“We don’t know anything about what they do with them there. We only weigh and sell, just make our money,”— Adama Tesoubi, a cellphone recycler describing his role in Abidjan’s, international rare earth minerals reselling ‘industry’.

Inside a telephone chip extraction shop in Adjamé Market, Abidjan.

Inside a telephone chip extraction shop in Adjamé Market, Abidjan.

From inside his six by eight-foot concrete lined shop along one of the many swampy, mud-filled paths that connect the street vendors of Adjamé Market, Tesoubi shares more of his entrepreneurial endeavors.

“Okay so how it works…” he begins, “we buy the old phones from people who collect them around the city, or people donate them to us, then we crack them open, like this, weigh this chip until we get about 5 kilos, sell it to the Chinese or Lebanese, and get paid.”

Getting paid is why Tesoubi and others like him said they are take apart old cellphones and re-sell them to foreign businesses looking for cheap, raw materials. But Asim Poisséis, a runner for The Movement for Education, Health, and Development, (M.E.S.A.D.), an Ivoirienne NGO that launched a phone recycling project in partnership with French telecom Orange, said there’s more to it for people in Cote d’Ivoire than just money.

“It’s more than just recycling, its also sensibilization for the people of Abidjan, we’re teaching everyone not to just throw away phones, that can rot forever in the ground. Sure others are making money, but they’re selling the most valuable parts out of country, at least we are working to sensitize and make a profit.”— Asim Poisséis, M.E.S.A.D

A sign on the back of a telephone runner’s motobike who picks up old phones to be recycled

A sign on the back of a telephone runner’s motobike who picks up old phones to be recycled

Poissé rides around Abidjan on his motorcycle picking up old cellphone parts for delivery to those who recycle and re-sell the different parts. For small business owners like Tesoubi, Poissé said M.E.S.A.D. is willing to pay $0.40USD for each kilo of cellular shells. Once the old phones are picked up and sorted, they are sent to France for further processing.

So there’s an environmental reason why Ivoiriennes like Poissé may want to recycle old phones, as well as financial ones but why are the insides of cellphones worth paying for?

Cellphone repairman and chip weigher Doubali Diallo said, it’s all about what’s inside, “we crush the phones and then throw the rest away.”

Inside most devices are rare earth minerals like gold, palladium and lithium that can be used for any number of industrial purposes. Mining for these minerals in Africa isn’t easy and according to a United States Geological survey, China has been the producer of over 90 percent of those minerals since the 1980s.

Tesoubi comparing two telephone chips. “The ‘Chinese’ manufactured one (right) has little value, while the one on the left has minerals inside.”

Tesoubi comparing two telephone chips. “The ‘Chinese’ manufactured one (right) has little value, while the one on the left has minerals inside.”

Tesoubi said his business makes him about $34USD for each kilo of original chips he’s able to salvage. Considering he said he only pays $0.16USD for the non-working, discarded phones, he still makes a profit. But he said the chips were once worth much more and competition from foreigners moving into the market for rare earth minerals is now even more of a challenge.

“I’ve been doing this for 5 years, when I started I was one of the only ones in the market buying cell phones, getting chips and selling them to the Chinese, but since others more interested in technology started working, the Lebanese came in, the Germans too, I’ll be lucky if I can make 9,000CFA francs a kilo some months.”— Adama Tesoubi

Since its initiation, the M.E.S.A.D. project has reported over 20 tons of used cellular devices have been collected and that small business owners like Tesoubi sell roughly ten kilograms of cellphone chips each day.

But as the rare earth minerals race continues and countries like Australia, Brazil, Russia, and even the U.S. join the search for new deposits, recycling materials to extract and reuse these minerals will become even more competitive.