Harnessing Innovation From The Informal Sector For Development Through Effective Policies

Feature Article Retooling and establishing industrial maker spaces will contribute to improved capacity and standards
Retooling and establishing industrial maker spaces will contribute to improved capacity and standards

This article was written out from a paper submitted to the African Innovation Summit Steering Committee by the author who was speaker at the 2nd Summit.

Background of Suame Magazine informal innovation cluster

The informal sector is widely viewed as without standards, little or no innovation and with no means of measurement as researched by the Open African Innovation Research (OpenAIR) Network . Within the informal sector, apprenticeship constitutes the primary avenue for training and skills development which spurs the process of innovation through altering of trends, designs and patterns.

In Ghana, Suame Magazine, in Kumasi constitutes the biggest informal sector cluster with an estimated population of 200,000 and with 12,000 artisan and trading shop owners specializing in metal cutting, grinding, drilling, welding, painting, electrical and vehicular repairs, vehicle spare parts sales, and small-scale manufacturing all of which carry significant innovation and collaboration among artisans. As early as 1935, enterprises began to cluster around former colonial armouries in Kumasi (Dawson as cited in Adeya, 2008). Armouries were then known as magazines and this name was passed on to the newly developing industrial cluster at Suame, a suburb in Ghana’s second biggest city of Kumasi.

Beyond apprenticeship as means of skills and knowledge acquisition, the Intermediary Technology Transfer Unit (ITTU) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and the Kumasi Vocational Training Institute (KVTI) have played various key roles in training artisans to spur innovation in the cluster. Both institutions have introduced new skills, tools and machinery which have enhanced innovation in the cluster when the unit was active. However, despite historical technology introductions, Suame Magazine, the biggest informal sector industrial cluster in Ghana has not kept pace with the recent information technology driven innovation advances.

This article supports the assertion by (Waldman Brown et al, 2012) that artisans at Suame Magazine requires continued external support to facilitate continuous innovation. The involvement of craftsmen with improved education has remained relatively small in the cluster, and formal sector companies have had low involvement with artisans in a sector which is technically and technologically driven. This means that outside interventions is important in keeping Suame Magazine up to date with modern technology. Given the success of the ITTU’s program to upgrade machining capabilities, Kumasi Vocational Training Institute (KVTI) training and retraining of artisans, computing and auto diagnostic training by trade associations, a hypothesis points to similar strategies to enhance knowledge and the process s of continuous innovation. Even though the apprenticeship system is the overwhelming means of acquiring knowledge, trade associations at the Suame Magazine play a key role in mobilizing for training.

Therefore, any strategy to enhance the process of acquiring knowledge and skills of Suame Magazine artisans, should include building the capacity of the associations to play active roles in the strategy implementation and the process of expanding the means of knowledge and technology acquisition. Industrial Innovation hubs or industrial maker space with modern CNC or a 3-D printer can provide improved manufacturing services and specialized components for hundreds of artisans. At the industrial innovation hub within the cluster, a technically literate artisan with a computer and auto diagnostic tool can assist hundreds of Suame mechanics.

However, due to land tenure challenges, private entrepreneurs have found it difficult to invest in the industrial cluster. Currently, trade associations at the Suame Magazine have negotiated for lands outside of the crowded industrial cluster to relocate and to build partnerships that will lead enhancement of innovations from the industrial cluster to address developmental challenges and promote sustainable economic growth.

There are two necessities that need to be achieved; improved working environment and improved quality controls;

Improved Working Environment
In view of the crowded nature of the cluster with several thousands of workshops in need of stable electrical power, improved road network, sanitation, health, safety and environment training and tooling. Policy plays a vital role in support of innovation in the cluster, however, the government of Ghana’s policy of removing import duties on vehicle spare parts in the 2017 budget statement addresses a business challenge for spare parts merchants and vehicle users, but a well-coordinated and integrated external intervention at Suame magazine, that will include; land tenure, capacity building, retooling and introduction of digital technologies, business development, health, safety and environment is needed.

The challenges and dynamics of operation within Suame Magazine typical of many clusters across Africa are having a declining effect on the process and means of innovations. Moreover, with fast paced changes in technologies which are also prevalent, artisans of Suame Magazine require more training and assistance—and formal-sector institutions will likewise benefit from building national infrastructure in informal repair and manufacturing. Yet before the clusters can play the role they deserve, Ghana must make a conscious effort to narrow the divide between those who study engineering in schools and colleges and Suame artisans who actually work on the engines and develop appropriate technologies and innovations, and promote collaboration and investments from leading vehicle corporates like Toyota, Nissan etc to set up spare parts manufacturing at Suame while supporting local manufacturing.

There is also the need for policy to facilitate collaboration between artisans and the global maker movement, a phenomenon which is already prevalent in Ghana. Through secondary and primary sources during my research, it has been established that artisans of Suame Magazine require continued external support to facilitate innovation. In view of the success of ITTU, a similar strategy could work to introduce digital manufacturing technologies. This will require informal artisans cooperating with the private sector, the government, development organizations, and academia. There is the need for the maker movement in Ghana to make an effort to involve local artisans, to facilitate the importation of digital technologies, and to pursue projects that are rooted in the realities of informal manufacturing. Additional resources and funding need to be found in order to make digital equipment and concept of digital manufacturing available and attractable to informal artisans, who would otherwise dismiss as purely academic. The number of imported digital manufacturing tools need not be very large in order to have a substantial impact on the community since machines are often shared across workshops.

Improved Quality Controls
In order for Suame artisans to make more significant contributions to Ghana’s industrialization, they must improve the quality of their products and services. Since 8 out of 10 acquire their knowledge through the apprenticeship system where master craftsmen rely on decade old methods in supporting development of the artisans. They generally lack the requisite modern technical knowledge, and there is little incentive to change their methods. For instance, in a research report, it was concluded that Suame artisans frequently perform unsafe alterations on flatbed truck. They can go a third higher than the maximum legal height, which raises the centre of gravity and can lead to vehicles tipping over while negotiating bends or sliding backwards up hill. Same trucks may be up to 10 feet longer and considerably heavier than regulation and many have had modifications to leaf springs and other structural vehicle components.

Further, it was found that Suame mechanics do not see any connection between the modifications they carry out and safety. They relate modification exclusively to vehicle performance. Due to their limited education, Suame artisans are not able to undertake a full investigation of a truck’s make and model and it is often impossible to know the weight and length limits. This is made worst by the few Suame artisans who are literates but rarely keep records. Hence, the motivation for change rest upon the government or other regulatory authority who are mandated to enforce standards and should support artisans to attain such. If vehicle owners demand safer trucks, Suame artisans will figure out how to comply.

Similarly, a number of researches also highlights that, Suame manufacturing cluster suffers from a similar lack of enforced regulations, especially with regards to food processing equipment. Several Suame foundries use cupola furnaces manned by workers with little knowledge of metallurgy manufacture iron grinding plates for use in corn mills. Subsequently, Suame made plates can wear out 3 to 10 times faster than foreign imports, and thus shed iron filings into the milled corn. One day’s worse of corn meal may contain up to 5 times more iron than is recommended for daily consumption, and this excess is hazardous to the body’s metabolism.

Way forward
With the right collaboration, as proved by ITTU’s early 1990’s program, corn milling grinding plates can be made to international standards in small scale crucible furnaces, given the correct metallurgical composition. If given proper training and access to funding for improving their foundries, Suame artisans could easily produce safer and durable grinding mills by replacing cupola furnaces in which the iron composition cannot be controlled and lead to poor quality product.

Through effective development and implementation of policies aimed at achieving the two necessities of; improving working environment and improved quality controls, Ghana’s Suame Magazine can stay competitive, serve as skills and innovation hub and provide products and services that will address development challenges and promote economic growth. More importantly, government of Ghana can also leverage the cluster’s competitive advantage in support of critical policies such as on district one factory and improvement in the productivity of agriculture which will require skilled artisans to fabricate and manufacture the needed locally appropriate technologies in support of the policies.

The author, Yaw Adu-Gyamfi has over a decade of programmatic, innovation and research experience from West Africa’s biggest informal industrial cluster of Suame Magazine in Kumasi. He can be reached for comments and feedback at [email protected] and on phone via 024-4480-475