Ghana Diary January 2011
John C Mutter
I left for Ghana on Tuesday 11th Delta flight 226 via Altanta amid concerns about travel because of snow along much of the UIS East Coast south of New York. Ice and snow had closed Atlanta airport the day before. Although Delta flies direct to Accra two flights a week go through Atlanta and the others are direct from JFK. We considered delaying by a day but snow was expected in New York Wednesday and already Lamont-Doherty was having a delayed opening and the South Orangetown schools where my daughter goes to school were closed. But by the time I traveled in the afternoon flights in to Atlanta were on time and there were no delays leaving other than the usual – the plane could not be pulled back from the gate and we had to go back and get a Supertug to get us moving.
The gate for the flight to Ghana was close to the arrival gate from JFK and that flight was delayed an hour as the plane was cleaned and “swept by security”, whatever that might imply. Certainly didn’t improve confidence.
Flight was not full at all as maybe a lot of people had cancelled due to the bad weather. I got an emergency row seat was good to have for legroom but about as uncomfortable as could be imagined — very hard base, no padding to speak of. But I did sleep some on the flight.
Marty, Justin and Ben from BBS as well as the documentary filmmaker Nicole Hahn left a few days prior, Nicole delayed until Sunday while the others left Friday. We have heard from Nicole but not from Marty. She and the others are staying at the Cicero Guest House and I am booked at a hotel – the Royal Lamerta. They are nearby.
Arrived in Accra on the 12th and had a simple passage through customs and immigration. Couldn’t see the driver that had been arranged and had to go search with the help of an airport assistant with an official badge around her neck and a uniform. Signs around telling you not to accept help from any non-uniformed person. I had arranged a car to get me to Kumasi thinking it would be simpler than finding the bus and cheaper than a commuter plane (which it turned out not to be). The car was a diesel four-wheel drive, fairly new.
The drive was promised to take 4 hours but actually took almost 6 hours. The highway to Kumasi is very bad in some places and slow even in places where they are good because of heavy local traffic. The scene is like I remembered from 2007 but in the places where the road was under construction the dust raised by vehicles was so heavy that it covered nearby vegetation making it appear more brown than green. Road is paved for a while, then paved but deeply pot holed then unpaved. Every bad section requires that we slow to a few miles per hour and swerve well across the road. Broken down trucks covered in red dust every few miles in the bad sections.
Tiny businesses of all types by the road side some occupying space smaller than a toilet stall in the US. These are the sorts of businesses that can at best serve as meager income for perhaps one person and the sort of thing that cannot produce bikes at the scale we need.
Paid for the ride at the upscale Golden Tulip Hotel where the car company has its office and discovered I needed to pay the gas both ways so the ride was no deal – no better than taking a local flight, maybe more.
The Royal Lamerta is reasonable and I was able to get a meal and get in touch with Nicole by text and arrange to meet in the morning. Room has A/C, hotel has a pool – not that I will use it.
Breakfast on the morning of the 13th at the Lamerta of instant coffee, some sort of egg preparation that might almost be an omelet and sausages accompanied by loud radio station that seemed mostly to be politically oriented and simultaneous TV. The Cecera Guest house where the others are staying is across the street a couple of buildings away and I went there and met them just as they were finishing breakfast.
A pick-up truck came for the team and the three guys went and I stayed because Kwame was coming later and Nicole and I went with him about a half hour later.
The factory is in a semi-residential, semi-industrial area with a few guesthouses and small businesses all on deeply rutted and quite poor dirt roads. No doubt these roads will be improved at some point but it looks like the area has had a period of rapid development that stalled. Very large houses that must belong to fairly wealthy people sit along side very modest places.
Delivery by any large vehicle would be an issue and apparently was a problem when the container with parts came yesterday but everything was unloaded onto trucks owned by the company Bamboo Bikes Limited and now there are 750 sets of rims, associated spokes, cranks, forks etc. available to build bikes. The factory space is in a compound secured by walls and a serous gate.
The main facility with the large doors open for access. The management offices are in the right photo. Babaa, who has been hired to improve the grounds is in the scene. In the background is the secondary building where bikes will be stored.
There is one large high ceiling building that is the main space where bikes will be produced. Management offices are exterior to the main building. Apparently the factory, which has houses either side was a water sachet factory before. All are in storage spaces in the interior of the factory. It looks like the storage available would allow about 1000 bike parts and components to be kept in storage.
There is a lot of bamboo available stored outside where it is drying but it is harder to judge what storage capacity there is in terms of bike equivalents since not all of it can be used. This is actually not the bamboo that was sent to the US for testing before and we will need to get a sample back and tested.
Outside the yard is being improved and will have a paved area and some new grassed areas. Right now there is a paved area where cars can come and where a reasonably large truck could make deliveries but not anything as large as a semi-trailer. Water is from wells in the yard of the factory. There is power from the grid but there is a back-up generator as well. Although at an early stage there is clearly space enough here to support serious production.
The forks that were sent in the container from China have steerer tube lengths shorter than ordered and that means they do not suite the molds that were made for the lugs for these bikes. Though the metal head tubes can be easily cut down to be suitable the aluminum molds that were made for this purpose are no longer suitable. So Marty has been busy trying to make a new mold from wood. He has spent a large amount of time on this first going to the Kumasi Technical Institute (KTI) for help but there is no choice. This way of making a mold requires carving the mold shape from hard wood and goes very slowly.
The factory has been set up to work on ten bikes at a time. The hope is to have 20 bikes being constructed in parallel and that seems quite reasonable. Certainly there is space for that. There are seven guys who all have qualifications from KTI who have been hired and they form the core of the production team. Today they were involved in three main activities. In the morning they were selecting and cutting bamboo from the storage area. There is a very good electric saw for this that makes the job quite quick and the cuts are clean and straight. The small shoots that come out of many of the stalks at the nodes need to be trimmed and this is done with a handsaw.
At the same time they were smoothing the joints on two bikes that were built from starter kits the previous day. This involves sanding and filing both for the purposes of making a smooth appearance but also because irregularities have the effect of concentrating stress that might generate weak points that could eventually lead to failure.
We walked to lunch at a local roadside vendor where everyone had local food items prepared there.
The afternoon was involved in training the crew in wheel building. The wheels were sent as hubs, rims and spokes separately and need to bebuilt up buy the team. Once people gain the skills this can be done in 15 minutes or so. Ben first demonstrated the process and then each of the builders built one for themselves under Ben’s guidance. This is a non-trivial task and takes some practice but as I watched it was obvious these guys were getting the idea pretty quickly and that’s very encouraging.
At the end of the day everyone had built a wheel and that counts as quite an achievement. There are many, many people working in bike shops in the US who can’t build a wheel. None of these guys had come close to doing anything like this before and it is a real delight to see them doing so well at it. Many travel a long way to get to the factory taking as much as an hour and a half. They are keen and enthusiastic and have the skills to build bikes, no doubt about that.
The only news that is not so great is that the container from Brooklyn with tools and jigs and the other things needed to build bikes has not arrived. The consistent word is that it will arrive tomorrow morning. If it does not we will start running out of things to do for training fairly soon.
The day began with news that the container did not clear customs yesterday but was expected to clear today and arrive at the end of the day. But today is Friday and if the container comes at the end of the day the crew will most likely have gone home and will not be available to help unload. We can do this ourselves and maybe a few will stay. Then there is a question of what happens Saturday. Maybe it will be possible to have people work that day but not Sunday for sure. Given the short amount of time that Marty, Justin and Ben have to do the training we do need to get things started on Saturday if at all possible.
So Friday at the factory began with further training in bamboo selection and in wheel building in parallel groups. The wheel builders are getting quite skilled and soon will not need oversight.
About mid morning Marty gave a lecture to the crew on factory set-up and management. He also stepped them through the process of construction that will happen when all the tools and jigs arrive.
Today the exhaust system was installed for the back-up generator. The parts including a section of pipe maybe 12 feet long came by motorcycle. The gas tank seems to be getting repaired as well.
The day was pretty slow in most ways. The best achievements were that the crew got very good at wheel building and at the end of the day one of the guys claimed he could build one in 15 minutes and others challenged him in a competition. He didn’t win but got in just over 15 minutes that is a marvelous achievement for novices.
Kwame also spent part of the day researching places to have bottom bracket shells, head tubes etc made locally and has found some places where it looks like it is possible and came back with samples. These are pretty simple and should be able to be sourced locally.
The container from Brooklyn has cleared customs now was first expected to arrive at 7pm then rescheduled to 0400 tomorrow.
Next morning, Saturday we are picked up at 0700 from the hotels and went to an intermediate site where the semi was parked in gas station and where the BBL blue truck was parked also. We all worked to off load the container into the blue truck and pickup. Didn’t take long at all. Most of the crew came out and we moved things along quickly. Then drove to the factory and unloaded there. Everything was done by 0900, much sooner that I guessed it would be possible.
Then spent the rest of the morning getting things out of boxes and setting up for the start of training using the jigs and the tools and machinery on Monday. The band saw was assembled as well.
Everything seems to have arrived intact and nothing forgotten. There are few things that will need to be obtained from local providers but everything is set to go for training in frame building using the workstations with that will be the center of the production when things get rolling.
By the end of the morning the space looks nearly ready for serious production. The equipment that came from US is extensive including a large band saw, grinder, full Park tool kit (I’m jealous), drill press and system for making injection molds. Very impressive.
Traveled back to Accra on Sunday via the VIP bus. The bus station is located in market area and is fairly simple to catch. Just turn up and sit in a waiting area that is set up with four sets of seats three across and about ten deep that represents a bus-full of people. Those in the seats nearest the doors that lead out to the bus are the next to leave and they are sold tickets. The rest of us sit in the farther rows of seats and pick up our stuff and move progressively closer to the desired seats when those who have been sold tickets are told they can get on the bus. So there is no schedule and the bus goes when it is full. It seems to work. People all around are selling water and snacks for the ride.
The bus seems to deal with the roads better than the car on the way up and we make better time as well even with a stop at a rest stop on the way where I paid to go to the rest room and I bought a pie to eat. Asking what sort of meat was in it I was told something I could not understand ort recognize but I ate it anyway. And didn’t get sick.
Finding the Afia Beach hotel was a challenge as it is down an unmarked dirt road in poor condition and the sign for the hotel at the head of the road had been removed because it had been mistakenly placed over a sewer or utility lines and was taken down to do work on the utilities. Fortunately I had downloaded a Google map of the area and could figure out how to get there. But the hotel was real reward – bungalow style rooms that opened on to the beach. A little rough in places but not bad at all. I would recommend it.
The dining area was outdoors and the menu was reasonably interesting and the setting was outdoors amid palm trees with a distant view of the beach that I saw in the morning at breakfast.
Simple getting to the airport and the flight was straightforward as well. Back to frigid New York in the evening of Monday with no serious issues. Next day is the start of the semester.
I rather regret not being able to stay for the week of training on the new set-up in the factory. The team of Ghanaians have been picking up skills at a very rapid rate and it would have been a real pleasure to see them lean to build bikes of the jigs made for that purpose and us the tools that they have. However, since I could not be involved directly in the training myself it seemed like not the best use of time to stand aside and watch and take photos and of course the semester began the same week so I had little choice but to come back to New York. Still, it would have been good to stay a while longer.