Introduction It is said that the whole society thrives on problems. All institutions, be they business, educational, medical, political, judiciary, etc thrives on problems. The need to find solutions to these problems has actually led to their establishment. Problems could take many forms and could be seen from diverse perspectives. They could have different sizes, weights, density, colour, depth, current, etc, depending on which perspective one looks from. It is sad that, the various institutions in Ghana and Africa as a whole seem to have done very little about their primary mission of bringing solutions to problems. The African problem is something that is so immense, broad and dimensionless that even African experts are not able to analyze it well. Whilst some blame it on colonization, the poverty cycle, ignorance and the imbalance of world politics others say it’s the effect of slavery, greed, unintelligence, selfishness, mismanagement and wrong political ideologies. To what we ascribe our problem is something that one cannot easily define. One thing we understand very clearly is that we do have a problem and a major one indeed. As to how serious this problem is vary from one individual to the other. To understand that the problem exists is to simply know its effect around us. Poverty, illiteracy, political instability, hunger, civil wars, poor hygiene, economic cancer, epidemics, endemics, unsafe drinking water, lawlessness, etc are a few to name. This to some has been our inheritance as Africans. Is it really our heritage, or is it as a result of some things we or others have plunged us into? Whichever way you look at it, the question one asks is, ‘Is there any hope for us?’ Is there any solution to this whatever problem of ours is? To be able to answer this one needs to go back to the original question—what really is our problem? Our problem is that we have not taken a real look at ourselves to recognize the particular problem we have, not to mention its causes, magnitude, effect and future implications. We simply do not know what our problem is! What am I driving at? We have not taken the time and effort to search and research for answers to our basic questions. For one not to have a solid definition of his problem is an implication of one not having taken time to look, recognize, acknowledge nor analyze it.
Looking at mathematics as an example, although the main core is to know how to solve different problems with its numerous theorems, one would observe that real world problems are not given in mathematical notations in which one can simply compute using the appropriate equations. Every engineer, economist, businessman or scientist will acknowledge that to solve any real world problem, one must first be able to do what we call ‘problem formulation’. It is only when the problem has been formulated into, say, a mathematical form that one can identify the needed equations to solve. Until one is able to do that, the problem remains unsolved, and it is subject to any definition or interpretation based on one’s biases and his limited knowledge. To explain my point further lets take a look at the following situation:
An elementary school teacher who had earlier taught his students about gravitation and its basic laws was approached by one of his students. ‘You did say whatever goes up must come down and that the heavier the object the faster it comes’, he said. ‘But how come an aeroplane which seems to weigh over a thousand kilos is able to remain in the sky whereas my football which weighs only 500 grams is able to fall in short notice?’ One student who was standing by cut in saying, ‘well it’s very simple….. the aeroplane can fly but the ball cannot’. This is a problem. Perhaps a simple one, but for the teacher to explain and answer the student rightly, he may have to explain the concept of aerodynamics to him. If the teacher has none or very little idea of aerodynamics he might probably resort to the other student’s answer. Will that have been the real answer to that? Definitely not! Perhaps the problem was not well analyzed. What is an aeroplane and how does it differ from other objects that it disobeys the law of gravitation. If the teacher knew about aerodynamics, would he be able to explain it in simple terms for the students to understand? This presents to us some of the numerous issues that surround the inception of a problem way down to its solution. The real problem often hangs, appearing to many in diverse forms. In relation to what the student had said, one could say well the African experiences all these problems because perhaps he is subject to a certain natural law that might be his destiny or heritage or even a curse. The ‘white’ man on the other hand is perhaps gifted with something unique or a blessing which enables him to defy this law and is therefore able to fly! Our knowledge, perceptions, ideals and aspirations has precluded us from being able to actively take a real look at our problems, formulate them and seek real answers to them! We are often swayed by sweeping generalizations most of which is imbedded in our thinking patterns.
The context of research In order to formulate a problem and even to solve it, there is the need for one to get all the requisite knowledge and data or information pertaining and/or related to it. This establishes the need for research. What then is research? Well the dictionary simply defines it as a careful or diligent search for something or the collection of information about a particular subject. By simply making the effort to seek any form of knowledge we can say one is engaged in research. Sad to say a word like research has meant something unusual to most Africans. It is seen as something to do with the higher academic orders and gigantic scientific institutions which only a few special geniuses associated with them, are endowed to bring about designs and innovations. It is usually associated with the developed countries such as America, Japan and Western Europe. The general perception and understanding of the word has led to its estrangement from our everyday society. I would look at and simply define research as the endeavour to discover facts by carefully structured studies or investigations. This leads to the end effect or output of research. It is simply knowledge! Let us consider this situation:
A ‘fitter’ or car mechanic who fixes Volvo and Peugeot cars realizes that the Volvo exhaust system tends to be choked with the accumulation of dust over a period of driving in Ghana. One day, he tries to fit a Peugeot manifold in the Volvo engine and realizes that on doing a test drive of about 30 minutes on a very dusty road, the hybrid design results in about 60% less dust than with the regular Volvo manifold. This is an investigation. In fact what the mechanic did is research and he would have actually realized he had brought about an innovation if he systematically investigated the issue using the appropriate research methods. By simply recording his data and doing a simple analysis on the design he could establish a manifold design by which cars in Africa could use to avoid excessive accumulation of dust in their exhaust system. If he went further to analyze the design, God knows what other innovations he could come up with – not just the manifold but perhaps the whole exhaust system of various cars! Note that the educational qualifications of this mechanic weren’t considered. In fact he could simply have been an MSLC (Middle School Leaving Certificate) graduate with apprenticeship training in auto fitting. But this however could not have been a limitation for him to have done that investigation. With his reading skills he could simply have considered some expert knowledge by talking with some pros or simply by doing a little reading! All this put in the sum is part of the inquiry or investigation into the item and therefore research. What I’m trying to illustrate here is that research is something that can be carried out by anybody who considers a certain situation or design, establishes a problem with it and tries to look for alternatives or a particular solution to that problem. Let us consider another situation: Akwele, a seventeen year old P3 school leaver realizes she could prepare very tasty ‘keleweles’ and so decides to venture into a kelewele business with the little sum she had burrowed from a friend. As she has to repay her loan in a few months with some interest she acknowledged that she has to make good sales within a target period. She determined not only to repay the loan but also to retain some working capital of her own. In order to do that she had to really work hard as well as make the maximum profits possible. Before she launched out she thought of locating her stall in a place where she could attract more costumers so she decided to do a little survey in the locality. During the survey she realized that there were different concentrations of the residents and that there were two other competitors at the supposedly vantage points. Rather than give up she drew a sketch of the locality outlining the various streets and the distribution of the residents in the area. On doing that she was able to come up with the best place to locate her stall so that she could have a good number of the residents commute by her stall and thus gain a fair share of the market. This investigation she carried out is a typical research on business or plant location. Once again, you could see that her educational background could not have been a limitation for her to have done that research.
To increase her profits she decided to introduce certain natural spices to her keleweles so she divided them into three groups respectively with her spices so that each group had a particular spiced taste. On selling, she realized that a particular spiced group sold more than all the others so she increased the making of those ones and that caused her sales to increase as well as double her customers. What we see here is not merely an application of business ingenuity but also the basic principles of research—diligently searching for solutions to problems, alternatives or better ways of doing things. If Akwele were to continue with this trend of research, she would come up with several innovative ways or recipes for preparing kelewele as well as continually grow her business. She would even get to the point where she would realize the need to acquire more knowledge and if feasible, further her education. Most of our youth today will never realize the need for education until the concept of research and innovation is well appreciated in the society. For then, one would educate himself based on the need for more knowledge and information. People would then not so much wait to be employed but engage themselves into some enterprise aimed at bringing about something that serve as an answer to a certain problem. Part 2 will follow shortly. Jojoe Yartey Industrial Engineer Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.