June 2, 2023


Innovating For A Better Future

African Engineers: No Sweat?

3 min read

Not long after the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, Ghana, had been founded in January 1972, the Director was explaining the process of Appropriate Technology to a visiting American professor and his wife. Firstly, he said, it was necessary to study the technologies that were already in use in grassroots enterprises and then to introduce a more advanced technology that was achievable within existing constraints on raw material supplies, infrastructure, market size and preferences, and entrepreneurial skills. Often, this would be realised by adopting or adapting an historic more labour-intensive technology, used in Western countries at a time when production units and their markets were much smaller. ‘Oh no!’ the professor’s wife expostulated, ‘I don’t think these people should be subjected to a Victorian era of sweated labour.’ At the time, it seemed impossible to propose a sweat-free path to a modern technological society, but as the years rolled by the good matron’s dream has come to seem more and more achievable.

It was certainly going to be very difficult to introduce a Victorian era of sweated labour in Ghana. It was clear, even in 1972, that Ghana would never advance as rapidly as Malaysia, formed from other British colonies granted independence in the same year of 1957. No doubt economists have identified many factors that contributed to the disparity in the rate of economic advance, but one difference is clearly apparent: the cost of labour. Multinational companies established production units in South East Asian countries to take advantage of the low labour costs and Malaysia was one of the first countries to be enriched by this phenomenon. Ghana was always unlikely to benefit in this way. Foreign companies operating in Ghana in the 1970s complained that low labour productivity rendered their operations unviable, and several of them closed down. Studies conducted by the TCC at that time indicated that labour productivity was roughly three times lower in Ghana than in India. It seems that the professor’s wife need not have worried; Ghanaians had an inborn resistance to sweated labour.

Few people in the 1970s could have predicted the electronic revolution that has swept across the globe in the three subsequent decades. Anyone visiting Ghana today, who knew the country in the 1970s, is immediately struck by the apparently universal plague of earache. Everyone is clutching a mobile telephone. Outside in the streets of the towns and villages, very little else has changed, but inside every office a personal computer has replaced the typewriters of old. One marvels not so much at the technology per se but at the fact that it seems to be universally available in a low income country. How it is afforded one can leave to the economists to explain, but the fact that it is affordable cannot be doubted. Has the exploitation of the electron opened a window of opportunity to an era of sweat-free wealth?

Computers and mobile telephones open up great vistas of rapid communication and access to information that are essential prerequisites to economic advance, but in manufacturing industries the means of production must be similarly advanced. In the 1970s the advanced industries of the Western countries used technology of very large scale which the father of appropriate technology, Dr E F Schumacher, rightly signalled in Small is Beautiful, was inappropriate for most developing countries, not only because of its high cost but also because it was designed to serve much larger markets. However, as electronically controlled production facilities have been introduced, many of these have evolved as small units that can be combined in large numbers in big plants but also used singly or in small numbers in small and medium enterprises. The trend is on-going and the cost of NC machining centres and robotic manipulators is still unaffordable to most grassroots industrialists. At the same time, progress is fast and further falls in cost are likely.

Computer controlled machines will be very popular in Suame Magazine, Kumasi, and all of Ghana’s grassroots engineering enterprises. Machines that produce 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, need no wages, attend no funerals and steal no tools or materials seem to present a panacea for all their ills. One must hope that if this lady’s dream is realised, suitable economic and social provision will be made to ensure sweat-free employment for all those technicians and artisans who are made redundant.

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