The global telecommunications market is growing at an incredible rate. 5G, IoT, and cross-industry partnerships are a growing rage. About 80.5 per cent of people on planet earth own a mobile, and more than 66 per cent own smartphones, which is expected to increase significantly. But this means at least one third of mobile users will upgrade their phones to the latest handsets. A better performing phone, with top features will result in millions of old outdated devices, which can no longer be used. In South Africa, about 20 million people use smartphones, while the rest are still using feature phones. This is expected to increase with more and more people now going online and connecting to the internet.
The question is what will happen to the old devices as more and more people go online. Obsolete devices fall under the category of electronic waste. Electronic waste commonly, known as e-waste, is becoming increasingly important due to the proliferation of electronic items in the market, technological advances leading to redundancy of equipment and the impact that electronic waste has on the environment. If devices end up in landfill, it can lead to a number of environmental impacts. Harmful substances found in e-waste can end up in bodies of water, groundwater, soil and air, and therefore in land and sea animals – both domesticated and wild – in crops eaten by both animals and humans, and in drinking water. The downstream effects of which could be devastating.
What is Vodacom’s position on e-waste?
Vodacom sells various devices to customers used to communicate and connect to the internet. As part of Vodacom’s purpose journey and planet ambitions to reduce our environmental impact by 50 per cent by the year 2025, Vodacom has implemented various initiatives that adopt the waste hierarchy in our operations to reduce, reuse and recycle e-waste as far as possible.
South Africa is mainly a prepaid market and customers often resell devices themselves to family and friends. This increases the use of devices much longer – encouraging reuse and extending the useful life of a device further. Postpaid customers generally have a contract of two years and have an option to renew their device if they wish to do so. Vodacom has added a buy-back option to both prepaid and postpaid customers. When a contract expires, the customers have the option to get a discount on a new device if they trade-in their old device in store. This is done to ensure that the phone is revamped and sold to a third party (if feasible) or disposed of in a manner that will not harm the environment. This gives customers the option to buy second hand devices in a manner that is safe and convenient; as customers often worry about the risks of buying a quality second hand device that has not been stolen or used for fraudulent activity. The prerequisite of the buyback initiative is that the device still needs to be in a good condition.
What is Vodacom’s Buyback project in Wakkerstroom, Mpumalanga?
Vodacom introduced South Africa’s first smartphone only town.
Our ambition is to create a digital society that leaves no one behind; hence our priority is to connect people living in rural areas. In 2019, Vodacom partnered with BPG Langfontein, a farming business that employs the majority of people living in Wakkerstroom. As a result of this partnership, Vodacom migrated all farm workers using 2G feature phones to 3G devices and opened a new world of the internet and technology to farm workers in the area. Wakkerstroom is now the first smartphone only town in the country.
Vodacom introduced the first smartphone only town in Wakkerstroom, Mpumalanga, by encouraging residents in the town to return their old 2G devices and receive discounts for newer and smarter devices that are 3G and 4G enabled. A total of 500 devices (57.5kg) were collected from the town community and disposed of in a responsible manner.
The Wakkerstroom initiative illustrates the value of bridging the digital divide and incorporates all three pillars of Vodacom’s purpose by creating an inclusive, digital society whilst minimising our impact on the planet.
How does Vodacom manage end of life phones responsibly?
In managing devices, Vodacom adopts the reduce, reuse and recycle approach to extend the useful life of phones as far as possible and to ultimately reduce volumes of e-waste. Vodacom has its very own Advanced Repair Centre (ARC) that has the capability to conduct testing and repairs on devices in-house saving on turnaround times.
Depending on the make, model and condition of phones, the units may be repaired, refurbished, or resold. In FY20, more than 316,000 devices were repaired at the ARC with just over 77,000 either refurbished, reused or resold. A further 11,000 phones were sent for responsible recycling. Once phones are passed onto approved recycling agencies, safe destruction certificates are issued. These recycling agencies are periodically audited by Vodacom’s internal audit team giving us assurance that best practices are applied and that no e-waste ends up in landfill.