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African Engineers: Stephen A Okunor

In the early 1970s Stephen Okunor was a senior technician, second in charge of the Mechanical Engineering Workshop of the Faculty of Engineering at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi. By the end of the decade, this son of the Volta Region had taken over from his boss, Essilfie, a British-trained technician from the Central Region. He had also formed a partnership with a black American technician-engineer, Medicus N Washington, to establish GAMATCO Ltd, the most advanced metal machining workshop in Suame Magazine, Ghana’s largest informal industrial area and the home at that time of some 27,000 artisans and apprentices.

Stephen Okunor was a tall man of light brown complexion and a lantern jaw. He was a man of few words and these were spoken with difficulty due to a pronounced stutter. What he lacked in eloquence he made up with sound technical knowledge and metal machining skills that were a generation ahead of most of his contemporaries. In those days in Ghana, the skills needed to produce precision gear wheels were confined to KNUST and a few government-owned workshops like the railway workshop at Location, Takoradi. Certainly, there were no gearwheel manufacturers in the informal engineering sector before GAMATCO opened at Suame Magazine in 1980.

GAMATCO Ltd was one of the new engineering enterprises brought into existence by the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of KNUST when it opened the first Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit (ITTU) at Suame Magazine in Kumasi. A grant of funds from the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) of the UK had made possible in 1979 the importation of machine tools to equip four engineering workshops. Three of these new enterprises, including GAMATCO, started business in workshops rented from the ITTU. Amongst the machine tools imported and sold to GAMATCO Ltd were milling, hobbing and shaping machines, all capable of cutting gear teeth of the types needed for replacement parts for cars, motorcycles and industrial machinery.

The forming of gears is one of the most technically complex operations in basic metal machining. The machines would have been useless without the advanced skills of Stephen Okunor and Medicus Washington. These two outstanding technician-engineers trained their workers in all relevant skills and were soon producing gear wheels by all three techniques of milling, hobbing and shaping. At first their main market was replacement parts for the popular Japanese motorcycles: Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha. Soon, however, they were producing original parts for the Yugoslavian Tomos motorcycle assembly plant in Kumasi. At the time this was the only known example in Ghana of an informal sector enterprise supplying original parts to an international manufacturer.

Medicus Washington left KNUST in the early 1980s and returned to the USA. Stephen Okunor carried on alone with activities at GAMATCO. His lucrative contract with Tomos disappeared with the collapse of Yugoslavia and he was forced to depend once more on the replacement parts business. Nevertheless, he should be remembered as one of the brave pioneers who demonstrated that informal sector industries in Ghana could raise the standard of their work in complexity, quality and precision to come within reach of competing at an international level.

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