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Opinions of Monday, 28 September 2009

Columnist: Appeadu, Charles E.

Why Is Ghana’s Brick Industry Not Developed?

I have asked this question to myself and discussed it with many people in many places over the years. I am bringing it to the GhanaWeb audience for discussion; maybe there is something I am missing in my understanding of the issues involved. I am not an expert here so I yearn for education on the subject matter.

In many places in the world, it is natural for people to make use of things that naturally appear in abundance in their environment. In the Pacific Northwest regions of the United States and Canada, home construction is mainly by wood and wood occurs in abundance in that region. I lived in Vancouver and Seattle in the late 1980s and early 1990s and it was a big deal (in other words, rare) to have a front-faced brick home. Then I moved to Atlanta in the Southeastern part of the United States in the year 2000 and lo and behold, a large proportion of the homes here are brick homes. Incidentally, clay deposits occur in abundance in this region of the country.

I graduated from KNUST with a degree in Civil Engineering and I recall that we carried out laboratory tests on bricks made from clay deposits in the Tano River basin and found them to be very strong. Ask any Ghanaian why we are not using bricks and you are likely to get this response: “it is more costly to build with bricks than cement blocks.” Yes, it may be more costly to build with bricks NOW than building with cement but it will not be more costly ten or twenty years from now if we start using cement to build most homes in Ghana. Why are we surprised that building with bricks NOW is expensive? We have not achieved any economies of scale in the brick industry as the demand is not there yet and so production is on a relatively small scale. If demand is increased (read on to find out how) the industry will make more efficient use of technology and other means of production to reduce costs.

One may ask: “why bother whether we use bricks or cement”? For a country that cannot manufacture automobiles, airplanes, computers and other high tech goods, I think we should do all we can to make use of materials that occur naturally in our environment. Here are few of the advantages of developing the brick industry in Ghana.

• It will help create jobs at several points in the development chain. People will be employed to dig the clay from areas where we have the clay deposits. More people will be employed to transport the clay to brick manufacturing plants where more people will be employed to turn the clay to bricks. Then more people will be employed to “burn” the bricks to make them ready for use.

• It will help in road construction. If you fly into Accra on a bright day, you will notice that most of the roads that lead into residential areas are unpaved and filled with potholes. Brick tiles can be used to pave these residential roads as they are done in many parts of the world. In fact, it will offer employment to many of our young people as they will be used to lay the tiles. I observed this being done in Johannesburg, South Africa during a business trip there last year. These same brick tiles can be used to construct raised shoulders along our city roads for pedestrian traffic.

• It will offer cooler temperatures in our homes. For a tropical country like ours, this benefit cannot be overemphasized.

Cement has its use in constructing bridges and beams and columns for skyscrapers but I suggest that we wean ourselves from its use for residential home construction. One of the stumbling blocks here is cultural. Many in Ghana perceive brick homes to be inferior to cement homes. Those of us who live in the US know that this is not true as there are multimillion dollar brick homes all around us and they look great. To break this cultural impediment, the government needs to come in with great ingenuity. Fortunately (in this case), we live in a country where the size of the government is very large and where the population is apt to copying what the big shots do. Here is where the government can make great impact. The government can hold a brick fair where brick producers come and display their products and technological innovations for brick production. Then, the government can select a number of these companies (say five or ten) and promise to source all its brick needs from these firms for the first ten years, after which time the industry will be open to competition. All government buildings and houses for ministers, lecturers and other public officials, all SSNIT hostels and other buildings, and all other government related constructions that are amenable to the use of bricks will be built with bricks. It is important for the high ranking officials to demonstrate to the general public that they believe in the use of bricks by using it themselves. Once people visit these big wigs and see how nice their brick homes are, they will begin to be convinced gradually that brick homes are not inferior.

I am not naïve to the fact that many stand to gain from the monopoly that the cement industry enjoys. However, nation building is not about satisfying the greed of a few people. Our leaders should rise above corruption and greed and seek a long term vision for Ghana that will help us wrestle ourselves free from poverty and underdevelopment. Although I have focused on bricks in this article, the principles can be applied to other products we import into Ghana. Those who are making efforts to use naturally occurring raw materials in our environment to make mango and pineapple juice, mushrooms among others should be encouraged and supported.

Charles E. Appeadu, Ph.D., CFA, FRM