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Unpacking Recycling Hardware for Non-profits

At present, a special research paper which aims to give a sense when it is worth to use refurbished computers and when it is not is being prepared and will be presented soon. This paper is written on the basis of findings from a meeting in Namibia March 2004 amongst practicioners and researchers working with refurbished computers in Africa.

Recycled machines for non-profits

More than 600 million perfectly good computers will be discarded by companies worldwide over the next five years. According to a study conducted by Digital Partnership, an NGO which is active in this field, their value to the companies concerned is generally less than $50 per PC and effective disposal is becoming increasingly costly for companies as managers have to observe stricter environmental regulations and residual values are declining as IT is commoditised. By sending these outdated PCs to developing countries, in theory countless people could get access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) and benefit from this in various fields (education, civil society, media). Invaluable benefits on both sides it seems - but the whole picture in practice is much more complex.

Overall it still has to be proved for many non-profits in developing countries whether importing hardware donations from Western countries is really an option to fulfill their ICT access needs.

As many NGOs on the receiving end rightly say, in spite of all the possible benefits, the risks and disasters often outweigh the gains of accepting hardware donations.

As these two quotes from the TechSoup article exemplify:

"The printer over there was a donation from a board member, but we could never quite get it to work on our network."

"Those computers in the corner were given to us by a bank, I think. But, when we got them, we found out they didn't have hard drives."

The article from TechSoup continues, to state;

"...while many commercial companies are looking to get rid of older computer equipment, and many nonprofit organizations are in desperate need of technology, this isn't always a match made in heaven... recycled computer equipment can be a blessing or a curse. It all depends on whether the nonprofit does its homework before accepting a donation. There are a number of factors to consider when thinking about recycled equipment. Such as total cost of ownership, obsolescence and lack of support."


There is an established industry for shipping computers as well as a large quantity of materials describing the procedures, practices and experiences for those who deliver recycled computers. Transport of hardware donation to a location is one thing, however receiving hardware on the other side of the world is another. There are only a few "first hand" reports and guides on receiving refurbished computers and as implied from the TechSoup article above, it is on the receiving end that the real challenges of working with recycled machines manifest themselves.

There are a number of questions that immediately arise;

  • What can recycled computers really do in terms of ICT access for developing countries?
  • Is the price for refurbished computers, once added to technical support, still low enough to call it a cheaper solution?
  • Are developing countries becoming just once again the dumping ground for the electronic garbage of "developed" nations, especially when in developed nations equipment is replaced at a frightening speed, each hardware piece older than 2 years looks 'old'?
  • What is the potential of free and open source software on such machines, especially when we talk about old computers that are not able to handle new versions of proprietary software?
  • What is the best model for developing local capacity to build and maintain the hardware on arrival?
  • How should equipment be best shipped and assembled?
  • Should the export sector be better observed with a more clearly defined legal frame?

Receiving NGOs are increasingly becoming aware of these issues and a number of key organisations have already initiated debates, papers and in some cases information campaigns.

SchoolNet Africa is amongst those organisations who are taking the issue seriously. In a short analysis paper they published called "Refurbished Computers: An Analysis of Risks", they attempt to analyse some of the risks whilst summarising some possible solutions which may help to address these problems. An extract:

"Educators planning to use refurbished computers must be aware of the many hidden costs involved. In general, those hidden costs occur because educators must try to fill the gap between what is expected from these computers and what they can provide. This gap can occur in several areas included: hidden support costs, inability to use certain applications and inability to take advantage of certain technologies due to missing hardware components."


As non-profits gain first hand experience of dealing with such problems, models of how to best deal with these issues emerge. Joris Komen, SchoolNet Namibia has been active in this area , Joris argues that what is needed is a combination of economies of scale, local recycling centers and the use of Free and Open Source Software.

"We need to urgently build capacity in developing countries to provide bonafide refurbishment centres to handle a couple of million computers annually take a look at what's happening in countries like Canada and Colombia. Canada has 65 refurbishment centres which serve the Canadian education sector - exclusively. They presently have capacity to turn over 100s of 1000s of ICTs every year. They started 10 years ago, with significantly higher overheads than we would ever have in Africa. In the first year they sent out 179 refurbished computers to schools in Canada."

Read more of this email discussion...

A best practice documentation about the process of receiving reclycled computers was published by an Indian NGO, 'Digital Equializer-Computers for India'. In 2002 this NGO received a shipment from World Computer Exchange. They tested the hardware and performed all necessary installations after arrival of the pieces. This quite detailed documentation can be found; http://www.digitalequalizer.org/practices.htm and here http://www.digitalequalizer.org/selection.htm (esp. table # 2)

Links to organisations providing recycled computers to developing countries: