collecting 350.000 phones: behind the scenes

14 February 2019

Today, together with State Secretary for Infrastructure and Water Management Mrs. Stientje van Veldhoven and many of our clients, we celebrated the arrival of our container from Cameroon and discussed exciting business opportunities of a Circular Telecom industry.

The container was filled with 350,000 scrap phones from Cameroon. It took us 1 year and ten months and a lot of effort to get them from Cameroon to Europe. Reinhardt Smit, our Project Director Africa, has guided the process of collection and shipping from A to Z. Why was it such a hassle? Reinhardt answers 4 questions to get some insights from behind the scenes.

How did you collect the phones?

Our local partners in Cameroon are two very entrepreneurial brothers with hearts for the environment. They have set up a local network of collectors and agents that buy these phones off people. These are average consumers, repair shops, or family/friends. Each phone is bought for a small amount, and then transported to our partners in Douala, where they were stored until transport. People basically hand in the phones because of the financial incentive, but we have noticed an increase in people handing them in due to environmental and social reasons as well.

What was the main struggle in shipping the phones to Europe?

Everything! Haha, that's the easy answer, but basically, the whole process is a struggle. We are transporting waste across boundaries, and that is governed by the Basel convention. These regulations and rules have been agreed on by most countries in the world, but the practical reality is that countries like Cameroon have very little experience with these regulations. So getting the permits done took a very long time. Lots of back and forth emailing (and faxing!!) and calls to make the process work.

Another problem that we had for the first time was stricter shipping "policies". Many shipping companies have changed their shipping policies regarding waste due to fear for problems. Phones are not hazardous to ship, but for example old batteries can be. Instead of looking towards a good system to make shipping waste possible, we have noticed that most shipping companies have simply decided to stay away from waste altogether. So it took many months to get a shipper to accept our cargo.

What did you learn?

The first thing I learnt from the whole Cameroon project is how important the enthusiasm and mentality of our local partners is. Our Cameroonian partners have shown that they know what they are doing and that they really care about this work. That makes working with them a real pleasure.

The second thing I learnt it similar for all the other countries. That you have to be patient, and vigilant. Things take very long, especially if you refuse "facilitation envelopes". You have to be vigilant when these situations arise and be sure to follow the law and to make sure everyone in the process does too. It makes things slower and more difficult, but in the end you can prevail and prove that fair and honest work in this field is possible.

Will it be easier next time?

We can only hope. I am hoping it will be easier because the local authorities do now have more experience, and they know us. But you never know what might happen with local policies and people involved. We have a better view of possible timelines, and we have a good relationship with the shipping company that finally shipped our container, so those things should definitely be smoother.