African Engineers: Dr Francis Acquah

Of all the Ghanaian engineers that I came to know personally during my twenty six years in Ghana, the one who did most to promote the development of the engineering industry, and industries generally, was Dr Francis Acquah. A native of Cape Coast in the Central Region, Francis Acquah was a chemical engineer and had already risen to be Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, when I first came into contact with him in 1972. From the outset it was clear that Francis Acquah shared my interest in appropriate technology and grassroots industrial development and we were to work together on several important projects over the next twenty years. It is gratifying to record that this relationship, both personal and professional, continued almost without interruption through three military coups and periods of economic crisis, as Dr Acquah rose through the Industrial Research Institute (IRI) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to become Deputy Minister and later Secretary of State for Industries, Science and Technology.

As Director of the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of KNUST, it was my responsibility to find consultants from amongst the academic staff of the university to assist client industrialists with their problems. In 1972 it seemed that all the problems involved chemistry or chemical engineering with clients asking for help to make soap and paper glue, caustic soda and insecticides. Francis Acquah responded enthusiastically to these challenges and he and his colleagues helped with the design of small-scale processing plants to meet the needs of the pioneering clients and hundreds who followed. It was the increasing demand for small-scale plants to produce palm oil, soap and caustic soda, that stimulated a need to transfer the manufacture to private sector workshops and led eventually to the project to establish Intermediate Technology Transfer Units (ITTU), a project that Dr Acquah was destined to promote on a national scale.

First proposed in 1975, funding for ITTUs did not become available until 1979, when the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) agreed to contribute to the funding of an ITTU in Suame Magazine in Kumasi and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) agreed to support an ITTU in Tamale in the Northern Region. The Suame ITTU moved ahead quickly when the Government of Ghana purchased a suitable building already constructed in the heart of the Magazine.The ITTU became operational in August 1980.

I cannot recall exactly when Francis Acquah left KNUST to join IRI but it was a turbulent period in Ghana’s history. In July 1978, the administration of General Acheampong had been replaced by that of General Akuffo who promised a general election and a return to democratic government. Before this could happen, General Akuffo was swept away by Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings on 4 June 1979. Nevertheless, the elections were held, and the administration of President Hilla Limann had taken office by the time of the formal opening of the Suame ITTU in January 1981. The government was represented by the Minister for Industries, Science and Technology, Mr M P Ansah, supported by his two Deputy Ministers, one of whom was Dr Francis Acquah.

Whatever hand Francis Acquah had in clearing the way for the Suame ITTU, he now became a major force behind the development of the Tamale ITTU. It was a time of great economic hardship with acute shortages of all building materials. With no suitable building to buy in Tamale it was necessary to embark on a new construction. Progress was slow, but without the support of the Ministry it would have been impossible. Some progress was made, but all came to a halt on 31 December 1981 when Rawlings executed his ‘second coming.’

Dr Hilla Limann and his Deputy President, Dr Joe DeGraft Johnson, were placed under house arrest and all the members of their administration were dismissed. Francis Acquah was universally regarded as a technocrat who had no political affiliation. He told me that he was asked to stay on at the Ministry of Industries, Science and Technology (MIST) but refused as long as ‘his president remained under house arrest.’ However, when some three years later the former President had regained his freedom, Dr Francis Acquah returned to MIST as Secretary of State.

The USAID support for the Tamale ITTU was part of the Development and Application of Intermediate Technology (DAPIT) project which also included support for Francis Acquah’s old employer, IRI. With strong support from MIST the project moved forward as fast as possible. But Francis Acquah was not satisfied with two ITTUs, he wanted one in each of Ghana’s ten regions. So he asked the TCC to draw up a plan for such a project which later became known as Ghana Regional Appropriate Technology Industrial Service (GRATIS), the acronym implying that it provided a source of free technical information, advice and training for small and informal sector enterprises.

Dr Francis Acquah presided over the opening of three ITTUs: Tamale in April 1988, Tema in June 1988 and his home town, Cape Coast, in December 1988. He would have liked to stay on to finish his work but ill health led to his resignation in 1989. When fit again he returned to work at IRI and ended his distinguished career as Director of the National Board for Small Scale Industries (NBSSI). We continued to meet regularly until I left Ghana in August 1997, and although our projects were on a smaller scale than formerly, Francis Acquah never lost his enthusiasm for any idea that could advance the grassroots industrialisation of Ghana.