“African Science” & its Discontents

There is no reason why you should have heard of pozzolana.

Unless, of course, you are Italian and can connect the word to the Neapolitan town of Puzzuoli and its local hallmark of fine volcanic ash. That ash, when mixed with lime, becomes a robust building material, which historians believe is the first construction material that can be accurately be referred to as “concrete”.

If you live in Ghana, it is likely you know little about this history of pozzolana. Pozzolana as far as you understand is a substance of local lore.

A decade and half ago, Alex Hammond, a Ghanaian scientist completing his PhD, settled on a dissertation topic. This committed him to spend significant amounts of time at Ghana’s Center for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), the West African country’s main national research and development (R&D) complex, investigating the properties of prospective native building technologies.

A resurgence of interest in traditional systems of knowledge and technologies had found its way into orthodox, Western-trained research community in Africa—a combination known as “appropriate technology”—and Hammond must no doubt have felt at least some of this wave of inspiration.Unfortunately, Dr. Hammond left no memoirs. So we can barely guess at the specific set of inspirations that triggered his search for a variant of pozzolana derived not from volcanic ash but from clay and bauxite waste. Why he did so seems more obvious: they are widely available throughout Ghana’s communities. Since research at the CSIR has a “developmental” bent, accessibility and affordability were seen as essential elements.

Dr. Hammond’s insight built on four decades of work. Ghana’s Building & Road Research Institute (BRRI)—an institution within the CSIR—had long since focused on reducing the cost of building materials in order to improve on housing opportunities for local communities.

Importing Science

This focus on appropriate technology for development grew in partial reaction to the philosophy of Western-style research systems set up in Africa following independence in the early 1960s. The idea was to translate Western technology to the local context in a way that made sustainable use of available materials, knowledge, and skills. But by housing this ethos in a conceptual shell of “international scientific method” its practitioners suffered from spasms of contradiction.

Many believe that the entire worldview of the African scientists who grew up feeding on this syncretic soup of “new science in old skins” became disconnected from their environments, such that even when they took their laboratories out into the communities they chose to see only what their upbringing had taught them to expect. Invariably what they saw hid more than it revealed.

By the end the century, it was clear that the appropriate technology current had failed to build momentum in Africa’s orthodox scientific establishment. Its original force started to dissipate into thinning rivulets.

Scientists in long-sleeved tartan shirts and stiff-pressed khaki pants spent time in cluttered offices next to decaying labs scratching learned phrases from out-of-date monographs for obscure Western journals (most local and regional science journals had by this time collapsed). Many did so with the hope of invitations to crowded conferences in Istanbul or Helsinki. With their 12 minutes under the spotlight they could deliver vague field results for the benefit of a handful of participants, collect their per diem, then fly back to the same cluttered office, grateful for the free economy-class ticket.

So held the perception of the African scientific intelligentsia by many spectators of the African development journey. A common put-down was to point to the productivity of auto garages thriving in suburban Africa and highlight how much more relevant these informal shops were to the society than their “orthodox” counterparts.Those in the African scientific community who, like Dr. Hammond, held onto what remained of the appropriate technology ethos were heroic deviants in an age of stale conformity.

An African Flavor

Over the last decade, their tenacity has borne a number of useful innovations. In Nigeria, scientists designed an automated dentist chair constructed predominantly from local materials, solar-powered phototherapy systems, and non-invasive monitoring techniques suited to Nigeria’s milieu but developed with the same high-performance requirements usually associated with technology in the West.

In agricultural science too, where orthodox science has been the norm in Africa, hints of cultural assimilation of the scientific method began to appear. Kenya’s KENDAT announced impressive breakthroughs in hardening animal transport technologies. Leveraging local knowledge and resources, intercropping—a traditional mainstay of African agriculture for reducing pests—started to gain new attention.In the area of information and communication technology (ICT), forward-looking organizations like the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) embraced electronic trading tools that accommodated the unique settings of Ethiopian agricultural renaissance. A senior executive of the ECX explained why a software module had to be redesigned because someone had configured a form to require the registration details of produce-carrying vehicles that carted commodities to the exchange. The problem was that a couple of participating farmers showed up on donkeys. This had to be addressed appropriately, and they redesigned the software. The application of appropriate technology consciousness for organizations like ECX was thus becoming a prerequisite for success in the marketplace.

But what of pozzolana? By 2005 BBRI’s persistence appeared to have paid off, and public pilots of the technology began, to wider media coverage. Two years later, investors came knocking.  American investors PMC Global Inc. invested USD 150,000 to expand the pilot. At the same time, PMC invested USD 6 million in a manufacturing plant to commercialize the results of the pilot. Despite complaints in the Ghanainan media over slanted terms offered by the investors, the deal went through, and PMC was granted an exclusive five-year license to commercialize pozzolana in Ghana.

Even though pozzolana is not a perfect substitute for cement (it is mixed with traditional Portland in a ratio of 7:3 with cement predominating), its suitability for replacing 30 percent of the quantity of cement required for building means significant savings and greater structural integrity. Additionally, palm kernel may be used to enrich pozzolana’s material qualities, a traditional practice in some communities.The social context in 2007 greatly favored the entry of this locally sourced material. The price of imported cement was going through the roof: between 2007 and 2009 it nearly doubled.

So the investors followed through with the plan to establish two production plants to serve the northern and southern geographical sectors of Ghana. Production of nearly 1,000 bags of pozzolana began. It seemed pozzolana offered a clear vision for a future in which a revisionist attitude to orthodox science could recreate novel possibilities within the context of native intelligence and resources.

Yet PMC Ghana still struggles to sell. A major part of the business plan relied on government procurement as the main anchor for the company’s sales and marketing strategy. A number of government-backed real estate projects slowed this plan, and some analysts doubt whether a couple of them would take off at all, putting the future of pozzolana in jeopardy.

Solutions at the Grassroots

While conventional science struggles with bureaucracy, activity continues to stir in the informal shops and auto garages from which orthodox scientists were determined to isolate themselves. This is a new form of indigenous knowledge, not passed down for generations like pozzolana construction, but generated continuously by a new breed of craftsman forced by capitalism to innovate. Yet, like pozzolana, the new inventions occur with resources available to most commoners and without heavy investment or foreign support.

In Nigeria, student Mubarak Abdullahi built a helicopter from old car, bike, and jet parts. With a Honda Civic engine and Toyota car seats, the aircraft can fly at seven feet off the ground. In Malawi, fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba built a windmill from various parts found at a rural junkyard, powering lights in his previously unelectrified home. In Kenya, inventor Simon Kimani developed an SMS-controlled home automation system, through which he can send a text message to control security features or prepare tea in advance.These stories put a different face to the appropriate technology doctrine. While Western-style engineers labor in their labs to translate technologies to context, makers throughout the continent are designing and testing new products in situ first. The new challenge is to bring these two groups together.Recognizing that the informal economy breeds relevant ideas on its own, select universities have introduced programs to incubate inventions from outside their walls. For example, the Fab Lab fabrication facility at the University of Nairobi has worked with Simon to refine his SMS home automation system and build a business around the technology.

Public Intervention

But technical collaboration is not enough. For appropriate technologies like pozzolana construction and scrap windmills to impact the lives of Africans, projects need investment to achieve scale. The developmental bent of the field means that the public sector cannot be ignored. The government’s domination of infrastructure development, command of donor resources, and the jealous manner in which public officials guard their role as founts of legitimacy and authority requires, at least, their goodwill for projects to scale.

A severe challenge remains. Too often the success of large-scale appropriate technology projects gets held hostage to the effectiveness of public sector partners, whose commitment to deliver is hampered by the vicissitudes of the policy marketplace. Success and failure yield fewer consequences than in the private sector. Risk and innovation are less encouraged.

Indeed, pozzolana’s struggles remain tied to the high cost of trying to change attitudes in the conservative construction industry through promises of government procurement.

Can appropriate technology operate independently of the public element? It may well be that the next generation of projects sidestep government involvement. The maker movement represents a shift away from bureaucracy and towards grassroots culture, though few, if any, of the inventions identified so far have achieved significant scale.

The resources available to mold-breaking innovators in Africa do not match up to the task of social transformation. Though public sector participation may not be the appropriate mechanism to bridge this gap, private sector alternatives ought to be sufficiently robust to garner social legitimacy. Appropriate innovation and the re-cultural milieu in Africa must clear this hurdle before their effect on the economic lives of Africans can move beyond a revolution in technology towards a revolution in development.

Originally published at: http://mkshft.org/science-of-scarcity/

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