Monday, May 21, 2012

May 21st, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

Three years ago I wrote an article entitled ‘How many people can you fit in a tro-tro?’, which we all know is ‘one more, one more, one more’. It is an amazing realisation of living in West Africa – the amount of things that can be crammed in!

Take the charcoal trucks – they are so loaded that they increase the trucks size by 100% in all directions! The same was true for the East-West trucks that would get stuck under the motorway bridges – but since they took the bridges down and put the new toll booths in, we are deprived of the sight of a top-sliced load. We see school taxis, without seatbelts, with twelve children in a car for five. Consider the consequences if there is an accident with the buses with fifty-two seats and over seventy children on board.

There is the other side of the coin… ‘How many wheel nuts can you drive without?’ to which the fitter replies ‘one less, one less, one less’…

Fortunately, in aviation we are more ‘constrained’. The number of seats is the number of people that can fly. I have been asked if two children can share a seat – to which the answer is an emphatic ‘NO!’ We know the limits. How fast can we go? That is a given number specific to each aircraft called the VNE – (Speed Never to Exceed), and if any pilot is stupid enough to exceed that figure, he is unlikely to ever tell you – or anybody – if we can find their body that is.

Limits are necessary – speed limits, passenger limits, time limits, maintenance interval limits, etc. They all have a place.

There are a couple of other things that seem limitless these days.

Price increases: I am amazed at the ability of prices to jump without explanation. It can’t all be down to fuel prices or the dollar exchange rate – it seems that, rather like the tro-tro, ‘one more increase’ seems to be in vogue.

Things breaking: Recently we have had ALL of our field mowers decide to have nervous breakdowns. One actually ‘died’ and may its gearbox R.I.P. (Rest In Pieces). I have never seen a gearbox self-destruct so magnificently. OK, so the mower was very old. We will keep some of the parts ‘for transplants’ to other equipment, as is essential in a country where our manufacturing base is ‘light-weight’ (to put it mildly) in these things. Another mower with ‘life-time’ out-rigger wheels decided ‘life-time is up!’. It is absolutely amazing how things can break – without abuse, despite maintenance, with all the loving care you can give – they still seem to break more here than in the temperate regions. So, the welding kit comes out and some ‘make-shift-out-rigger-solutions’ are made – and a few other items that need changed get attacked too. I have never seen so many bolts snap as they do here – perhaps the poorer quality bolts are used on items, being sent to West Africa, by some manufacturers. One hand mower, an industrial one of robust, South African, construction decided that it would ‘auto-snap’ the main handle spar – and of course it did it as far away from the workshops as possible – and on a 100acre site that is a long way to drag an industrial hand-mower.

So, sitting with a few cuts and some singed hairs on my arms, from co-ordinating the surgery on the ‘patients’ in the workshop this week, I am more resolute in my conviction that ‘a country’s economic strength, and future, lies in its manufacturing base’. Without manufacturing, a country lacks skills, equipment, solutions, jobs and will always bleed foreign currency. Oil and Gold are nice – but manufacturing is the nicest. Manufacturing is special, and is an essential part of long-term economic sustainability. The strength that comes from making things is a foundation block of a solid future, as has been proved around the world. Each ‘successful’ nation has a strong industrial base. Take each one you can thing of and consider ‘what do/did they make?’

It is easy to say ‘but we don’t have the infrastructure for manufacturing’. That is not true. Look back at the industrial revolution in Europe – they had fewer infrastructural strands then, than we do today.

Do we lack resolve, determination and imagination? I have seen many with the imagination, and we have some great thinkers. The challenges and obstacles to success are many – and especially when things keep on breaking! Nonetheless, there is no reason why we cannot become a manufacturing nation – provided that:

  • a) Government does not try to ‘create its own industrialisation’ – Nationalised industry is dead. It has had its day. Private sector needs to drive industry – beyond the political cycles – where innovation is rewarded, not bled. 
  • b) Administrative systems that allow and encourage private sector industrialisation – it is important to enable ease of importation of goods for transformation or ‘non-locally produced items’ to be imported swiftly and without onerous charges, taxes and delays. 
  • c) Land tenure must be resolved – without it, only the ‘die-hards’ will take on land and build and develop the site. Land disputes are so, so disruptive, and distract from the work in hand. It seems that land-litigation is the distractive and disruptive evil that has destroyed so many projects – and it is time that it stops. 
  • d) Banking systems need to change – in the ‘developed’ nations you can borrow money at less than 10% APR for many projects – quickly, easily and on long term repayments. Here any APR below 50% for an industrial project is a bonus. Any rate over 15% APR for a loan makes no sense for a long term industrial project. As one banker told me, just one hour before her comment led me to close my account, ‘Banks in Ghana prefer to lend to traders.’  
  • e) Vocational Education has to be given its place – I mean REAL vocational training. Academic training is cool but we really need more hands-on-skills training. Polytechnics and specialist training that teach the real, needed, skills of today. We need to reverse the growing skills shortage, and fast.
Is it possible? Well, for the past seven years we have been building aircraft in Ghana, slowly increasing our potential and level of build. These aircraft have carried out many training, humanitarian, photographic, survey and other flights – over 20,000 safe and effective, accident free movements. Unlike mowers and cars, our aircraft do not give us major issues BECAUSE we maintain well, and we keep good stocks of service parts as well as being able to make or finish many of the airframe parts here. We would like to expand that production to other areas, creating jobs and securing the revenue streams that support our social outreach programmes.

Would you pay more for a ‘Made in Ghana’ machine or part, if the replacement parts with accurate repeatability were there, and local, technical support would ensure a longer service life? Let me know… perhaps we can change the status quo and reduce the number of dead or dying machines in the country. May they no longer Rest In Pieces.

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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