The British Government has ring-fenced its overseas aid budget at a time when most other areas of public expenditure are being cut. With the government admitting that about one quarter of overseas development projects fail to meet their objectives, people wonder if the country is getting value for money. Criticism focuses on two main factors: corruption, and the tendency to supply disaster relief rather than to promote long-term development, often called teaching people to fish. This article reflects upon the ways in which teaching people to fish was able to bring long-lasting benefits to Ghana and help the country to be more self-sufficient.
Disasters, both natural and man-made, causing large numbers of people to face starvation, epidemic diseases and exile, are newsworthy, excite publicity and inspire charitable giving. It is not surprising, therefore, that governments like to be seen to be responding to the call for aid, and the population at large want to see their taxes and charitable donations going to clearly visible good causes. Aid projects that promote the slow but steady evolution of industries, markets and institutions in developing countries cannot compete with disaster relief for publicity, and excite much less public interest. To those engaged in teaching fishing, it seems that the sequence of disasters is continuous and unending, eternally draining the available funding away from projects that could increase self-sufficiency, economic independence and long-term stability.
In a situation where funds are limited, it is essential that projects are focussed in key sectors of the economy that support secondary sectors where essential inputs can generate mass effects, improving the lives of large numbers of people. One such key sector is the grassroots engineering industry.
The power of this sector should be apparent to anyone who visit’s a country like Ghana. The whole population is on the move in an antiquated fleet of decrepit vehicles that continues to operate year after year with constant attention from wayside mechanics, or fitters, who are everywhere available. Congregated in the major towns in informal industrial areas called kokompes and magazines, they combine their resources to produce new bodies and trailers for all types of vehicles from cocoa trucks to articulated trucks, from trotros to timber trucks and from market trolleys to bicycle trailers.
Without the expertise of the fitters, the only traffic on the roads would be the ‘Benzes’ of the rich and the 4WD vehicles of government officials. With their expertise, the broad mass of the population can afford to attend their work places during the week and travel to their chosen funerals on Saturdays. With their expertise, thousands of people have employment as drivers, mates and loaders, and thousands of small and medium enterprises can move their raw materials and finished products.
The largest kokompe in Ghana is Suame Magazine in Kumasi. Beginning in 1971, at the instigation of Prime Minister Kofi Busia, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, undertook a programme of technology transfer to the artisans to equip them to support the development of all sectors of manufacturing and production in the way that they already supported the road transport sector. An essential part of this work was to upgrade technology to improve the quality of operations. Through this programme the grassroots engineers of Suame Magazine have made available locally manufactured equipment to upgrade the activities of farmers, post-harvest and food processing industries, rural textiles and craft industries, soap making and domestic utensils manufacture.
Under the GRATIS Project of the Ministry of Industries, Science and Technology (MIST), the pioneering work of KNUST has been extended to all ten regions of Ghana. The effect has been to create hundreds of new small and medium enterprises and thousands of jobs. For example, the manufacture of metal spinning lathes by Kofi Asiamah’s Redeemer Workshop in Tema has supported an aluminium spinning industry that embraces more than one hundred companies employing an estimated five thousand workers. A similar impact was made in Kumasi by Edward Opare, chief technician of the Suame ITTU, who established numerous iron foundries at Suame, making iron casting one of the biggest employers in the magazine which now encompasses one hundred thousand master artisans and apprentices.
Support for the woodworking industry by Solomon Adjorlolo’s SIS Engineering Ltd in Kumasi, through the supply of bench saws and wood turning lathes, has enabled the carpenters to introduce numerous new products to upgrade rural industries such as cotton spinning, weaving and beekeeping. The introduction of beekeeping by KNUST in the late 1970s, supported by engineers and carpenters in Kumasi and Tamale, has promoted a nationwide rural industry encompassing large commercial apiaries exporting to neighbouring countries, farm apiaries supplying local markets and hobby beehives, often owned by women, providing nutritious honey for home and family.
Most of the grassroots industrial development effort briefly reviewed here was funded by NGOs in small projects costing from a few hundreds to a few thousand dollars. One of the largest, and most effective grants of £20,000 ($46,500), came in 1978 from a fund administered by the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG). The first phase of the Suame ITTU in the early 1980s was funded by CIDA to an amount of Cdn$250,000. In total the whole technology transfer programme of KNUST from 1971 to 1987, when the ITTU programme was taken over by the government, employed total foreign funding of less than $1million (at historic value). With a large part of this work still yielding benefits in 2011, it must be recognised that the programme was cost effective. Teaching people to fish need not involve large expenditure and should not be neglected, even in the midst of recurring disasters.