African Engineers: Edward Opare

Edward Opare was a small soft-spoken man with less than the full complement of fingers. He was described by an Australian scientist in 1972 as the best engineering technician he had ever met and this was an opinion that many international experts came to share over the next three decades. Coming from the Akwapem tribe of the Easter Region of Ghana, Edward spoke the most elegant dialect of the Twi languages that won his people the epithet ‘I beg you people’ from the polite phrase they used at the beginning of so many of their utterances. Always humble and self-effacing this naturally modest man was to play the central role in the greatest transformation in the history of Ghana’s largest informal industrial area, Suame Magazine in Kumasi. It was Edward Opare who brought iron foundries to the great magazine.

In 1972 the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, was looking for a skilled technician to undertake a special project during his annual leave from regular employment at the university. On the recommendation of John Barnacle, an Australian wood preservation expert attached to the Forest Products Research Institute (FPRI), Edward Opare was hired for the work of building a steel-framed handloom for the TCC’s Broadloom Weaving Project.

The narrow-loom Kente weaving industry of Ashanti was, and is, world renowned, but lecturers in the university’s College of Art felt that broadloom weaving should also be introduced. They persuaded the TCC to mount a project to train broadloom weavers and establish them in self-employment. This effort required broadlooms to be manufactured and initially these were ordered from local carpenters to patterns supplied by the College of Art. Though generally satisfactory, the wooden looms tended to warp and split when used in the drier climate of Ghana’s Upper and Northern Regions. So the TCC decided to produce a prototype loom with a steel frame and this was the task assigned to Edward Opare. Fourteen years later, at the first INDUTECH industrial fair, held in Accra in March 1986, it was Edward’s loom that first caught the eye of Head of State Jerry John Rawlings as he toured the university’s stand with Dr Francis Acquah, Secretary for Industry, Science and Technology.

When the TCC was ready to open the first Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit (ITTU) at Suame Magazine in 1980, Edward was asked to take the post of Chief Technician and he held this position until his retirement in the late 1990s. One of the initial aims of the Suame ITTU was to introduce iron founding and during the preparatory phase in 1981 Edward was sent for three months training and on-the-job experience at a small foundry in England. He returned full of enthusiasm to pass on his new knowledge.

Iron casting was first demonstrated at the Suame ITTU early in 1982. From that time, interested artisans were invited to attend the ITTU for training and were supplied with furnaces made in the ITTU workshops. After an initial period assisted by a US Peace Corps engineer volunteer, Edward was responsible for the whole programme. The first trainees were aluminium pot casters who already understood the basic technology and wanted to expand their activities by adding iron products. The first commercial iron foundry, run by Timothy Atanga, was very successful in producing and selling replacement corn mill grinding plates, which were much in demand, and many artisans from other fields of work joined the queue of foundry trainees.

New foundry enterprises began to appear in all parts of the magazine. At first, all used the lift-out crucible furnace of 70 kilogram capacity made at the ITTU, but soon Edward Opare had helped Timothy Atanga to construct a large cupola furnace with a capacity of more than a tonne a day. This furnace needed no imported crucible and burned as fuel discarded carbon electrodes from the Valco Aluminium smelter in Tema. This was the technology that was most widely copied and came to transform the activity of much of the magazine in the 1990s and 2000s, with numerous foundries each employing more than 50 people and a total workforce measured in thousands.

The best quality iron castings were still made in the smaller crucible furnaces where the carbon content of the iron could be tightly controlled, and these continued in use making products for various niche markets. After retiring from the ITTU and from the university, Edward established his own foundry making replacement parts for broken-down machines of foreign origin. Sometimes using two furnaces, and pouring iron simultaneously from both, he was able to produce replacement parts of up to 140 kilograms weight. By this method, large road-making machines could be repaired locally, saving weeks and months that would otherwise be taken to bring parts from overseas.

However many good ideas he generated, or new methods he introduced, Edward knew that he would always be copied and he never ceased to help the copiers. That was the way the ITTU worked and that was the way Edward always worked: not only for the benefit of himself and his family but for the community he loved and loved him in return. Amongst the more than one hundred thousand inhabitants of Suame Magazine Edward Opare’s name is honoured today and should be honoured in time to come as one of the fathers of the grassroots industrial revolution in Ghana.

Source by John Powell

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