Most of the money you pay for a new computer usually goes towards the small processor inside it, and even if that processor has only just come onto the market, its manufacturer is already working on a replacement. The process will take around two years, which is the average time a US citizen will use a computer before throwing it away. Planned obsolescence, a business strategy in which products are designed to be discarded, has been a standard feature of capitalist economies since the 1950s. It’s a bane for many consumers in the developed world, but for sellers at Alaba International Market in Lagos, Nigeria, it’s the basis of a thriving business.
Around 500 shipping containers of used electronic goods come to Alaba every month from the USA, Europe, Japan and China. When they arrive, businessmen rush to claim their pre-arranged shares and load them onto handcarts. Wheeling back through passages crowded with salesmen, each takes his haul to one of the 3,000 shops that seem to sell every conceivable form of electronic device.
One in three electronic items arriving at Alaba is broken, but highly skilled technicians are paid to repair them. “If you have two computers that aren’t working, you take bits from both of them and make one working computer,” says Julius Monye, 52, a secondhand-computer seller. “After my technicians have worked on them, 90 percent of the computers will function.” The refurbished computers are tidied up with some spray-paint and put on display for the 300,000 people who come to Alaba every day. Despite the paint, the origins of the computers are part of their appeal. “Secondhand products from America or Europe can have a better quality than new Nigerian ones,” explains Julius.
Half of young, urban Nigerians do not have jobs, and the 8,000 refurbishing enterprises like Julius’ in Lagos give regular work to more than 21,000 people. Among them are the waste collectors, who haul irreparable electronics to local dumps, dismantle them and set them on fire. The copper, steel and aluminum that melt out of them can earn the collectors more than US$3 a day, but the burning gives off toxic fumes that can leave them with a variety of severe medical conditions, from lung cancer to kidney disease. The Alaba market system may make money from junk, but it comes at a cost.
Every two years, a microchip is developed that runs twice as fast as its predecessor. Such rapid progress means computers quickly become obsolete. Those made in the 1960s were expected to last 25 years; one made today will be replaced in less than five.
In the 1920s, light bulbs could last for 2,500 hours. So in 1924, to force consumers to replace them more often, the world’s biggest light-bulb producers secretly agreed to reduce this lifespan. By 1940, all light bulbs on the market lasted for 1,000 hours.
When nylon stockings were introduced to the US market in 1940, an advertisement showed them being used to tow cars. They were so sturdy that US company DuPont worried that women would not replace them frequently enough, so developed a new, less resistant material.
A modern refrigerator lasts an average of 10 years. Fixing it can cost half its price, which makes it tempting for a consumer to buy a new one instead. By law, fridges and washing machines in communist East Germany had to be built to last 25 years.
From the pages of COLORS #85 - Going to Market.