Sunday, October 3, 2010

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Finished with TechnoServe and with the last days of my Ghana stay winding down, I decided to take a quick trip to Kumasi, where I previously visited just for an evening on work for TechnoServe.

I had two invitations: one to check out Suame industrial magazine and the other for a tour of the Guinness brewery. Since I’m a sucker for tours and experiences at factories, farms, slums, and any other place where I can see people in their day-to-day lives rather than talked about in a museum, this was an easy sell.

I first trotted into Suame on an invitation from my friend Bessam who works at SMIDO, the locally-run NGO that works to organize the magazine (a magazine meaning a collection of businesses in which each does complimentary services) into a cohesive and more technologically-advanced industrial estate. Bessam was cool enough to not only give me a solid tour, but also let me shack up for the night at his place – though I did somehow manage to lock myself in my room, which made for some funny-in-hindsight stories when I had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. I chalk it up to faulty doors rather than stupidity.

Anyway, Suame was overwhelming, smelled like sweat, and was wonderfully filthy (kinda sounds like a whorehouse). Recent estimates vary, but one study says there are about 12,000 enterprises here, roughly grouped by function, so you’ll have the car mechanics in one area, scrap metal processors in another, the spare parts people in another area, and itgets even more specific. In the second picture are crushed cubes of scrap metal that are shipped to Accra to either be melted down for reuse or exported to China to feed its insatiable demand for resources.

One of the several businesses I looked at and whose workers I talked with produced circular discs for gold hammer mills. You can see them pouring the discs with the molten sand in the first picture. From most places in Suame you can see plumes of smoke coming from this foundry and the workers – who have little formal education – can tell if it’s hot enough just by the color and form of the smoke. Though of about the same functional quality as their Indian and Chinese counterparts, these discs lack the nice polished finish and so only fetch about 1/3 the price. This is one of the major difficulties for Suame – it doesn’t have the technological capacity to produce nice finished products.

Almost as interesting, but more tasty, was a night at the Guinness brewery bar and a tour of their operations. Right after Suame I met up with Prosper, a head Guinness employee and friend I made through TechnoServe.

Before continuing, I want to take a minute to go through the hierarchy of awesomeness of Ghanaian names. At the bottom you have the nouns – for example, Princess, Success, or Felicity; second best are the adjectives – Perfect is a good example; but the best, hands down, are the verbs – Prosper fits the bill. You just can’t top those. Splendidly, I didn’t make these up…I know people with all these names.

Prosper and I had a great time chatting about everything from the appropriteness of Ghanaian funeral "parties" to the growth of Ghana over free beer that’s part of Prosper’s monthly allotment. Three hours later and to the increasing annoyance of the bartender who stayed an hour past closing to serve us, we were finishing our drinks. And, the bartender was cool enough to help me get home on tro-tros in time to meet Bessam for drinks and a street food buffet.

The next morning Bessam and I got the official brewery tour from Prosper. To see such a sophisticated production process – one that can crank out 350,000 liters of brew a day – in a place where villages without electricity are just kilometers away, is mind-blowing. The entire factory can be operated nearly with the click of a few buttons on the computer; product problems that surface months later can be pinpointed to the exact location, batch, time, and who was working; samples are taken to make sure the labels are affixed exactly.

Suame has done some work for Guinness in the past, but mostly small stuff like spare parts. The difficulty is that big industrial producers like Guinness need consistency, and this is hard for Suame, which is composed of many individual actors. I find myself becoming increasingly interested in informal economies: how the function, how they can function more efficiently, if they should and how they could be linked into formal supply chains, and what effects all this would have on the poor and the overall national economy. I could easily see myself doing an MA thesis on this stuff.

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