Q&A with DK Osseo-Asare

Tuesday, May 10, 2016
by Gwen McNamara, Communications Coordinator

In January 2016, a team of Princeton University students traveled to Ghana, Africa to work with the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform (AMP) to create a series of videos for the organization as part of the Pace Center for Civic Engagement’s International Service Trip. To understand the full impact of the students work, the Pace Center connected with DK Osseo-Asare, co-leader of AMP and principal and cofounder of Low Design Office (LOWDO), an architecture studio based in San Antonio, Texas and Tema, Ghana. 

Q: Given the complex nature of the Agbogbloshie landscape, how do you typically describe the Agbogbloshie community and the nature of the work happening there? 
OSSEO-ASARE: Agbogbloshie is not the “world’s largest e-waste dump” by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it the most “toxic place on earth.” The Agbogbloshie scrapyard is [also] actually not in Agbogbloshie. It is in a neighborhood called Old Fadama, which includes the adjacent slum on the opposite side of the Odaw River. See our map of the scrapyard

Agbogbloshie scrapyard is not a “dump,” it’s a scrapyard. A dump is essentially a landfill, where you deposit waste—essentially forever. (Technically, waste is an output of manufacturing or use that has no further value, whereas scrap is a material that can be recovered and refined for reuse.) A scrapyard is where obsolete equipment is disassembled and dismantled, sorted and stockpiled by material type and then transported off-site to be recycled and used as feedstock for new manufacturing. This is exactly what happens in Agbogbloshie. In addition, there are numerous small-scale recycling outfits, micro-factories and electronics workshops that refurbish and manufacture everything from grills, pots and pans, stoves and trunks to computers, TVs and satellite dishes. 

A more accurate depiction of Agbogbloshie scrapyard is an emerging informal sector manufacturing hub, seeded by the scrap industry—as have myriad others globally and historically—dirty and highly polluting, but organized, coherent and a place that employs thousands and feeds and educates many thousands more in towns and villages of the North (via money sent home to relatives). Agbogbloshie scrapyard helps keep Accra and more remote urban landscapes across Ghana and the West African subregion clean by removing and processing urban scrap.

Scrap dealers are neither stupid nor ignorant. Most people who come to take pictures of Agbogbloshie and write about it know far less about materials, end-of-life equipment and the scrap industry than do the scrap dealers in Agbogbloshie. What they lack is not intelligence, but rather certain technical knowledge, key recycling technologies and the financial resources to upgrade their activities.

Q: How will the videos fit in to how AMP, and/or others, is working to address safety at Agbogbloshie?
OSSEO-ASARE: Our view is that “greening” informal sector scrapyards like Agbogbloshie should be an inclusive bottom-up or “grassroots” process, and that it needs to incentivize scrap dealers—sustainability should make their businesses more profitable. 

Central to the AMP project is development of a digital platform that links maker and recycling communities. We have an Android app that we are beta testing now. The strategy is to inter-mix short health and safety videos, narrated in Dagbani (the local language spoken by a majority of scrap dealers in Agbogbloshie), into the real-time stream of information about scrap and product trading (think a mash-up of Twitter, WhatsApp and Craig’s List).

Ultimately, videos will sync with more advanced training modules that incorporate certification and monitoring and evaluation for environmentally-responsible e-scrap processing in informal sector contexts. This enables Agbogbloshie scrap dealers to better access global markets—many orders of magnitude larger than the current scenario, which due to multiple layers of middlemen is relatively exploitative.

Q: Why is video a good way to address this topic?
OSSEO-ASARE: Environmental responsibility starts with awareness. Much of the local and global narrative around Agbogbloshie has derived from a Western perspective—or that of more privileged consumers who only experience buying, using and disposing of electronics—and react with shock when seeing end-of-life equipment dismantled in what can be quite a brutal manner. This supports divergence: outsiders see only the negative aspects of environmental pollution and insiders (i.e. people who actually live and work in Agbogbloshie) discount these views as naive eco-tourists or biased media, and turn a blind eye to negative health impacts in order to make money to support their families.

AMP has run maker workshops over several years to help youth from both inside and outside of Agbogbloshie see the (economic and technological) potential of a reimagined e-scrap industry—moving from recycling to upcycling. We also have a number of simple 3E-manuals on our website, that introduce basic information about handling Electrical and Electronic Equipment (3E-) not as waste, but as a valuable resource—recognizing 3E-materials as the “building blocks” for (re-)making your own reality in today’s digital world. 

But many scrap dealers in Agbogbloshie speak Dagbani (a language of the Dagomba ethnic group from Northern Ghana) more fluently than English, Ga or Twi, and literacy is a constraint. Africa is an oral culture, and we have from the beginning wanted to do more video, especially with graphics and local dialects. Videos can be stories, and stories make people talk—that is a first step toward broader awareness on the ground in Agbogbloshie, which can then lead to action.

We see the videos produced by the Pace Center team as prototypes for more video content on the platform in future. It has been incredible to see them take the challenge and run with it: not only making the narration in Dagbani happen, but also including graphics and animations (special thanks to Winni Adom, a young graphic artist here in Ghana!) and aspects of science and biology (like symbols for chemical elements) which people in Agbogbloshie may not typically encounter.

Q: How and/or when will people view the videos?
OSSEO-ASARE: Many scrap dealers have smart phones, either new or secondhand, and they use mobile internet everyday—for WhatsApp, for Facebook, for Youtube, to follow sports, to check foreign exchange rates, etc. That is why we have pivoted with the AMP digital platform to focus on handheld screens. The videos are hosted now on Youtube, but we will fold into the app as we move to the next stage. So the videos are intended first for mobile.

Also, we are kitting out the makerspace in Agbogbloshie now (the AMP “spacecraft”). The goal, pending funding, is to include a local network and/or wifi access that can stream video content going forward. So in the coming months scrap dealers should be able to view the videos on “made in Agbogbloshie” computers there.

Q: What do you see as the end result of having the videos available to the community?
OSSEO-ASARE: Our hope is that it helps support a shift in attitude. Media portrayals of scrap dealers in Agbogbloshie have been so devastating that it has undermined the community’s self-perception as a legitimate small-scale industrial and trade constituency. Search Google and Youtube—the vast majority of Agbogbloshie mentions render residents as silent others or somehow uninformed emblems of planned obsolescence. Seeing your friends and colleagues talking about your work environment in language that is not dystopian helps you see it anew and feel differently about it. We aim to open up the conversation from “what you are doing is bad, go away” to “we see the value in your scrap and recycling activities, we know the products you make benefit people, let’s explore ways to do this in better ways.”

Q: What did you enjoy most about working with the Princeton student team?
OSSEO-ASARE: Their work ethic was unreal. Leading up to their trip to Ghana we kept reminding them that they would only be in Ghana for a week, so they should not be overly ambitious about what they could achieve; they should not feel disappointed if they had to compromise in the end. But somehow those words of caution were lost in translation. They went to Agbogbloshie nearly straight from the airport on arrival (just after a blizzard in New York) and did not stop working long, action-packed days for the duration. We planned to stop by a party the last night but arrived when it was nearly over because the teams were doing re-taking audio tracks to get them just right. It was a powerful reminder to all of us just how important it is to believe that anything is possible.

The other aspect was how fast and nimble the team was on an intellectual level. There are layers of overlapping complexities when you work in a place like Agbogbloshie, especially when coming from a place like Princeton. But each and every team member was able to navigate this challenging work—no doubt thanks to the preparation process conducted by the Pace Center leading up to the trip.

Plus they were kind of wacky and a lot of fun. We laughed a lot. And the students who participated in the design thinking workshop at Ashesi University College’s Design Lab were thrilled to interact with Princeton students. There were a lot of selfies and I think they made a cameo in a music video.

Q: What did you learn from this experience? What do you hope the students learned?
OSSEO-ASARE: We are thankful for further validation that our goal of networking youth from different countries, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds to “join hands” and work together can be possible—and worthwhile. Because AMP is born of a participatory design process it is extremely time- and labor-intensive. Many people do not understand the vision, either because it is too amorphous or too complex. They overlook that the goal is really a process. And the looks of amazement on the faces of some of the youth in Agbogbloshie as they discovered that these students from the United States came all the way to Agbogbloshie not just to take pictures of the “e-waste dump” and gawk at pollution and poverty—but rather, to learn from them and see how they could help contribute to their collective effort to remake Agbogbloshie—were priceless.

I hope that students came away with firsthand experiential knowledge of the power of media. Residents of Agbogbloshie in general—and the scrap dealers community specifically—have suffered enormously from simplistic and one-sided portrayals. As students and soon graduates of Princeton, their voice matters a lot. I have no doubt whatsoever that they will use it in smart ways, with compassion and fully aware of how it can resound worldwide, affecting people they may never meet but who nevertheless remain real and significant. 

Photo courtesy of AMP: AMPQAMP workshop July 3-18, 2014 on technology transfer from the JerryClan Togo team (Woelab).

Learn more about the students' Cross-Continent Collaboration.