Q&A: Affordable technology, but buy with care

Alan Finlay

In 2004 Open Research conducted an extensive study into the total operating cost of owning refurbished computers in Africa. Can these old computers really help to reduce costs?
Our study suggested that top brand refurbished computers are worth it if they are not too old – about 3 or 4 years. In fact, our study suggested that a good-quality refurb may, in some instances, be a better buy than a low-quality new one. That was a surprise. Low-quality second-hand personal computers (PCs) should be avoided, simply because they are made of low-quality components. Whether or not refurbs can keep costs down depends on how much they cost. I heard recently that in Congo Brazzaville a second-hand Pentium III can cost as much as US$800.

What are the main costs involved with owning a refurbished computer compared to a new one?
Our survey, interviews and workshops suggested that the key differences between the five-year ownership costs of new and refurbished PCs are: purchase price, hardware replacement costs, labour for repairs, support, and the cost of downtime (when the PC fails). The likely cost of failures in a refurbished PC (including spares, labour and downtime) needs to be balanced against the lower purchase price. In the case of a low quality refurbished computer hardware replacement costs alone can be 40% more than the original purchase price, and a high level of failure can be expected throughout the five years of ownership.

How long can users of refurbished computers expect them to last?
Depending on the quality and age probably no longer than three or four years, if it is three years old when you get it. Low quality refurbs might only last a year or two, or even less. Each component in a PC has a lifespan. For instance, on average you might expect your motherboard to begin failing from year four, and the monitor from year five. Some people say that a PC can last 10 years, but the data suggests that you are lucky if a new PC lasts more than 8 years, and that will be a good quality PC. At the 8 year mark the component failure rate is likely to be so high you will have to throw the machine away.

The Euro pean Union has introduced legislation making manufacturers of electrical goods more responsible for the ultimate disposal of their products (the WEEE Directive). Will this mean more PCs for use in developing countries, or will it encourage the dumping of electronic waste with a clear conscience?
What is needed are tighter controls. Not just any old PC should be allowed to be exported to a developing country. And if WEEE helps with that, then it is great. But the real controls should come from the recipients. People in developing countries should be more selective, and more demanding, which practitioners recognize. Some suggest that the Advance Recycling Fees (ARF), or similar mechanisms, paid in Europe should also be shared with the developing country where the second-hand PC ends up. If a consumer pays the ARF in Switzerland and the PC is later shipped to Namibia, where it dies, that fee should not stay in Switzerland. But that procedure might be very difficult to administer. If there is thoughtful, considered demand for refurbished PCs, I don't really think it is dumping. It is dumping when, as in Nigeria, buyers in industrialized countries buy crate loads of old technology - no matter what - and ship them to Lagos for dismantling and resale on the local markets.

When refurbished computers get to the end of their usefulness, are there enough possibilities in developing countries to recycle or safely dispose of old machines?
Not really. In South Africa, e-waste is a growing business opportunity, and there are new entrants into the market all the time. The good thing about e-waste is that it can stimulate (very) small business development - just one or two people - and can support big business. There are a couple of major e-waste recyclers in South Africa. But for other countries in Africa, the picture is bleaker, especially those still trying to come to terms with basic waste management.

For more on e-waste in Nigeria visit the Basel Action Network website.

Alan Finlay is a specialist in information management, project development, ICT and media research, and is head of Open Research , a media and ICT research and development consultancy based in South Africa.

NOTE: The Open Research study was conducted in 2004 and some data might have changed (e.g. the purchase price of new and refurbished computers).
20 August 2007

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