“The journey has not been without huge obstacles, including the traditional definition of who a woman should be, societal demands on what a woman should do, family requirements of what a woman should have, and intimidations from class/schoolmates amidst name calling like ‘witch’, ‘obaa dendene’, ‘bayie’, etc”.
Recounting her experiences, these are the words of Ghana’s first female Professor of Metallurgical and Minerals Processing Engineering, Prof. Grace Ofori Sarpong, of the University of Mines and Technology, Tarkwa.
Not a surprising narrative, right? Considering the general but erroneous perception that engineering is the preserve of men.
Women in Engineering
In the recent past, there have been some policy interventions such as the establishment of the Science Education Unit, and the Girls’ Education Unit in 1997; coupled with non-policy interventions such as the Electricity Company of Ghana’s drive to train 100 girls in Engineering, the National Science and Maths Quiz (NSMQ), etc. More recently, the Minister of Education single-handedly hunted for 100 students to be trained in engineering at the University of Mines and Technology with about six per cent women as part of the programme.
“The aim of these interventions are to partly attract and train more women in the field. Ironically, the number of women in engineering in Ghana is still relatively low as women in engineering accounted for only seven per cent as of October 2020,” according to the Ghana Institution of Engineering.
Albeit, the field has seen some outstanding female personalities whose contributions have been nothing short of excellence due to the enormity of the impact of their innovations on society, especially, the rural poor and vulnerable, and on the environment.
Notable among them is the design and construction of the gari processing machine by Deborah Opandoh and Bernice Dapaah, who builds bicycles using bamboo and recycled materials.
“All sorts of things can happen when you are open to new ideas and playing around with things,” said the Polish-American chemist, Stephanie Kwolek, and the following are no exceptions.
Development of alcohol detector and engine locking device
Among the key targets of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 is to improve road safety under affordable and sustainable transport systems.
Onboard technologies in cars such as the Bluetooth hands-free kit for making phone calls, the drowsiness detection system to detect whether a driver is tired or drowsy, the road heating system for melting snow and ice, as well as the automatic tyre controller system, which informs the driver of the tyre pressure level, are some of the solutions developed to reduce the dangers on the road.
Provisional statistics from the Motor Traffic and Transport Department (MTTD) of Ghana in October 2021 indicated that about 10 per cent of road accidents in the same year were a result of drink-driving. Although the solutions to road accidents are multifaceted, new automotive safety technologies could sharply reduce road accidents, saving thousands of lives and billions in financial costs.
A potential solution, indigenous, and one that affirms the fact that no country in the post-colonial era has thrived without first building its capacity to conduct scientific research, is the innovation of an alcohol detection and engine locking system developed by two (2) female engineering students from the University of Mines and Technology, Tarkwa, to curb drink-driving.
This innovation, the first of its kind in the country, departs from the conventional, but sometimes highly subjective use of breath analyser by road safety officers due to possible human interference, with the installation of sensors near the ignition of a vehicle.
The system can detect the presence of alcohol and sends a short message to a company’s office, station master, relatives or a control room when it (alcohol) exceeds the acceptable levels of Blood Alcohol Content. The device then automatically prevents the engine from starting, which consequently prevents any risk of accident and subsequent injury or death to humans.
Irene Okai (left) and Mercy Quaye (right) and demonstration of the device. Photo credit: Audio-Visual Unit, UMaT, Tarkwa
Production of briquettes from waste by women engineers
The quest to reduce the heavy dependence on charcoal and wood fuels as sources of cooking energy, and its debilitating effect on the environment, has resulted in a rethinking by female engineers on how to stop the practice and instead find alternative energy sources for household cooking and low-income earners in Ghana.
The innovation is driven by Goal 7 of the SDGs, which seeks to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all by 2030. Again, with a target of expanding infrastructure and upgrading technology for supplying modern and sustainable energy services for all in developing countries, the engineers process coconut husks into sustainable home energy as an alternative to fuel or charcoal. Labelled “GreenCoal”, the engineers are contributing to the green revolution with their “Waste-to-Energy” (W2E) mantra, while seeking to scale up the production for export and also create jobs.
Production of organic sanitary pad by women engineers
Women are faced with health issues such as ovarian cancer due to exposure to bleached rayon and polymer powder used in producing some pads, while the fragrance used in pads results in skin irritations to some people due to long usage. Again, girls in rural areas miss school during their periods due to the high cost of sanitary napkins. Another environmental concern is the fact that sanitary napkins are made from inorganic materials such as bleached rayon that do not decompose; hence, spending years at the landfill site.
To address the environmental, health and educational challenges related to menstruation, female engineering students have proffered a solution with the use of banana pulp, to produce not only sanitary pads for women but also disposable pants with pads for composite use during menstruation.
With this innovation, the use of banana fibre, which is biodegradable and health-friendly but is of no use to farmers, contributes to the “waste as resource” doctrine, in achieving the SDGs.
Career and Innovation Fair
It is well acknowledged that science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. The problem, however, is that in Ghana, there are not enough platforms for innovators to express their creativity in the form of tangible engineering solutions.
A refreshing narrative, however, is the creation of a flagship platform by the University of Mines and Technology, Tarkwa, to unearth engineering solutions locally to address some of the engineering, health, environmental, industrial and social challenges to improve lives. The annual event, dubbed “Think Smart, Be Innovative”, is an integral part of the academic calendar of the university where companies in the mining, petroleum and allied industries converge to witness and possibly, take up some of the engineering solutions offered by students and lecturers.
This year’s event saw 12 teams made up of 39 male and eleven 11 female engineering students, with team “Orasave”, developers of an IoT-Based Fire, Gas and Smoke Detector, emerging as eventual winners of the 6th Innovation and Career Fair, having Jessica Emefa Torgbenu-Banini, as a female in the winning team.
The five previous editions have also featured female engineering students who have led groundbreaking innovations such as “Cocoanet”, a mobile application for early cocoa disease and pest detection leading to early treatment of affected cocoa trees, by Jewel Ami De-Quist and Nancy Yeboah Darko, who researched into the use of Mine Granite for Road Construction in Ghana.
A call for partnership
The University also commemorates the World Day of Women and Girls in Science every February, with a special focus on building the confidence of females to think innovatively, through the blending of STEM, creativity and entrepreneurship, as an additional platform to train more women in the field. The general public, pro-women organisations, industries and other partners are welcome to partner with the university in this direction.