African Engineers: Help Still Needed
Much has been written about how the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) helped the small engineering workshops of Suame Magazine, Kumasi, Ghana’s largest informal industrial area. Over two decades, beginning in 1972, and gradually extending to other industrial areas in Accra, Tema, Sunyani and even Bolgatanga in the extreme north, the programme helped to establish over one hundred machine shops making tools and equipment for agriculture, post harvest and food processing industries and traditional craft industries. Using basic machine tools like metal-turning lathes and milling machines, a few hundred engineers provided the plant and equipment for thousands of work places in these secondary industries. Yet this very significant spread effect depended upon the constant importation and supply of a few essential engineering tools which the TCC is no longer able to maintain, and which now presents the small industrialists with a major constraint.
A study of Suame Magazine undertaken in recent years by Anna Waldman-Brown of MIT and George Yaw Obeng and Yaw Adu-Gyamfi of KNUST, entitled: Innovation and Stagnation among Ghana’s Technical Artisans, reports that since the mid-1990s progress in the informal engineering sector has slowed to a stop. The absence of institutional support has meant that the supply of affordable technical inputs has ceased. As tools were worn out, broken or lost, certain manufacturing operations were no longer possible. Not only did the introduction of new products become more difficult, but some well established products could no longer be made.
Tools were never supplied free of charge. The TCC and GRATIS always recovered the cost of inputs from the artisans but they went to great lengths to keep the price low. Often, used, but still usable, tools were purchased in the UK and resold at cost plus the cost of transportation. Some tools that were donated by UK workshops that were closing, were sold to the artisans at only the cost of shipping to Ghana. As time went on, competition from other developing countries added to the cost and scarcity of used equipment, and new items were purchased in greater quantities but the artisans were still able to bear the cost. It was realised that in the long term the industry must be supplied by commercial enterprises and it was thought that these would earn their profit by purchasing at wholesale prices.
Importation is the business of traders, and since the IMF imposed its dictates on Ghana in the mid-1980s, most imported products have originated in China. The TCC and GRATIS tried to persuade traders to import the essential inputs needed by the grassroots engineering industry but the potential profits were never seen as sufficient to justify the effort. The inputs are technical and need to be exactly specified, and specialised items are needed in relatively small quantities. Traders lacked the patience and the incentive to understand the needs of clients and contact the sources of supply, even though the TCC and GRATIS were able to provide most of the necessary technical and commercial information.
Chinese importation supplies commonplace items like hand hacksaw blades but the larger heavy-duty blades needed for powered hacksawing machines are harder to find. In a similar way, taps and dies for hand threading are available but not machine taps and dies needed on a capstan lathe. Without going into more technical detail, it can be said that there is still a pressing need for special machine tooling and for precision measuring instruments. Once again it must be emphasised that these few essential inputs seed a spread effect that benefits thousands of disadvantaged people in all parts of the country. Anyone interested in helping, either charitably or by establishing a commercial supply, can obtain a recent list of needs by contacting the author through the website below.