How Much Weight Can You Lift With A Fractured Finger African Engineers: Edward Opare

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African Engineers: Edward Opare

Edward Opare was a small soft-spoken man with less than a 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 agree with over the next three decades. Hailing from the Akwapem tribe in the Easter Region of Ghana, Edward speaks the most elegant dialect of the Twi language which has won his people the nickname ‘I beg you man’ from the polite word used at the beginning of many of his speeches. Always humble and self-effacing this humble natural man to play a leading role in the biggest 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 big magazine.

In 1972 the Technology Consultancy Center (TCC) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, was looking for skilled technicians to carry out special projects during their annual leave from regular work 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 to work on building a steel frame handloom for TCC’s Broadloom Weaving Project.

The Kente weaving industry is narrow in Ashanti, and has become famous all over the world, but a lecturer at the university’s College of Art thinks that broadloom weaving should also be introduced. He persuaded TCC to create a project to train broadloom weavers and make them a workforce. This effort required broadlooms to be produced and initially these were ordered from local woodworkers for patterns provided by the College of Art. Although generally pleasant, wooden looms tend to fade and break when used in the dry climate of the Upper and Northern Regions of Ghana. So TCC decided to produce a prototype loom with a steel frame and this was the task given to Edward Opare. Fourteen years later, at the first INDUTECH industrial exhibition, held in Accra in March 1986, it was Edward’s loom that first caught the attention of the Head of State Jerry John Rawlings when he visited the university with Dr Francis Acquah, the Secretary of Industry, Science. and Technology.

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

Cast iron was first demonstrated at Suame ITTU in early 1982. Since then, interested artisans have been invited to attend ITTU for training and provided with furnaces made in the ITTU workshop. After an initial period assisted by US Peace Corps engineer volunteers, Edward was responsible for the entire program. The first trainees are casters of aluminum pots who already know the basic technology and want 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 in great demand, and many artisans from other trades joined the ranks of the foundry’s trainees.

New foundry companies began to appear in all sections of the magazine. At first, they all used a crucible lift furnace with a capacity of 70 kilograms made at ITTU, but soon Edward Opare helped Timothy Atanga to build a large cupola furnace with a capacity of more than a ton per day. This furnace does not require an imported crucible and is fired as carbon electrode fuel which is discarded from the Valco Aluminum smelter in Tema. This is the most copied technology and came to transform the activities of many magazines in the 1990s and 2000s, with many foundries each employing more than 50 people and the total workforce measured in the thousands.

The best quality cast iron is still made in a small crucible furnace where the carbon content of the iron can be tightly controlled, and this continues to be used to create products for various niche markets. After retiring from 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 firing iron simultaneously from both sides, he can produce replacement parts weighing up to 140 kilograms. In this way, highway construction machinery can be repaired locally, saving the weeks and months it would take to bring parts from abroad.

However many good ideas he produced, or new methods introduced, Edward knew they would be copied and he never helped the copiers. That’s the way ITTU works and that’s the way Edward always works: not only to benefit himself and his family but for the community that loves him and loves him back. Among the more than one hundred thousand inhabitants of Suame Magazine the name of Edward Opare is respected today and should be respected in the future as one of the fathers of the grassroots industrial revolution in Ghana.

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