African Engineers: Joseph Barimah Kwako

African Engineers: Joseph Barimah Kwako

The story of Joseph Barimah Kwako illustrates one of the fundamental principles of technology transfer to small enterprises in developing countries: technical knowledge is important but entrepreneurial zeal is essential. Even before the founding of the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) in January 1972, a group of engineers of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, had established a project to demonstrate an upgraded technology for producing steel bolts and nuts and were introducing it to the artisans of Ghana’s largest informal industrial area, Suame Magazine. A production unit on the university campus operated successfully for several years and many artisans were trained in the new technology but it was only after Joseph Kwako appeared on the scene that the technology transferred successfully to the private sector.

In a survey of Suame Magazine in 1971, KNUST engineers discovered that large quantities of steel bolts and nuts were used in the construction of wooden bodies for trotros (privately-owned public transport vehicles based on old Bedford truck chasses) and cocoa trucks (goods transport vehicles) and these were produced locally by blacksmiths and centre lathe turners. The quality of the bolts and nuts was poor and the rate of production was slow. The KNUST engineers decided to introduce a new technology based on the use of capstan (turret) lathes, and with a grant from Barclays Bank International Development Fund a pilot production unit was established.

The TCC opened a commercially-operating Steel Bolt Production Unit (SBPU) on the KNUST campus in January 1973. Production continued uninterrupted until the SBPU moved to the Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit (ITTU) at Suame Magazine in August 1980. By that time the SBPU had produced and sold over 200,000 bolt and nut sets, provided 80 man-years of employment and trained 50 artisans in all basic skills: capstan lathe and milling machine operations and die-forging. In spite of problems of raw material supply and the availability of imported tooling, production was maintained and costs were recovered. However, the profit margin was low and no private enterprise could be persuaded to take up the new technology.

Joseph Barimah Kwako came to the TCC in the mid 1970s looking for a product to sell. He had been trained as a pharmaceutical technician, but as salaries fell lower and lower in purchasing power he left his post at Mbrom Hospital in Kumasi to seek his fortune in self-employment as a trader. Joseph was shown all the products that had been introduced by the TCC: soap, broadcloth, honey, paper glue, Afro-wigs, steel bolts and nuts and other engineering products, etc. He departed with a few samples, promising to do his best to find new markets to further encourage local production.

When he came back a few weeks later Joseph brought an order for a quantity of steel bolts and nuts. At first he said only that they were for a customer in Accra. His visits became more frequent, and the size of the orders grew, until a point was reached at which Joseph asked for help in transporting the consignments to his customer, Kofifo Boatbuilding Co. Ltd. This newly-established enterprise was building 20 metre ocean-going fishing boats at Accra’s old harbour, used only for fishing since the construction of the modern port at Tema, 30 kilometres to the East. Kofifo claimed that the availability of locally produced steel fasteners, made to their requirements at short delivery times, was essential to the success of their business.

The products of the SBPU were sold to the wooden vehicle body builders of Suame Magazine, to building contractors for roof trusses and to farmers for gate and fence construction, but it was the fishing boat industry that proved to be the biggest, most lucrative and reliable market. The locally-produced fasteners could not compete with foreign-made products on price, and when credit facilities allowed importation the SBPU concentrated on niche markets with special requirements and left the general market for standard products to the importers. In the 1970s and early 1980s, however, there were long periods when imported goods were not available and local manufacturers had the whole market to themselves.

Joseph Kwako’s trade in steel bolts and nuts continued for two years before he came to the TCC with a new request. Saying that he had accumulated a large capital sum from trading, he asked if he could be helped to establish his own bolt and nut production unit. It was pointed out to him that much technical knowledge was needed and he was not trained as an engineer. He insisted that he had sufficient funds to purchase the necessary used machine tools that the TCC was importing to establish four private production units. He proposed to acquire the necessary technical expertise by apprenticing his son to the SBPU and offering employment to some of the young men who had already completed their training. Impressed by his enthusiasm, the TCC included Joseph Kwako in the next phase of the technology transfer programme.

Four private enterprises began steel bolt and nut production in Kumasi in 1979. Three were owned and run by trained engineering technicians and one by a pharmaceutical technician turned trader. Needless to say, it was Joseph Barimah Kwako who over the succeeding years achieved the greatest commercial success and the fastest rate of expansion of his business.

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