African Engineers: Through the Glass Ceiling

African Engineers: Through the Glass Ceiling

People working in the field of small and medium enterprise (SME) development are familiar with the concept of a glass ceiling: a stage of development at which a large number of enterprises experience a long pause in growth with no obvious reason for the cessation of progress. In the study of the grassroots engineering industries of Suame Magazine in Kumasi, and later in other parts of Ghana, the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, found that the glass ceiling was characterised by the employment of 25 to 30 workers. Analysis of comprehensive data collected from a survey of more than one hundred engineering enterprises, mostly located in Kumasi, Accra, Tema, Takoradi and Sunyani, under the Technology and Enterprise Development (TED) project, funded by the British Overseas Development Administration (ODA) in the mid-1990s, showed that the cause of this particular glass ceiling was the reluctance of workshop proprietors to delegate responsibility to subordinates. Twenty five to thirty workers was the maximum that one person could effectively control if s/he retained all management functions in one pair of hands.

The survey revealed that delegation of functions had already begun in a few companies within the glass ceiling size range. This was usually in financial accounting, and invariably involved a close relative, such as a junior brother at SIS Engineering in Kumasi or a daughter at Entesel in Tema. The crucial issue was the matter of trust. Most enterprises employed only members of the owner’s extended family. The challenge to the achievement of further growth was to extend the trust placed in a close relative in the accounts department to the delegation of responsibility in other areas of the business, such as production supervision, quality control and marketing, where more distant relatives might need to be employed.

Unfortunately, there were too many examples of sons and nephews stealing from their fathers and uncles to allow trust to grow easily in the community of small enterprises. In most cases the purpose of the theft was to fund an escape overseas, so the entrepreneur lost a relative and trusted subordinate as well as money. Perhaps the intention of the escapee was to repay the loan from the riches of aburokyiri, but experience has shown that riches come slowly to those with no formal qualifications unless they continue to run the risks associated with a life of crime. As far as could be ascertained, most of the absconders gained little advantage to compensate for the wrecked businesses they left behind. No records could be found of loans being repaid. This was the danger small enterprise owners feared and the reason why they kept a firm grip on every part of their businesses.

Starting in 1995, the School of Engineering at KNUST began running a series of two-weeks courses for small-scale workshop proprietors during the university vacations. These began with production management based on the use of engineering drawings and progressed to the introduction of the use of personal computers. The first personal computer appeared in the accounts office of ENTESEL Ltd. at this time, but it was several years before a rapid multiplication in the use of computers occurred. Nevertheless, the university courses persuaded many workshop proprietors of the need to delegate some management functions and they began sending subordinates to the courses, beginning with potential production supervisors.

A few client entrepreneurs also began to question the policy of only employing relatives and asked to be told about the staff recruitment system used in public institutions such as the university. It appeared that recruiting from the extended family worked best when the business proprietor was also the head of the family. Where this was not the case, discipline in the enterprise could be undermined by appeals to the head of the family. It was explained to the entrepreneurs that when staff was recruited according to a system based on merit, the loyalty of the staff member was to the head of the enterprise and problems of divided loyalty were much less likely to occur. One of the earliest entrepreneurs to adopt a modern system of recruitment was Nana Asante-Frempong of Wonoo Ventures Ltd, for many years Chairman of the TCC Clients Association and a Member of the GRATIS Project Board. However, Nana was a kente weaver and crafts products exporter and few engineering entrepreneurs were prepared to follow his lead.

Grassroots engineering enterprises in Ghana have been slow to introduce modern management structures but with the encouragement of the university they have come to understand the nature of their glass ceiling and what is needed to break through. Unfortunately, this understanding offends long-established social custom by seeking to break the bonds imposed by the extended family. The few brave pioneers risk creating social turmoil but breaking glass has always been a dangerous occupation.

John Powell
To learn more about the intriguing story of the grassroots industrial revolution in the turbulent Ghana of the second half of the twentieth century, read John Powell’s novel The Colonial Gentleman’s Son or his non-fictional account The Survival of the Fitter. More details of these books and photographs of the informal sector artisans of Suame Magazine in Kumasi will be found on the following websites.

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