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African Engineers: Women in Engineering

African Engineers: Women in Engineering

It is well known that in Ghana many of the most successful entrepreneurs and wealthiest people are women. They are famous for dominating certain sectors of the economy, owning hundreds of taxis, tipper trucks and fishing boats. On a smaller scale, women are widely involved in trading, food processing and some craft industries. From the time that the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, opened on 11 January 1972, many of the people calling for help to upgrade their enterprises were women. Yet in the vast informal industrial area, Suame Magazine, Kumasi, with its thousands of workshops and tens of thousands of master craftsmen and apprentices, there was not a single woman engaged in any engineering activity, and it was not until the 1990s that a serious effort was made to change the situation.

In the early days of the TCC some of the most successful businesses assisted by university consultants were owned and run by women. Mrs Clara Appiah successfully produced Afro-wigs from sisal hemp fibre from 1972 until her untimely death in 1974. Madam Offeh played a leading role in her husband’s animal feed business, established as they often remarked during the United Nations International Women’s Year (1975), and Vera Gambrah ran a thriving soap making business until the small scale industry was obliterated by IMF dictates in 1985. Encouraged by these early successes, many more women came forward with small industry projects to take advantage of new technologies becoming available through the TCC in textiles and food processing. After the introduction of modern beekeeping in the early 1980s many women became involved in establishing small apiaries. From its founding in 1975, this initiative to involve more women in small scale enterprise was greatly encouraged and supported by the National Council of Women and Development (NCWD), but throughout the 1970s and 1980s only one woman came forward to the TCC in Kumasi with an interest in starting an engineering enterprise, and she was not from Suame Magazine but from Tema.

Tema is about 300 kilometres from Kumasi on the south coast, east of Accra. Originally a small fishing village, Tema was developed by the government of Kwame Nkrumah (1957 – 1966) into a modern harbour handling most of Ghana’s imports. This development attracted many industries, large and small. In this more progressive environment, Georgina Degbor had trained as a centre lathe turner. She came to the TCC in Kumasi in 1986 with a request to be allocated one of the used Colchester Triumph centre lathes expected to arrive before the end of the year. Georgina’s skills were assessed at the Suame Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit (ITTU) and the decision was taken to help her start her own small engineering enterprise. However, as Georgina lived in Tema, the matter was passed to the Tema ITTU when the GRATIS Project started there in February 1987. She installed her machine in workshop space hired from the ITTU and became a role model demonstrating to other young women that engineering craft skills were no longer a male preserve. With another trained female technician, Elizabeth Asiamah, on the ITTU staff, it was not long before the Tema ITTU was attracting girls as well as boys onto its apprenticeship programme.

In 1987, the GRATIS Project took over the Tamale ITTU from the TCC. It surprised many seasoned engineering instructors that in this remote northern outpost, with its essentially rural setting, girls came forward to apply for technical apprenticeships on an equal scale to Tema. The first generation of apprentices in Tema and Tamale served their time, and most of them went on to establish their own workshops, either as sole proprietorships or with two or three artisans in partnership. The progress of women in engineering was steady but slow, so in the mid-1990s the TCC joined with Intermediate Technology Ghana (ITGhana), a Tema-based NGO, to mount a ‘Women in Engineering’ project supported by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Young women who had graduated from the ITTU apprenticeship programme were recruited to carry out a nationwide survey of engineering enterprises and technical schools to identify the women who were already qualified or under training in an engineering craft. At the same time workshop owners and master craftsmen were encouraged to recruit apprentices of both genders and generally to participate in the Women in Engineering project. The project culminated in a national forum, held in the British Council Hall in Accra, attended by government officials, technical instructors, workshop owners and most of the female technicians and apprentices identified by the survey. A central feature of the forum was the presentation of the life stories of some of the pioneering women workshop owners. The event was regarded as a major success; it was well reported in the media, alerted government to the challenge and the opportunity and changed the attitude of many male workshop owners. The engineering industry in Ghana may not have become an equal opportunity employer overnight but a significant step had been taken in that direction.