Health Makes More Healthy


African Engineers: The Queen Doesn’t Loiter

In the Kingdom of Ashanti, which comprised about half of modern Ghana, tradition records say that it was the queen mother who was responsible for introducing new technologies such as the iron hoe and the oil lamp. So when the newly-formed Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, was in search of a logo in 1972, it chose a traditional design, printed on cloth by the Adinkra craftsmen of the village of Ntonso and called ‘ohemaa nkyinkyin’ or the queen mother doesn’t loiter about with nothing to do. The emblem does not only have a name but also a message: ‘esese me danedane me ho na meye neama pii, I must change myself and play many parts.’ Engineering, like some other professions, has traditionally been considered a male preserve, so it is pleasing to note that in Ghana, past and present, women have been accorded due credit for their involvement in technical innovation.

One activity that is traditionally associated with women is jam making, and one of Ghana’s earliest and most successful industrial entrepreneurs was a jam maker, Esther Ocloo, who had to acquire a good deal of technical knowledge in establishing her large modern food processing plant, Nkulenu Industries, at Madina near Accra. Esther Ocloo was elected the first president of the Ghana Manufacturers Association when it was founded in 1958 (as the Federation of Ghana Industries) and she was re-elected to serve a second term from 1978 to 1980. Her enormous contribution to grassroots industrialisation in Ghana was recognised by the TCC and she was awarded an honorary DSc by KNUST at its Silver Jubilee congregation for the conferment of degrees in 1976. It was to be one of the earliest of many national and international honours conferred upon her over the next quarter century.

Shortly after the death of Dr Ocloo in 2002, her niece, Dr Peggy Oti-Boateng, was appointed director of the TCC. Peggy had joined the TCC in 1982 to serve her year of National Service and she stayed on to promote women’s projects in food processing and beekeeping. After some years away, including studying for a PhD in Australia, Peggy returned to the TCC as a senior member, leading to her appointment as director in 2003. So the involvement of women, and the Nkulenu clan, in grassroots industrial development continued into the twenty first century.

Cecilia Apawu graduated from KNUST in 1989 with a degree in mining and mineral engineering. For her final year thesis, Cecilia chose to work with the TCC’s Suame Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit (ITTU) on a study of the technology of the aluminium pot casters of Suame Magazine, Ghana’s largest informal industrial areas. The work she accomplished was a good example of how the scientific method can be applied to understand and eventually upgrade an established grassroots industry. Later, after joining the GRATIS project at Tema, near Accra, Cecilia was able to repeat her study with the artisans in Ashiaman and establish a training programme at the Tema ITTU to help them improve the quality of their products.

In the early 1980s, at the Suame ITTU, no young women came forward for apprenticeships in any of the engineering workshops. This was probably because of the strong male tradition in the crafts of the Magazine. However, when the ITTU came to Tamale, and later to Tema, it found no such barriers to female recruitment and young women applied for apprenticeships in increasing numbers. The process was aided by the presence of female engineers and technicians who undoubtedly encouraged their sisters to follow them into engineering. By the turn of the century, several former female apprentices of the Tamale and Tema ITTUs were running their own small engineering workshops equipped with modern machine tools.

One of the most successful projects of the Tema ITTU was the introduction of the locally-manufactured metal-spinning lathe. This development was prompted by the availability of aluminium sheets produced in Tema by Aluworks Ltd. Using lathes made in Tema by Kofi Asiamah’s Redeemer workshop and others, entrepreneurs produced large quantities of domestic pots and pans that sold at competitive prices in local markets. In 5 years the industry grew to include more than a hundred producers employing an estimated 5000 workers. Many of the pioneering entrepreneurs were women who had formerly sold imported products of a similar nature. It may be centuries since the queen mother of Ashanti saw the advantages of the oil lamp but women in Ghana today are still quick to spot opportunities to benefit from new industrial developments.