IN Katwe, a Kampala city suburb, youthful Imran Sebuliba walks as though there are springs in his feet. Sebuliba has helped the residents of Katwe earn more bragging rights to the suburb, which is synonymous with artisan inventions.
He literally gives old computers a second life by converting them into television sets. Though the sets do not have a “Made in Uganda” label, Sebuliba has become a household name.
As motorists drive through Katwe spewing dust, little do they know that behind the roadside littered with rusty tin-roofed houses is a growing enterprise that is churning out more than 20 television sets a day.
“I can make up to 20 television sets a day in a busy season like Christmas because many people want to have some form of entertainment then.”
Sebuliba buys old computers of 15 inches at sh30,000 and 17 inches at sh40,000, which bring returns ranging from sh100,000 and sh140,000 respectively.
He extracts the circuit boards and cathode ray tubes from the old computers, which he places into new television body (frames) imported from Dubai or China.
The old frames are taken by people scavenging for waste to sell to recyclers. Kampala’s businessmen in electronics including Indians, Sebuliba says, purchase the sets and resale them in upper parts of the city at sh170,000.
“They sell them as new because even imported television sets have nothing so special that distinguish them from mine,” says Sebuliba.
According to sources who have bought Sebuliba’s television sets, they display sharper images and are more durable.
His turnover has helped him stay afloat in business. “I can make a television set in about 10 minutes,” he says. “I owe this to people who have trained me as a technician and trusted me with their businesses.”
He operates in a tiny workshop shared by six others, each of whom specialises in a different aspect. “It becomes easy to collectively pay rent since each of us contributes sh70,000 every month.”
As we move to Sebuliba’s workshop, we encounter second-hand computers with “fat bellies” bearing inscriptions FIRRI (Fisheries Resources Research Institute) being ferried in and Sebuliba whispers to me that middlemen will soon take them to his workshop.
Sebuliba exudes brilliance, patience and warmth which have helped him to stand out of the crowd.
Born near Iganga town in 1985, Sebuliba lost his father when he was a baby and his mother, eight years later. He was brought up by one of his aunties before he landed in the hands of technicians at Kalitunsi in Katwe.
“What I remember is they all assured me of their support provided that I remained trustworthy. I religiously followed their advice.”
First, Sebuliba got skills of repairing television sets. “There are many television sets that are imported with faults. Many others are affected by power fluctuations and repairing such sets was my first area of accomplishment.”
Two years ago, old computers imported into the country started flooding Katwe. When Sebuliba looked at them keenly, they had similarities with television sets. He put his mind into turning them into television sets and when his experiment worked, started an outlet for television sets made in Katwe.
He is keen on going back to school so he can speak English which he believes will take him places, including China, where he hopes to go oneday, “for deals on buying television frames and other parts cheaply.
Old computers hazardous
As Sebuliba goes about his work, he is not fully aware of the hazardous emissions from old computers.
“It is true that there are strange fumes that come from the computers when they break,” he says. “I keep away and only return when the fumes have disappeared.”
But Margaret Aanyu of the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) says artisans like Sebuliba working without protective gear are exposed to dangerous emissions with far-reaching implications. She says the impacts, which are not immediate, include cancer-related ailments.
Other sources like Green Peace, an international non-Governmental Organisation, in a report entitled “Poisoning the poor: electronic waste in Ghana,” says hazardous chemicals in computers cause kidney complications.
Aanyu says Sebuliba needs to work in a specialised workshop and use protective wear, but the country has not attained such capacity.
In addition to safety concerns, NEMA’s director, Aryamanya Mugisha, says developed countries were exploiting the loopholes and dumping electronic waste in the country.
He says the country faces risk of becoming a dumping ground for electronic waste if tough measures are not taken.
The Government, in the budget statement last year, imposed a ban on second hand electronic equipment such as old computers and refrigerators as part of the measures to guard against wanton disposal of waste.
But technicians are opposed to the ban. Their reasoning is that the kind of products Sebuliba has exhibited is the same that Uganda would import from China or India.
“So banning electronic waste is like playing in the hands of the developing world,” concludes Hajji Habib Kulumba, a businessman.
People like Sebuliba, Kulumba says, should be assisted because the so-called new computers that are being imported are also second-hand and only re-furbished and re-sold to countries like Uganda.
“It is ridiculous to close Uganda’s small-scale industry and hand it over to countries whose welfare is better than ours,” says Kulumba. “If we ban second hand computers we will be making a market for China and India while denying our own youth employment.”
NEMA on a sustainable path
But the director of environmental compliance at NEMA, Waiswa Ayazika, says a regulation is being formulated to implement the Financial Act that will address issues such as Kulumba’s, over banning old electronic equipment also referred to as e-waste.
Concerning computers which are currently in use, but expected to become obsolete in years to come, Waiswa pointed out that the regulation under the Financial Act will propose methods of their disposal.
“We have companies that are interested in removing useful parts and then destroying the hazardous components,” says Waiswa. “We will look at all this. The good thing is that the formulation of the regulation is going to be a consultative process.”
The decision to support people like Sebuliba to turn waste into wealth or ban importation of second-hand goods in order to protect the environment is like a hot potato for the Government.
The regulation under the Financial Act will hopefully provide options for Sebuliba to conduct work without compromising health and the environment.
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