1. Tech

African Engineers: Cecilia Apawu


Cecilia Apawu graduated from the School of Engineering of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, Ghana, in 1989, with a BSc degree in Mining and Mineral Engineering. She was the first woman to gain this degree at a time when the number of women studying engineering was no more than five in a class of two hundred. Like all final year students, Cecilia spent much of the year on a practical research project, and she chose to work with the Suame Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit (ITTU) studying the work of traditional aluminium pot casters. The knowledge that she gained, and the improvements she devised, helped her to play a leading role in the development of the grassroots foundry industry in other parts of Ghana.

The casting of large spherical aluminium cooking pots is said to have started in Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region of Ghana, but it has spread to several other parts of the country, including Suame Magazine in Kumasi, Ghana’s largest informal industrial area and the home at the turn of the twenty-first century of more than 100,000 artisans. Cecilia first met the aluminium pot casters in Suame but in her first professional assignment she worked at the Tema ITTU, upgrading the work of the grassroots foundry men of Ashiaman, Tema’s twin town.

The pot makers use as a pattern an imported iron pot cut in two halves along the Greenwich meridian. The mould is made of sand. Scrap aluminium of all types is melted down in a charcoal-fired furnace and poured into the mould. After cooling, the mould is opened to extract the cast pot. When Cecilia began her work at Ashiaman, the artisans were achieving a 70 percent success rate. Cecilia set out to find why the other 30 percent of castings failed, and how the success rate could be improved.

With the help of Charles Ashun, a veteran technician of the Tema-based Volta Aluminium Company of Kaiser Engineering, Cecilia studied every aspect of the aluminium casting. As is always the case in such situations, it was some months before the Tema ITTU foundry could demonstrate a higher success rate than the informal sector artisans, but when that point was reached a training programme was established and the artisans were shown how they could achieve more consistent results. One important factor was the correct selection of the aluminium scrap as some types are not suitable for re-casting. Other improvements related to the selection and preparation of the sand and the mould, and control of the pouring temperature of the molten aluminium.

Cecilia proved that Ghanaian women can engineer as well as men when given an equal opportunity. Her presence in the ITTUs, and the good work she accomplished, did much to encourage other women and change the attitudes of men. She played a leading role in Ghana’s ‘Women in Engineering Programme’ of the mid-1990s. This brief account of her early work is published in the hope that it will help encourage other young women to consider a career in engineering and apply their skills in the economic development of their country, upwards from the grassroots.