Five Quick Questions Series
One of the most interesting things about working for the LCEDN is undoubtedly the many conversations we hold with researchers and practitioners who are currently grappling with all manner of issues related to Low Carbon Energy and International Development. In this new series of ‘Five Quick Questions’ blog posts, we want to share some of these conversations, introducing you to the people we meet and the issues they are concerned with or curious about. If you are doing some interesting new research or if you would like to recommend someone you think we should ask Five Questions to, please contact us.
The very first Five Questions post below introduces Declan Murray from Edinburgh University and the questions of solar waste and solar repairs.
Solar Waste? A brief conversation with Declan Murray, University of Edinburgh
The market for small scale solar devices has been rapidly increasing in the last decade. While this is predominantly a story of increased energy access and better lighting for millions of people, the question of what happens to these devices once they cease to operate is beginning to attract more attention and a report commissioned by the Department for International Development (DFID) in 2016 entitled ‘Electronic Waste (E- Waste) Impacts and Mitigation Options in the off-Grid Renewable Energy Sector’ has made the case for “developing end-of-life (EOL) Management of solar products without delay”. Having witnessed many redundant and broken Solar Home Systems, with their various unintended social and environmental consequences in my own research in Sri Lanka, the question of what happens to end-of-life small scale solar technologies particularly in different so-called ‘bottom of the pyramid’ markets is one that I am particularly curious about. So when I had the opportunity a short while back to spend a couple of days in Nairobi, Kenya, I contacted someone who knows both Nairobi and solar waste well, namely Declan Murray, who is in the fourth year of a PhD in International Development at the University of Edinburgh. The working title of his thesis is "Solar waste? An ethnography of repair in Kenya's photovoltaic economy", and he is being supervised by social anthropologists Dr Jamie Cross and Dr Jamie Furniss. Declan has completed a particularly interesting ethnographic study of solar waste. It consisted of 12 months of fieldwork in Kenya, which involved visiting users of solar power at home, working with repairmen in independent repair shops, and shadowing technicians in company warehouses. What is interesting about Declan’s work is that it focuses not on recycling, which is what ‘end-of-life management’ as referred to in the report above tends to do, but on repairs. While the urgent need for increased awareness, better e-waste infrastructures and regulation of solar E-waste is indisputable, recycling, argues Declan, is not and should not be considered the only solution to the problem of solar waste.
Although he is currently very busy finishing his thesis, Declan found time to answer my five questions, to give an insight into how he sees this issue:
Why is it interesting to talk about solar repairs and e-waste?
I think it’s important to talk about repair because a lot of e-waste is actually repairable. If we immediately jump to recycling, then we miss out on a whole world of activities that are already happening. If we can better understand repair then we could support those whose practice it is and in turn reduce the amount of e-waste we have to deal with. Looking at solar products in particular is interesting because they occupy this unusual middle ground between being the thing that charges the appliance (that becomes e-waste), and being an electronic appliance (and so future e-waste) in themselves.
Where do solar technologies go when they die?
Most of the time they don't go anywhere, at least not initially. My research has found, as other studies have shown in the UK (Gregson, 2011; Wilson et al, 2017) that when appliances stop working, people hold on to them. So a lot of non-functioning solar products are sitting in drawers, cupboards, and under beds across the Global South. One question I keep coming up against though is when does an object 'die'? Are these non-functioning solar products actually just sleeping? Are they waiting to be woken up by a repair-person or resuscitated by a curious child for a school science project?
What's the difference between tinkering, fixing, repairing and recycling?
This is a tough question and one that is much debated in the emerging field of repair studies (see for example “the Maintainers”). I think sometimes the differences come down to perspective and the value we place on a given activity. Tinkering, for instance, to me brings to mind a hobbyist making a small adjustment to something, while fixing and repairing conjure more professional pictures of a more dramatic alteration. Having read a bit on the etymology of these terms I would be interested to see work that looks at comparable terms in other languages. In Swahili, for instance, the main term used is kutengeneza (~to repair) but there are not really the list of variants that we find in English.
Is there anything particular about Africa in relation to this?
For a lot of African consumers, owning (or renting) a Solar Home System or a solar lantern might be the first sustained relationship they’ve had with an international company. The manufacturers of these solar products are present in towns and villages in a way that TV and mobile phone companies, although more established and widespread technologies, have never been. And so we have a confrontation emerging where the electronic and electrical repair economy that consumers are accustomed to is facing a new form of retail that comes with warranties and service contracts. This could in turn bring new encounters over intellectual property and patents too, with copies of well-known brands such as LG or Sony being legally challenged in Africa for the first time.
What has been the most interesting thing about doing your research - and the most challenging?
Sitting in an electronic repair shop and becoming known in a town as the mzungu (~white person) fundi, despite the fact that I can still barely solder two wires together, was pretty enjoyable. I was also privileged to sit alongside someone at work who, although part of a super-researched and increasingly high profile sector, is the character we often neglect in the stories we tell. It is of course always the designer that wins the award, not the repair-person. The most challenging thing has then been transferring and adapting from that context to other settings (like corporate conferences) and being able to explain my research in new terms to different audiences.
If you are curious about learning more about Declan’s work and about solar e-waste, here is a link to a really interesting webinar organised by the Clean Energy Solutions Centre about the ‘state of play for End-of-Life for Off-Grid Solar E-waste’ he recently spoke at.
 Prahalad, C.K (2006): The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits. Pearson Education Inc.
See also Cross, J. 2013. ‘The 100th Object: Solar Lighting Technology and Humanitarian Goods’. Journal of Material Culture 18 (4): 367–87