mostly from Europe, according to government data.

More than 3.7 million refrigerator units were imported into Ghana from 2004 to 2014, about 75% of them second-hand, according to a 2017 study by Ghana's University of Energy and Natural Resources.

A 2018 United Nations-backed analysis of 60,000 metric tons of used electrical equipment imported into Nigeria, most of it from Europe, found that at least a quarter of it was not functioning, much of it refrigerators and air conditioners.

Shipping non-working electronic equipment is illegal under both the Basel Convention, an international treaty, and the European Union's Waste Shipment Directive.

Because many of the used cooling devices use two to three times more electricity than new models, they stress already overburdened electricity grids, government officials said.

Many of them also use outdated chemical refrigerants that are potent contributors to climate change. And because many don't work for long, they add to the already prodigious electronic waste dumps across Africa.

With African demand for air conditioning growing quickly, the electricity needed to run them is expected to increase 10-fold by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.

"Used cooling appliance imports are an enormous hurdle as African countries try to satisfy consumer needs and rising national energy demands," said Brian Holuj, who leads a United Nations-backed effort to raise the efficiency of appliances.

"The long-term consequences for the health and well-being of Africans, and the planet, are profound," he said in an interview.


Efforts to halt international trade in discarded second-hand appliances have been going on for decades.

The 1989 Basel Convention, a treaty ratified by most world governments, prohibits illegal exports or dumping of non-working electronic products containing hazardous waste.

The EU's Waste Shipment Directive similarly forbids exports of waste electrical and electronic equipment to non-EU countries.

But stopping these flows between Europe and Africa is a challenge, not least because both continents see some benefit.

Europeans say "Oh my God, it's going to cost so much to recycle the refrigerants and refrigerators," said Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network.

Africans, meanwhile, want affordable devices to keep cool.

Customs officials at African ports are the primary gatekeepers monitoring the flows.

José Ramón Carbajosa, an electronic products stewardship expert in West Africa, said customs agents have the daunting task of deciding whether big volumes of used appliances are functional and legal, or illegal e-waste.

African governments also profit from the imports. In 2018, Senegal's government earned about $1.8 million in customs duties and $1.5 million in value-added taxes from refrigerator imports, said Carbajosa, who has worked with African and European Union countries on electronics recycling.

Alarmed by the widening gap between energy demand and power production, Ghana in 2008 banned imports of electricity hungry used cooling appliances.

But an estimated 300,000 used refrigerators a year continued to arrive - along with worsening power blackouts - until 2013, when the government stepped up inspections and began profiling importers, according to Kofi Agyarko, director of energy efficiency and climate change at the Ghana Energy Commission.

In the first year, flows of used refrigerators dropped by half. Last year, new devices made up 95% of Ghana's refrigerator sales, he said.

While new appliances cost two to three times as much as used ones, they use a third as much electricity, with Ghanaian customers saving on average $140 a year on energy bills, Agyarko said.

Although the door has largely closed, importers still try to sneak old appliances into Ghana.

In late March and April, even as COVID-19 restrictions limited shipments to "essentials", inspectors seized more than 300 used refrigerators, most of them from Britain, Agyarko said.

He hopes other African governments will replicate Ghana's programme - but he says the seizures are a clear sign of the challenges Africa faces.

"We have a law that prohibits shipments of used and substandard equipment to Ghana, yet we're still getting it in quantities," he said. "So what happens to other countries that have no laws at all?"

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