The international used-phone market is an emerging market. In countries in the ‘Global North’, it addresses people who do not always want to own the latest or who have to live on a small budget. For many people in countries of the ‘Global South’, it has recently become one of the only financially viable ways to afford a mobile phone. In recent years, cheap Chinese phones and Chinese mid-range brands such as Tecno, Xiaomi and Redmi have begun to capture the African market. Even high-priced brands like Samsung or Huawei are in demand. This does not, however, detract from the second-hand market.

The function of the second-hand consumer market is ambivalent: on the one hand, it benefits from the growth ideology, because only a fast turnover guarantees device replenishment, on the other hand, it offers a pragmatic way to extend the short-lived life of a smartphone and thus reduce its throughput rate. Many devices that can no longer be sold in Switzerland, pass through middlemen, relatives or tourists in countries with low purchasing power, especially to southern and eastern Europe, as well as Asia and Africa. Basically, the poorer the quality of the device, the further from Switzerland it is sold or given away. Many defective devices go to China, where they are repaired and resold to poorer regions of Asia or Africa. However, this could change soon as China is about to revise the import conditions for scrap.

Within the frame of a ‘good cause’, official mobile phone service points and other second-hand dealers in Switzerland are helping to equip people from disadvantaged regions with mobile phones and to reduce the e-waste in the North or move it to the South. Often, a large portion of the sales proceeds benefits relief organizations. For example, the Lausanne-based trading company Helvetrade works with Terre des Hommes. However, what exactly happens with the old smartphones in the international used-phone market eludes both concern and control. Hardly anyone can say exactly how long these devices are still in use before they become toxic e-waste. How to deal with the dilemma that the ‘good cause’ at the same time leads to the accumulation of e-waste, for which there are still hardly sustainable solutions in these countries, is a crucial question. The issue is not new: for example, second-hand car trading has led to countries like Senegal imposing an import ban. Thus, the problem can only be properly addressed by looking for a solution to e-waste. Everything turns into junk, concludes Anthony Bankole, aka ‘Tony Schrott’, one of the e-waste traders in Lagos. That’s why this business is so promising for him: “I already know that my two super, new smartphones are going to become junk.”

“The used mobile phone market can be compared with the second-hand car market: once the first market became saturated, the second-hand trade began. This situation has now occurred in Western countries. In Switzerland it is only just beginning: here only 1-2% of cell phones return into use, compared with other countries where the ratio can be 20-40%.” RS Switzerland

Ecology or changing market?

Even companies such as Samsung or Apple are now entering the used cell phone market. They do this not for environmental reasons but to participate in the developing market.


With the smartphone, there are hardly any alternatives. It is a sealed minicomputer whose reparability and recyclability is difficult.

Nevertheless, about 15 components in a smartphone can be repaired. The repair options in Switzerland have risen rapidly in the last two to three years. It is no longer just small, alternative repair shops or online second-hand dealers like that perform this service. In the meantime, it has become possible to have defective devices mended on the premises of the mobile giant Swisscom, for example. This is remarkable as sustainability contradicts its core business – increasing sales of new equipment. Their particular achievement, in contrast to the small repair shops, is that they are licensed by companies such as Apple. Up to now, warranty claims would expire if people had their device repaired.


The best intervention is the Fairphone or the SHIFTphone, since their components are designed with interchangeability in mind. However, interchangeability and reparability are promises not easily held due to the dependence on production components. For example, the Fairphone 1 could no longer be retrofitted after about 3 years due to spare parts that were no longer available and incompatible software.

The lifespan of 5-6 years for a smartphone, as opposed to the predicted and targeted 12-24 month initial use, is not bad, especially considering that the small size of the device leaves relatively little electronic waste.

Although the smartphone is designed as a short-use, throw- away product, it can be used individually quite ‘a little bit’ differently. Therein, lie opportunities that in the end make the smartphone interesting for the increasingly important, collectively lived DIY cultures of repairing. In such DIY cultures, the common activities of patching are understood as forms of a ‘post-growth society’ that relativize life in abundance – in a playful and non-abstemious way.

Sources: From discussions with Helvetrade SA Lausanne (18.8.2016); Jérôme Grandgirard / Romina Hofer, RS Switzerland Fribourg (8.9.2016), Peter Oertlin,, Cham (11.8.2016); Swisscom Shop, Zurich (July 2017); Daniel Kötter, Berlin (31.1.2018); David Signer, Dakar (August 2017); Die Zeit online:

How does the second-hand market work in Switzerland?

In Switzerland, companies like, RS Switzerland, Helvetrade SA or Revendo operate the second-hand consumer market.

The second-hand mobile market in West Africa

Many paths of used mobile phones lead to West Africa. One of the main axes runs from Central Europe via South-eastern Europe or directly to West Africa. Another comes from China –especially from Hong Kong or Guangzhou, where broken devices are repaired. African traders buy devices in these places and transport them – often via Dubai – to West Africa. In many cities, there are entire districts dedicated to electronic goods trading. There used or broken mobile phones are taken apart, repaired and resold. Many young African men have gained a great deal of expertise as ‘smartphone doctors’ through their sophisticated repair work on such difficult or ‘impossible’ devices as smartphones.

In Africa, Chinese brands in the lower and middle price segment have swamped the market. Even more expensive brands like Huawei are also to be found. Companies such as Tecno Mobile, for example, fully relied on the African market in 2008, and since 2017 also on Southeast Asia, in countries such as India, Bangladesh or Pakistan. In 2016, the Chinese company InnJoo launched its smartphone in Lagos, and other companies followed suit. In 2012, Tecno Mobile produced the first smartphone “Made in Ethiopia”. Cheap brands allow many people to afford a new device. However, no warranty is offered with such phones. As both the films by Daniel Kötter from Lagos and the texts by Mohomodou Houssouba from Bamako, Gao and Ouagadougou show, newly purchased cheap phones (‘Chinese Phones’) cannot be exchanged if they have manufacturing defects. Such devices also end up in the electronics quarters of these cities, where they are repaired alongside the many used, scrap devices.

According to David Signer, Africa correspondent for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, who lives in Dakar, there is much to be said in terms of information technology in the current IT situation in Africa. There are hacker scenes in Nigeria, and especially Kenya is technically advanced. But ultimately, the Chinese have dominated the smartphone and IT field. Many Africans are creative users, but powerful IT and engineering skills have yet to be built and systematized. There has been a lack of technical training opportunities that could provide state-of-the-art knowledge. Already in the second-hand car market Africa has developed great skills in repairing. However, it seems now that the computerization of cars and the monopolization of spare parts could well make this competence superfluous.

Sources: From discussions with Helvetrade SA, Lausanne (18.8.2016); Jérôme Grandgirard / Romina Hofer, RS Switzerland, Fribourg (8.9.2016); Peter Oertlin,, Cham (11.8.2016); Daniel Kötter, Berlin (31.1.2018); David Signer, Dakar (August 2017).

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