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African Engineers: Frank Robertson Jnr

African Engineers: Frank Robertson Jnr

Frank Robertson Jnr wasn’t strictly an Africa engineer. He was, however, an Afro-American engineer from Texas who worked successfully in Ghana for more than twenty years. Coming back home to Africa in the 1960s, at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah, he ran a small engineering company in Accra until falling out with his fellow Afro-American business partner in the early 1980s. Then, offering his services to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), he was appointed Technical Adviser to Ghana’s second Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit (ITTU) slowly coming into existence at Tamale in the Northern Region. A natural appropriate technologist, Frank Robertson excelled in this role, and it was largely to his credit that the ITTU won the support of the local people and became a significant engine of change in one of Ghana’s most deprived regions.

From 1975 until 1979 the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, searched for financial support for the ITTU concept. It was the intention of the TCC engineers to locate the first ITTU in the centre of Ghana’s largest informal industrial area, Suame Magazine in Kumasi. By 1979, USAID and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) had agreed in principle to support an ITTU, but both agencies wanted it located in the north of Ghana, hundreds of kilometres from the TCC in Kumasi. After further lengthy negotiations, CIDA was persuaded to support the ITTU at Suame and USAID opted for Tamale, the capital of the Northern Region. Both USAID and CIDA appointed technical advisers to work with the TCC and the man chosen to help establish the Tamale ITTU was Frank Robertson.

Frank Robertson had worked for many years as the manager of All-Afra Engineering Ltd in Accra. During this period Frank saw a need for an affordable electric welding set and taught two small workshops to manufacture these machines and offer them for sale. This was one of the earliest examples of engineering manufacturing in Ghana and copies of Frank’s welder were soon being made not only in Accra but in Kumasi, Tema and other urban centres. This development had a mass effect in helping many young people set up in self-employment as jobbing welders. All-Afra’s work was mainly concerned with new construction, plant installation and repairs for formal sector industries and Frank had few other opportunities to work with the informal sector until he joined the Tamale ITTU team in the early 1980s.

The university’s Department of Architecture had designed a new building for the Tamale ITTU and USAID brought a pre-fabricated structure from the USA. However, all building materials were in short supply, including cement and steel reinforcing rods and it was estimated that there would be a two-year delay before the foundations and floor slab would be ready.

Frank was not content to sit and wait, so he proposed establishing an Appropriate Technology Club (ATC) in the large garden of the Project Adviser’s bungalow. He invited young men and women to come and try out their ideas for new small enterprises. With a centre lathe and electric welding set Frank converted the garage into a mechanical workshop. With work benches under shade trees, engineers and carpenters began making weaving looms and beehives to patterns supplied by the TCC and cotton spinning wheels of Frank’s own design, as well as prototypes made to test ideas submitted by members of the ATC. Soon Frank was training cotton spinners on the veranda of the bungalow and broadloom weavers in the main hall. A beehive some distance off under another shade tree provided an early opportunity for training beekeepers. Frank was determined that by the time the ITTU building was ready there would be a nucleus of activity on which to build. He had also ensured the goodwill and full cooperation of the community which took to heart all that Frank was doing for their benefit.

Before Frank left Tamale in August 1986 the ITTU building had been completed and all its plant installed, including a well-equipped machine shop, a welding and steel fabrication shop, a carpentry workshop, an iron foundry and a 60KVA standby generator. Frank called it the finest engineering workshop north of the Volta River. The people of Tamale looked on Frank as God’s gift to their community and many expressed their grief at his final departure. Frank would have liked to stay. He left because his Ghanaian wife could see no future for their expected child in Flight Lieutenant Rawlings’ revolutionary Ghana. She persuaded Frank to take his family back to Texas. Invited by one head of state, repelled by another, Frank did his best for the continent of his forebears. It was a best that will be long remembered in Tamale.