Hi-tech, but is it appropriate?

BY: Enimil Ashon

Seen those quiz games sets on television that light up and ring a bell when the Maths and Science Quiz contestants press a button? They are made in Ghana.

The maker is a Ghanaian mechanical engineer, Pinock Casely Hayford.

He was credited with the manufacture, some time ago, of a corn sheller which was adopted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

This year, he manufactured a rotator for Kwaw Ansah’s Bisa Aberwa Museum in Sekondi, an engineering feat which many had thought could come only from Europe or North America.

Like the surroundings of most practical engineers, the sight that greets you at the workshop of Pinock’s Breeze and Windy Engineering Enterprise in Accra does not give you hope: what appears to be junk - bolts and nuts, discarded pipes, retired machines, old rotors and lathe machines in which there seems to be no hope of life.

Welcome to Pinock’s world of appropriate technology.

“Our scientists are jumping the gun,” his voice is choked.

“We are by-passing Intermediate or Appropriate Technology into so-called hi-tech.”

He concedes that there’s nothing wrong with hi-tech, but he queries: “Is it appropriate?

A year after buying the latest cell phone, a higher spec is on the way, making the latest obsolete.

So we are always importing, never originating.”

He points to the Chinese.

They adopt technology appropriate to their level of development and go into re-engineering; sell, first, in the Chinese market, improve the technology, expand their markets and start exporting them.

“Here in Africa, we have become salesmen for Chinese goods,” Pinoch observes, a note of contempt in his voice.

“We want to drive the latest 4x4.

We used to laugh at the Chinese for primitive goods but we are now buying aboboya from them in the thousands.”

Which for me as a writer is worrisome. Years ago, in the 1980s, UAC and R.T. Briscoe, both in Ghana, used UST engineering graduates to make Boafo and Adom trucks, simple but strong enough for transporting goods from farms and markets.

This means that long before China thought of it, Ghana was manufacturing something more robust than aboboya.

With time, we would have improved on the technology.

India’s technological leap

Among engineers throughout the world, India’s technological leap is legend.

How was it achieved? Simple.

Prime Minister Nehru locked up India for 20 years.

No imports.

The only machine in use was the British Morris Minor – simple technology easy to repair. Indian engineers pried it apart, understood the technology and put it together their own way.

The result is TATA, an Indian vehicle competing on the world stage.

Ghana has been importing TATA for years.

The difference is political leadership.

What happened to the Boafo and Adom? For an answer, Pinock cites his own experience with Ghanaian policy makers and civil servants.

“In 1984, my father and I manufactured a mosquito spray pump from recycled plastics.

It was so good Ghanaians were queuing, practically sleeping outside our factory for supplies.

One civil servant took bribe from a Korean manufacturer and allowed him to flood the market with imported pumps”.

Once upon a time, Ghanaians were making chalk; indeed, by 2003/2004, one factory could supply Ministry of Education with four articulators of chalk.

The chalk was so good Ghana was supplying West Africa.

Pinock and his dad were involved.

“We were making the chalk sleeves (mould) at our company, from scraps.”

But again, the hand of evil struck.

“Someone, a top man at the Ministry of Education took a bribe from a Korean manufacturer and let it be known that the Ghanaian chalks were being made by lepers.

It worked: Ghanaians rejected the made-in-Ghana chalk.”

The same “hand of evil” was at work when Pinock and his dad, out of scraps, manufactured mosquito spray pumps.

A Ghana-based multinational company was buying our pumps.

After a while, they demanded US$50,000.00 kickback.

“When we were unable to pay, they stopped our contract and started importing pumps from overseas.”

Hope

Yet if there is hope for Ghanaian factories and for the teeming unemployed graduates, it lies in these appropriate technologies.

Pinoch looked at me helplessly.

“At the least, we’ve got to get to a point where we can feed ourselves.”

He thinks it will help to tinker a little with the engineering curriculum in our universities, referring me to the California and China models where the relevant questions a fresh engineering student has to answer are: “Can you weld? Can you fix a broken down bicycle or motorbike?”

Without these questions, our universities will turn out PhD engineering graduates filled with a lot of theory.

Pinock teaches practical engineering at Academic City in Accra, preparing students for industry.

The writer is the Executive Director, Centre for Communication and Culture, E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.