reclycling ad extremis
TOGO'S JUNK GENIUS
Besliu is a freelance journalist focused on women’s and
children’s rights, refugee and human rights issues, and
peace and post-conflict reconstruction. She founded the nonprofit
organization Save South Kordofan.
inventor Afate Gnikou built a 3D printer entirely out of recycled
electronic waste. The 34-year-old had become consumed by the idea
of creating his own version after seeing a 3D printer assembled
at the inaugural edition of Fab Lab – a digital fabrication
the capital of Togo, in August 2012.
A small country in West Africa, with a population of about 7 million,
Togo’s main industry remains subsistence agriculture, on
which more than half of the Togolese continue to depend. Young
Togolese under the age of 35, representing 75 percent of the population,
confront a severe unemployment challenge. Unemployment rates for
the entire country hover around 6.5 percent, but are near 10 percent
for young adults. Under-employment is estimated at more than 20
percent. The Togolese economy is robust, reports the World Bank,
but struggling due to a recent slowdown in neighboring Nigeria
and a widening deficit. More than half the population lives below
the poverty line.
In Togo and other countries struggling to develop, the latest
technological advances are out of reach. Constructing new devices
with bits and pieces from discarded units may not eliminate considerable
poverty or the large amount of waste, but e-waste recycling could
foster broader innovation, education and exploration, solving
a plethora of socio-economic problems.
Workshops like Fab Lab offer both education and entertainment.
Gnikou is a geographer by training and tinkerer in electronics
and bricolage by necessity – experienced in putting together
small electrical cars and car doors, as well as repairing cell
phones for people in his neighborhood, all helping him earn extra
income to survive. A friend urged him to attend the workshop featuring
an entrepreneur from Europe who would assemble a new technology.
Driven by curiosity, Gnikou attended the Fab Lab as an observer.
The speaker put together a 3D printer during the workshop with
an installation kit brought from France, including all required
hardware and software that ensured the final device was operational.
Gnikou became enthralled, immediately envisioning the potential
for his country where industry accounts for 5 percent of the labor
force. Such a device could bolster technological innovation and
creativity, allowing entrepreneurs to create affordable, professional
and rapid prototypes to ensure that their inventions would function
well and reliably. A 3D printer could enable consumers to purchase
locally-made products tailored to their needs rather than standardized,
imported commodities from either Western countries or China. Such
printers could ultimately propel Togo into the technological markets
of West Africa and eventually the globe. Gnikou also recognized
that the printer would be environmentally friendly by increasing
reuse of discarded electronics available in local dumps.
After the workshop, the 3D printer was displayed in an education
center for the next year, though December 2013. Gnikou visited
the display once a week studying the device and trying to figure
out its assembly and how it operated. Installation kits were unavailable
in Togo, and Gnikou was determined to replicate the 3D printer
from scratch using readily available e-waste. He set up an open-air
workshop in the small courtyard near his home, shared by several
neighbors. His laboratory consisted of a large table and chair,
the area protected from the scorching sun by a plastic cover tied
to nearby trees.
Gnikou had several old desktop computers at home. He tore them
apart to use some of the elements, including the overall frame
and the electrical wiring. He spent six months of trial and error
as well as reading instructions on the internet and watching YouTube
videos until he eventually assembled his own 3D printer. The most
difficult yet also exciting part, he confessed, was figuring out
how to assemble the extruder, a key part of 3D printers that melts
the material and moves back and forth, creating layers to mold
the desired object. After extensive online reading about printers,
the young inventor managed to create his extruder using old plastic
His device attracted substantial international recognition, including
the prize for technological innovation during the 10th International
Conference of Fab Lab in Barcelona in 2014. He continued working
to improve his device, producing several smaller, more robust
and efficient models. By 2015, he created a second prototype,
again using parts of discarded computers and printers mostly from
the electronic waste market near Lome’s Port.
Many old consumer electronics arrive at this port, shipped from
Western countries, sometimes illegally. Globally, more than 40
million tons of electronic waste are generated every year, comprising
around 70 percent of total toxic waste. Tracking is imprecise,
and government regulators in the developed nations concede that
exporting used electronic devices, most to countries in West Africa
and Asia with less stringent environmental regulations, can be
less costly than discarding at home. With 85 percent of the e-waste
generated at the regional level, West Africa faces a growing problem
of its own making. Most of the e-waste is burned to prevent unmanageable
stockpiles that contaminate the soil with hazardous substances
like lead and mercury. The smoke from burning is equally dangerous,
though, containing dioxin, heavy metals and other elements threatening
human and environmental health. Despite this, only about 15 percent
of e-waste is recycled globally. In December, the United Nations
issued a report recommending greater global collaboration on e-waste.
Since creating his 3D printer, Gnikou has found multiple uses
for the device. One of the first was printing inexpensive prototypes
of designs by local entrepreneurs. For instance, his device helped
print multiple prototypes for an anti-theft device created by
three young Togolese men based in Lome. The prototype helped resolve
production flaws and moved that invention to its final stages.
That anti-theft product addresses a specific need for the many
West Africans who rely on motorcycles for transportation. But
the small vehicles are often stolen, and according to official
statistics, more than 7,000 motos were stolen in 2015 alone. The
anti-theft invention includes an integrated GPS system that tracks
the stolen vehicle and allows owners to cut their vehicle’s
While printing models and prototypes are helpful for emerging
Togolese innovators, such work still did not provide Gnikou a
living wage. So he shifted his focus to training others on how
to create and use their own 3D printers. In December 2016, working
with EcoTec Lab – an innovation center for ecology and integrated
sciences – Gnikou co-organized the Togo MakerFest, a two-day
do-it-yourself manufacturing event and led community sessions
on building a 3D printer.
Gnikou is not giving up on inventing or Togo. He continues striving
to define the role of the 3D printer for the Togolese market and
make plans to improve its functioning. Among his upcoming projects
is to produce the special plastic material needed for the 3D printer
by recycling available plastic in Togo. In particular, he wants
to recycle plastic bottles that end up covering the streets and
beaches of Lome, often blocking sewage systems.
In a country where the literacy rate is below 65 percent, his
efforts reaffirm of the value of technology, education and exploration
and a can-do spirit.
with permission Copyright © 2017 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan