Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ghana Materials Industry, Part 2

Ghana's Ceramics Industry: On Flower Pots, Roof Tiles, and Nano Technology

Any visitor to the University of Ghana, Legon campus, is immediately struck by the lovely terra cotta roof tiles. For many years the campus buildings were sadly neglected, so on my latest trip it was inspiring to see the numerous construction and renovation activities on campus. I was pleased to note the deliberate effort to preserve the original architecture, represented in part, by the red-tiled roofs.

Our second field trip took us to a company that supplies some of the tiles being used at the university, Ceramica Tamakloe, in Dodowa, near Accra. Peter Tamakloe, the proprietor and Managing Director, is a graduate of the College of Art of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST). He began by making flower pots for export and when that business
slowed down he experimented with local clays for the manufacture of unglazed tiles. Lately, he's also added another product: ceramic-based water purification systems. Incidentally, the antibacterial action of the filtration system relies on a coating of nanosize silver particles.

Mr. Tamakloe is passionate when he talks about the need for people to put their head knowledge into practice.

Here are some words of wisdom he shared with us that day:

"We've given education a certain wrong feeling in Africa"
(i.e., we learn stuff but we don't DO it. It's as if learning is only for passing exams.)

"(There are) so many people with knowledge in their heads, and it dies with them."

"The clay is in my blood. I'll do it." (Even though he has faced severe financial challenges, he has no choice because he sees this work as his mission. He'll overcome all odds to do what needs to be done to pursue his dream.)

"Do it because you love it." (Everyone should find something that excites them and give it their best.)

"Don't be afraid to share knowledge. It will come back to you." This last quotation reflects his openness to collaborating with university researchers. He has been experimenting with local red and white clays and welcomes partners who bring a scientific approach such as will be forthcoming from the University of Ghana's Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

"Knowledge is useless unless it benefits somebody."

I left Ceramica Tamakloe inspired, but with this persistent question haunting me: why is a ceramic artist taking the lead in advancing technical ceramics? Where are the materials engineers?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Ghana Materials Industry, Part I

If you had come to me in February and said "Okay, so you are a professor of materials science and engineering in the new Faculty of Engineering Sciences at the University of Ghana: tell me something about the materials industry in Ghana," I would have had to pretend that I was deaf and dumb. I knew nothing about the industry.

That's why I proposed to my young colleagues that we undertake a project to identify some of these companies in the Accra area, visit them, and educate ourselves about their activities. It would be great if in the near future when somebody walks into the headquarters of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Legon and asks the question above, the lecturers can hand him or her a directory detailing the various companies, such as when they were established, their founders' backgrounds, company sizes, products, production rates, etc.

It is a young department, only 3 years old; last academic year, there were no senior students and only one (enthusiastic) junior. The department is bound to grow, and sooner or later students are going to ask the professors, "tell us about job opportunities." If we have that document, we will be prepared to answer their questions intelligently.

For our first visit, I remembered that my mate from secondary school, Ako Odotei (wearing a hat in the picture above), returned home from the U.S. several years ago determined to start a materials-related company. I searched him out and he was very responsive to our request to visit. His company, ICM Ventures, makes solid surface materials like the tiles, counter tops and sinks in the picture.

It was most encouraging to see a Ghanaian engaged in serious manufacturing. It was a refreshing contrast to the usual selling of imported goods from abroad. How can Africa advance technologically if her engineers don’t produce anything?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Ghana Materials Research Society (MRS-GH) Inaugurated

I left Ghana on July 15th in the evening. That morning I had the pleasure of making a keynote presentation at the inaugural meeting of the Ghana Materials Research Society. The meeting was held at the Science and Technology Policy Research Institute (STEPRI) in Accra.
It was the final outcome of a lot of encouragement from the United States. MRS-Ghana is a chapter of the Africa Materials Research Society (MRS - Africa), which itself was inaugurated in Dakar, Senegal in December 2002 (see also and search for the pdf file of the MRS bulletin from Feb, 2003, p. 143 " Africa Materials Research Society [MRS-Africa] Held Inaugural Meeting)."

The picture above shows the attendees at the Ghana inaugural meeting. They are from the University of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), and the Industrial Research Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (IRI-CSIR).

Given the historical importance of the occasion, I invited my daughter Abena, a science historian at the University of California, Berkeley, to come witness the meeting. It pleased me that Kwadwo Konadu, the pioneer student of the University of Ghana's new Department of Materials Science and Engineering, was able to attend.

While this was a great beginning, I celebrated with mixed feelings. Only 2 universities were represented, though there are other institutions of higher learning with materials-related programs and professors (e.g., the University of Cape Coast, the University for Development Studies, and the several polytechnics). Also absent were representatives from industry, other branches of CSIR such as the Building and Road Research Institute, and the Forestry Research Institute, and institutes of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission (GAEC). Apart from my observing daughter, there was only one woman, Dr. Elsie Effah Kaufmann, a biomaterials scientist and Head of the University of Ghana's Department of Biomedical Engineering.

MRS - Africa
Since 2002, several other country chapters have emerged (South Africa, Tanzania, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, . . .). Following the initial Dakar, Senegal (2002) meeting there have been Africa MRS meetings in Johannesburg, South Africa (2003), Marrakech, Morocco (2005), (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (2007). The 2009 Africa MRS meeting will be held in Nigeria.

The photo below was taken of the Ghanaian delegation at the 4th International Conference of MRS-Africa in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Congratulations to Professor Francis Momade (Provost, College of Engineering, KNUST) and his associates for working to make MRS-Ghana a reality. May it grow to become a dynamic and truly nationwide society.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Teaching and learning materials science and engineering with (African) proverbs

". . . Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten."
These words come from the opening chapter of Achebe's famous novel Things Fall Apart. I learned this year that proverbs can also lubricate the teaching and learning of materials science and engineering.

One of the first things I did at the University of Ghana, Legon campus in January was to visit the university book store. A book on display there immediately caught my attention -- Bu Me Bε: Proverbs of the Akans.
It's a compilation by mother and son Peggy and Kwame Anthony Appiah along with Ivor Agyeman-Duah of over 7,000 Ghanaian proverbs. It fascinated me, but I had not realized how it had entered my subconscious until I was planning the first assignment for my course on "materials science and the future." It was an assignment that left the students, expecting a lecture on "advanced" or "nano" materials, bewildered. They were to select 6 Ghanaian proverbs with a materials connection, translate them into English, and explain the meanings and those materials connections.

To practice, I asked them to come up with some proverbs in class, but they seemed stunned and nobody volunteered anything. I provided an example and we worked on it together: “Dade bi twa dade bi mu” (Twi; iron sharpens iron). The first interpretation was that of superiority: one material has a superior property to another. Then to my delight they moved beyond that to suggest that the proverb illustrates the need for collaboration/cooperation: if a knife wants to be sharper, it needs the help of another material.
Below are some of the other proverbs they eventually came to consider. The most most popular one was versions of:

"Enam dua so na ahoma hunu soro" - Twi. It is through the tree that the thread (rope or vine) goes up (sees the sky). Others are:

"Dze mekafua edokui o"- Ewe. Salt does not praise itself.

Edon a eho apae no engyegye yie” - Twi. A cracked bell can never sound well.

Gya ne atuduro nna faako”- Twi. Fire and gunpowder do not sleep together.
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