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In a society that is constantly advancing in technology, there is mounting pressure to keep up with the latest electronic devices in order to avoid exclusion from digital spaces and socioeconomic opportunities. Whether it is smartphones, laptops or tablets, electronic devices are becoming an increasingly important part of participation in everyday activities. However, these devices are built with a limited lifespan and often need replacement of parts or repairs, and when options to fix them are not readily available or too costly, frequently end up being discarded.
With devices outnumbering humans on the planet, the scale of our digital demand is resulting in staggering amounts of environmental waste and unsurprisingly, “the production of digital devices remains the key contributor to global warming,” as noted in APC’s guide to the circular economy of digital devices. As the global climate crisis worsens, a movement to repair devices and keep them out of landfills is growing, and the need is becoming increasingly urgent.
Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), a non-profit organisation and long-time APC member and partner based in Delhi, India, is changing how people use electronic devices by providing communities with the knowledge and skills to repair their own tech and devices. “Despite being the only South Asian country with an e-waste law in place, India is severely lagging behind in formally collecting and handling e-waste in an eco-conscious manner,” explained Syed S. Kazi, a senior consultant at DEF and the director of the Council for Social and Digital Development. “The problem is even more so exacerbated with increasing digital consumption, where infrastructure, awareness and culture of repair and reuse are scarce.”
With the help of an APC subgrant, DEF successfully implemented a pilot project that established two accessible repair centres to teach local communities how to repair their electronic devices, such as mobile phones, laptops and tablets, rather than disposing of them and acquiring new ones. The popularity of the centres even saw community members bringing electronic goods such as televisions to the repair centres. “DEF recognised the need for a community-led and based initiatives towards integrated digital device repair, reuse and management through capacity building in local communities,” Kazi stated in describing the approach.
The project, titled “Digital Green Prakriya (Processing): Fostering Digital Environmental Justice through Community Repair and Reuse Network in India: A Pilot”, was implemented between October and December 2022 with a view to building capacity of communities on the repair of digital and electronic devices in response to the growing problem of e-waste management.
Reducing electronic waste: One community at a time
DEF believes that the best way to combat electronic waste is to provide communities with knowledge, awareness and skills generation to fix devices rather than replace them. The organisation's efforts have been directed towards creating awareness and educating communities about the adverse effects of electronic waste on the environment and the benefits of a circular digital economy, while providing them with training and resources to repair their own devices via Digital Green Prakriya (DGP) centres. “The centre aims to foster digital consciousness and encourage citizens to be digitally responsible, especially towards e-waste management,” explained Tuisha Sircar, who worked on the project with DEF through her research role on the Council for Social and Digital Development.
The project was centred in two communities: Chanchalguda locality in Hyderabad city (Telangana state) and Tain village in Haryana’s Nuh district. The first task was to set up a DGP repair centre in each of the two areas, with inputs from the communities, that would be easily accessible to the residents. In assessing the needs of the communities prior to undertaking the project, DEF’s research highlighted “a lack of understanding among the community members about the importance of repairing and reuse, as well as the production and implications of e-waste and its relation to environmental degradation and sustainability.”
Furthermore, an absence of repair services in both Chanchalguda and Nuh meant that they were ideal locations to set up what DEF called the “repair cafés” – spaces to convene with the tools and resources to conduct trainings. In Chanchalguda, Rizwan, a trainer with deep technical knowledge and skills, was brought on board to provide affordable and ongoing repair services in the community. “After every workshop the students eagerly asked and enquired about the tools and repairing procedures,” reflected Rizwan. “The students are ready to learn the repair process to avoid e-waste in the community.”
Complementing the process, project organisers carried out door-to-door campaigns, organised e-waste collection drives and conducted repair workshops on different topics, offering both theoretical and hands-on instruction to participants. Topics were practical in nature and designed to respond to the needs of the community, covering issues such as repairing water damage, fixing batteries and chargers in mobile phones, solving hard disk issues, using and maintaining software, and repair of circuit boards. “The pilot program has achieved to take the first few steps towards community mobilisation by focusing on raising awareness and knowledge building through both theoretical and practical approaches,” Sircar said, noting the aim is to increase self-sufficiency for community members in the repair and reuse of digital devices.
An essential aspect of the project was addressing traditional gender roles and incorporating female participants in the trainings. “We aim to develop a robust gender-inclusive program not just in the present two locations but across more locations with more women in the leadership role in the DGP centres,” Sircar stated. Although existing social norms and gender biases have meant that only 25% of participants were female, DEF has nonetheless set out to “challenge the roles through targeted campaigning and outreach efforts and increase the number of female participants overall.”
Creating an ecosystem of repair
This pilot project has had a great impact on the communities, directly and indirectly reaching 60 participants and approximately 30 households in the two locations. Participants in the workshops ranged from 15-55 years of age, with more than 70% of participants being under 21 years old. While the youth showed great enthusiasm in learning how to repair their own devices, “elders in the community have shown deep interest to learn more about the initiative and asked if they can be included in various ways,” according to DEF’s report. Feedback from the participants was overall very positive, with many expressing the wish for continued skills training and demonstrations.
The benefits have been manifold. Firstly, the creation of dedicated knowledge and training centres has created an ecosystem that focuses on repairing devices, resulting in less electronic waste that would otherwise end up in landfills, creating irreversible damage to the environment. Secondly, it has provided a low-cost repair infrastructure to members of the communities, reducing the financial strain of having to invest in new tech. Moreover, DEF's project has given communities the power to be self-sufficient in repairing their devices. “One key outcome has been increased awareness, understanding and interest in the community on the subject and priorities of the circular economy of digital devices for greater social, economic and environmental benefits,” Sircar added.
Remarkably, 100% of the participants responded that they would be willing to learn further repair skills through training workshops in the future, a notable figure according to Kazi, since “pre-intervention 78% of the participants said that knowing basic repair is important.” To that end, DEF plans to set up another four community DGP centres in 2023, to carry forward the commitment to circular economies and digital environmental justice. “Based on the positive changes in perspective after the outreach initiatives, the programme can be taken forward to build an environmentally conscious community with eco-conscious behaviour and practices,” Sircar enthused.
DEF's project sets an excellent example for other communities by showing how structural changes can be introduced to promote environmental preservation and economic growth while fostering inclusion and knowledge exchange. The organisation's emphasis on capacity building has empowered individuals to take control of their electronic devices' lifespan. “In the long term, the programme will not only help bring a cultural and behavioural change in the communities but also allow the creation of avenues for further initiatives for environmental sustainability and justice,” Kazi projected. “The programme can thus enable truly eco-conscious communities to emerge and thrive.”
This piece is a version of the information provided by Digital Empowerment Foundation as part of the project “Digital Green Prakriya (Processing): Fostering Digital Environmental Justice through Community Repair and Reuse Network in India: A Pilot”, adapted for the Seeding Change column. This column presents the experiences of APC members and partners who were recipients of funding through APC's core subgranting programme, supported by Sida, and of subgrants offered through other APC projects.
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Cover image courtesty of DEF.