As electronic devices become increasingly important in our everyday lives, so too grows the mountain of outdated and discarded smartphones, laptops and tablets. Around 50 million metric tons of electronic waste (e-waste) is produced every year, of which only 15 to 20 percent is recycled or reused, with the rest ending up in incinerators and landfill. Estimates from the US indicate that around 70 percent of toxic heavy metals in landfills come from e-waste.
Part of the problem is that e-waste is hard to recycle. A single unit can be composed of more than 60 different elements, with many containing materials that are hazardous to both the environment and to those handling the waste. In the developed world, the disposal of e-waste is therefore a costly endeavour that requires specialised and regulated processes to ensure safety.
To circumvent this cost, much European and American e-waste is shipped off to developing countries, which have become a dumping ground for these hazardous materials. Those who try to collect the small amounts of precious metals concealed in the mounds of waste risk their lives in the process.
Routers mean opportunity
But out of this sad reality, Danish NGO Rhinotivity has seen an opportunity to both reduce e-waste and improve internet connectivity in the developing world. Its three co-founders are studying product development and integrated technology at KEA, and stumbled across two interesting facts.
Firstly, around 70 percent of Danes have unused routers at home, but only about five percent donate their electronic devices to charity. And secondly, people in the developing world lack opportunities because of a lack of internet connectivity. So, why not collect unused Danish routers and put them to better use?
“The premise is simple enough – if you have a router, an internet dongle, or any kind of device lying about that can you can use to access to the internet, let us know and we will come pick it up,” says co-founder, Hjalti Jónsson, who has been biking around Copenhagen for the past few months, picking up old routers. “Alternatively, you can leave your old router at one of the collection boxes we have at Cafe Salonen and Cafe Retro in downtown Copenhagen.”
They were able to start Rhinotivity during their studies, which satisfied a school internship requirement. Then, after some research, they reached out to Kenyan NGO The Tunapanda Institute – Tunapanda means “we are growing” in Swahili – which agreed to partner with the three students.
The institute provides internet access and courses designed to help students become tech-savvy enough to take advantage of online education and employment that would otherwise be out of reach. The Institute is crowd-funded, and around 85 percent of their students have successfully found work after attending one of their courses. The Tunapanda Institute also provides internet access to local schools and health clinics.
“Through Tunapanda, we can make sure that the routers we collect are put to good use. For now, our task is focused on providing internet to Kibera, which is part of Nairobi,” says András Nagy, another Rhinotivity co-founder.
Kibera is one of the largest urban slums in Africa, where there is high unemployment and most residents earn less than seven kroner a day. With few other educational opportunities to be had, the online courses facilitated by Tunapanda offer new prospects to the residents.
Internet access is essential
Rhinotivity has been very busy and has collected hundreds of routers to date.
“We have been very lucky,” says the group’s third co-founder, Sean Jones. “In just our first week, we were contacted by a company that had 400 routers gathering dust in a storage room since they updated their IT system. They had been there for almost three years, I think.”
After that, the ball started rolling, and they now have enough routers to fill a shipment to Kibera.
“We are heading off to Kenya next month with our shipment, and we couldn’t be more excited to see our project finally bear fruit,” says Jónsson.
“But that does not mean we are done. We have had some great feedback and interest in the project, and have recently partnered with Periamma and Fair Danmark. Café Retro has provided us office space too – we are just getting started.”
They say that the main problem is raising enough funds to make the project sustainable.
“We have just reached our first milestone at GoFundMe, which we are very happy about, but there is still a long way to go. This is of course all new to us, and we are learning as we go, but thankfully we are getting a lot of support and advice from our partners, who have been through this process before,” says Jónsson.
“We are happy to be doing our part to minimise e-waste in Denmark, which has become such a huge problem and is in need of better and more sustainable solutions,” says Jones.
He adds that while existing organisations such as their partner Fair Danmark already collect and recycle a variety of electronic devices including computers and displays, Rhinotivity focusses on routers because of their longer lifespan.
“We believe that internet access has become essential to daily life and is a powerful means of creating progress and prosperity. This is how we came up with the name, Rhinotivity. The rhinoceros is a symbol of power in Kenya, and with connectivity, you can grasp this power for yourself.” M