Why you should care
Ghislain Irakoze is tapping into a $62.5 billion industry and saving the environment at the same time.
When Ghislain Irakoze was 12, he discovered the weight of the waste problem in his hometown of Musanze in Northern Rwanda. Together with a classmate, Irakoze had ventured into the local landfill to do research for a school assignment, when suddenly a garbage heap detached and came sliding toward them. Irakoze’s friend Eric was hit and screamed out as his leg was buried in garbage. “He was traumatized,” Irakoze remembers; Eric spent a week in the hospital with a broken leg before returning to school.
The boys never completed that assignment, but the accident taught Irakoze something valuable. “In a waste-free world this would have never happened,” he says, the 19-year-old’s eyes framed by black-rimmed glasses that give him the thoughtful look of a much older man.
Seven years after the accident, Irakoze is directing his own waste management company, Wastezon, a social enterprise that uses technology to reduce the amount of electronic waste that ends up in landfills. This week, the 19-year-old will join climate activist Greta Thunberg at the U.N. Youth Climate Summit in New York as one of 100 selected young people offering solutions on climate change. While in New York, he plans to advocate for “green funds for underfunded climate change mitigation projects in Africa.”
Recycling industries spend a long time searching for e-waste … How about we use technology to speed up the process?
Based in the Rwandan capital Kigali, Irakoze and his team of four IT and sales specialists connect consumers who are stuck with used electronics like TVs and mobile phones with recycling industries through a mobile app. Consumers register their used device along with a desired price, and recyclers can offer to buy the waste, creating a direct link from households to recyclers. Materials like copper and aluminum are extracted from the e-waste, or recyclers use the components to build new devices. Employing blockchain technology to certify components at each stage of use, Wastezon wants to enable manufacturers to track and collect their products from end-users.
“We discovered that recycling industries spend a long time searching for e-waste, and thought: How about we use technology to speed up the process?” Irakoze says.
E-waste is a growing problem not only in high-income countries but also in developing nations — where open dumping, burning and landfilling make pollution by toxic materials a likely scenario, according to the U.N.’s Environment Program (UNEP). Every year, the world produces 50 million tons of e-waste and only one-fifth of the laptops, keyboards and phones are formally recycled, data from UNEP show.
Despite its hazardous nature, waste never scared Irakoze — quite the opposite, remembers his sister Ghislaine Iradukunda. As a child, Irakoze was very strict with waste scattered around their garden, and he often collected trash instead of playing games. “Please do something else with it,” he told neighbors burning plastic waste, Iradukunda recalls. “He was very responsible and committed, already as a child.”
To demonstrate how to reuse discarded plastic, 10-year-old Irakoze made bracelets out of plastic bottles. “The adults thought it was childish,” he recalls. However, his parents — his mother a health worker and his father a university lecturer — spurred him on and, following the landfill accident, Irakoze began volunteering for environmental organizations. In August 2018, he founded Wastezon.
Since then, Wastezon’s app has helped transfer 416 tons of e-waste from 110 Kigali households to formal recycling facilities. Although the app is still in its trial phase, Irakoze and his team plan to add organic and plastic waste to the mix.
One customer, Omar Hakorimana, is pleased with the app’s speedy transaction compared with the informal waste collectors. The faster his e-waste is picked up, the less likely his children are to play around with it, he says.
But waste management is far from new to Rwandans. The country has gained a reputation as one of Africa’s leading green economies, and in 2017 an e-waste recycling and dismantling plant opened outside Kigali, the second largest of its kind in Africa. For decades, informal workers have tied the sector together, collecting recyclables door to door.
Recognizing their “tremendous environmental service” is essential to any company working in the industry, argues Josh Lepawsky, associate professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland and author of Reassembling Rubbish: Worlding Electronic Waste. “In other places where similar solutions have been proposed,” he says, “there is constant friction between those companies or organizations and what has already been going on for decades.”
Irakoze has a plan in place for informal workers: “We want to train them in waste handling and work with them as certified recyclers,” he says. “They are the ones who are driving the waste sector.”
Ultimately, e-waste is big business, but this is not news to Irakoze. Apart from leading Wastezon, he is studying for a degree in international business and trade at the African Leadership University in Kigali, and he hopes to tap into the growing e-waste market in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. In a world that produces a staggering $62.5 billion in e-waste annually, recycling electronics represents a golden opportunity.
Combine recovering precious resources with protecting the environment, Irakoze says, and it’s a “win-win.”
OZY’s 5 Questions With Ghislain Irakoze
- Who is your hero? Jeff Bezos. The suffix in Wastezon is a reference to Amazon.
- What do you worry about? The climate crisis, especially plastic pollution. If we fail to act, there is no future.
- What’s the last book you read? The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To travel to all the continents.
- What’s one thing you can’t live without? My mother.