(IAP- ’14) Caroline Bates, G
Caroline Bates (G, Civil and Environmental Engineering Caroline evaluated the feasibility of establishing a fire-brick plant in the Northern Region of Ghana. She worked with Pure Home Water, a non-profit water and sanitation organization based in Ghana. The scope of Caroline’s work included assessing the quality and quantity of available source clay material, an economic analysis, and a life-cycle assessment. The ultimate goal of the project was to provide a technical recommendation to Pure Home Water and the local community as to whether a fire-brick plant will be economically viable and sustainable.
Third Blog Story: January 29, 2014 – The End Arrives So Quickly
I am now sitting in the Delta Airlines Sky Lounge at New York’s JFK airport, a 1-hr flight away from being back in Boston. Our department’s travel agency provided complimentary lounge passes and it feels so very luxurious. A hot shower, fast internet, rich food and drinks, magazines and newspapers – there are so many treats. Being back is North America is comforting and comfortable but so very indulgent.
Once back in Boston, I foresee a major laundry operation, grocery shopping, perhaps a delicacy at a local bakery or coffee shop, and a lot of sleep. Classes do not start until next week so we all have a few days to adjust sleep patterns and get ready for the work ahead. I very much look forward to resting in my own space but will greatly miss the constant company of my fellow MIT travellers, our friends down the street and at Pure Home Water, and the warm, dusty, orange atmosphere of Tamale, set to a chorus of goats, birds, chickens, and regular calls to prayer.
The Last Week
The last week in Ghana was a lab testing frenzy. When I was planning the field work, I predicted that the lab testing would be rushed and intense and this forecast proved accurate. I completed 90% of what I hoped to do but spent several sleepless or near sleepness nights to get there. There’s nothing quite as boring as rolling plastic limit worms from 12 am to 7 am. But I think I’ve perfected my form. And my body adjusted to the unique muscular requirements for sieving, mixing, and manipulating soil (a.k.a. repetitive strain injury). I have also developed oven whispering skills – maintaining an even and correct temperature of 110oC in the small gas-powered oven in our house in Tamale was a talent that took some time to develop.
In addition to the lab testing, we completed some pilot brick making on the various soils of the area. The soils I have seen range from lateritic gravels, to silt-sand-clay loam mixtures and the sought after clay deposits. Many of the bricks we made at the Pure Home Water factory cracked upon drying as they are not suitable brick building material, but some also show great potential. The bricks are sprinkled throughout everyone’s baggage – I’m hoping that by spreading the wealth, some make it in better shape than others.
I ended up staying in Tamale until the very last day to maximize my lab testing time and then flew from Tamale to Accra. The officials in Tamale did not approve of the bricks in my baggage, but after receiving an aggressive, condescending lecture I was on the plane with my bricks and in Accra where Jasper picked me up. We planned to visit another brick factory outside of Accra that uses residual oil as a source of fuel in addition to firewood. It was a covert operation. I went as the wife of Jasper’s brother as the plant owner wasn’t fond of visitors but Jasper had a friend he was going to say hello to and then I could maybe look around briefly and ask some questions. We got lucky. This plant is much larger and is more sophisticated than the others I visited so it was worth the two-hour drive to see the operation. It is located in a lush river valley that is a large mango grove. The wind blowing through the open windows was thick with sweat-inducing humidity but the glorious sunshine and green landscape made me smile, despite exhaustion and burning eyes from lack of sleep.
It was an incredibly productive month. I was fortunate that almost everything I set out to do could be completed with only minor hiccups. Now it is time to compile, analyze, and evaluate the information I have gathered, in other words, the deeper thinking will begin. Five months to complete a thesis is very short! The trip has ended but the work continues…
On our second last weekend, all of the MIT students hired drivers and trucks and visited Mole National Park, Ghana’s best game park, located approximately 2.5 hours from house in Tamale. We woke at 4:30 am, were picked up at 5:15 am, and were in the park by 7:45 am, hoping to catch the morning safari walk. We unfortunately did not get to go out right away, and so spent an hour or two breakfasting and lounging beside the pool at the Mole Motel which is situated on a bluff overlooking the watering hole. Mole is home to hundreds of bird species and we saw many beautiful birds ranging in colour from deep greens and bright yellows to vibrant blues and metallic purples. When we finally met up with Adam, our rifle bearing guide, he told of an injured elephant that had charged a group in the morning because it felt threatened due to its injury. We descended the bluff and were able to spend almost two hours observing the elephant at a close (but safe) range. His left front leg was hurt and swollen and he lumbered with a heavy limp. He even laid down fully for a while to rest, likely exhausted by his injury. Adam told us that elephants use their tusks for two different purposes. The left is for daily foraging and the right is for defense only and is therefore usually protected and less worn down. We also saw monkeys, several species of antelope, baboons, and many warthogs.
After lunch, we used our hired trucks to go on a driving safari that was accompanied by Adam our guide. We saw many more species of antelope and breathtaking savanna scenery. The yellow, brown, and green palette of the untainted savanna is spectacular. The animals camouflage into the long grasses and the vibrant colours of the birds sparkle subtly in the tress if one watches carefully. We arrived back in Tamale by 7:30 pm after a return journey that at some points reached cruising speeds of just under 150 km/hr by our driver Ali. We all slept soundly after a full day of sun and adventure.
Ghana is a beautiful country with incredibly warm and kind people, spectacular landscapes, and a rich, colourful, and painful history. Travelling is a luxury that only a small portion of the world’s population can enjoy and I am so very fortunate to have visited Ghana.
I’d like to extend my extreme gratitude to the Public Service Centre, MIT, Pure Home Water, and of course, Susan Murcott for sponsoring my work and guiding my journey. May my work serve the community well.
Second Blog Story: January 18, 2014 – Settling In and Lab Testing
I have settled into life here in Tamale. We live as one big family in the Pure Home Water house, making meals communally, sharing our successes and failures of the day at dinner, and discussing our interests and backgrounds. Shiyue and Yiyue are from China, Wong is from Malaysia, Chipo is from Zambia, Susan, Reed, Alli, and Jason are from the States, I am from Canada, and the neighbours down the street are an Indian family with whom we interact frequently. Discussions have traversed historical, political, and scientific topics as well as more substantial matters such as shopping, movies, and internet woes. MIT is an incredibly diverse community and meeting people from around the world has been very enriching.
Since my last post I have completed investigations at all five plots and have started my lab testing. I intend to do a basic suite of index testing here in Ghana and then some follow up lab testing back at MIT. The lab testing is taking a long time – I hope I can finish all I plan to do in the time I have available. I have been using the wet preparation method for my testing where you pass the soil through sieves with water and requires excess water to be evaporated from the samples before they can be tested. Luckily it is dry and hot here – but it still takes time and sometimes feels like watching water boil in ultra-slow motion.
One new addition to my work is that we will be making some test bricks at the Pure Home Water factory from the various soils I have investigated. Although they will be fired in a smaller kiln at a lower temperature than those I collected from the various brick plants, it will be interesting to see their strength and durability characteristics. Getting all these bricks back to MIT will be tricky – they are not light! I’m hoping my fellow MIT folks won’t mind a few bricks in each of their bags.
After visiting numerous villages near Tamale and having had the privilege to meet with village chiefs, there is a very strong appetite for development and job creation. Establishing a brick factory would provide work, but I have also seen how development can cause divisions between neighbouring villages if not planned well. My discussions with the brick plant owners have also revealed that the business is particularly challenging as it is weather-dependent and requires substantial capital investment, skilled workers, and intense manual labour. Apparently there used to be a greater number of brick plants in the country but over the past decade many have closed down. Understanding these issues in depth will be central to my thesis.
Working with a non-profit organization has been an interesting change from working as a consultant to the mining industry. The scale of work is different, the budgets are different, and the way the work is managed is different. But many things are very similar. Working in a remote setting with challenging conditions, interacting with communities that are culturally very different, and adopting a flexible and adaptive approach to all situations are strong commonalities.
Land in Ghana is generally owned by the government or by village chiefs. To dig some of the test pits for my soil investigation program, we had to seek the approval of the local chief or report on what we found and what we were doing after we had finished. Meeting the village chief is a very traditional experience, where one waits outside his receiving house until he is ready for visitation. When you enter you remove your shoes, and then crouch down in front of the chief with your hands clasped at your knees. Once the chief has invited you to sit down, you either sit on the floor or on chairs within the house. Visitors do not speak directly to the chief. Instead, all discussions are done through an interpreter, as a form of respect but also of course due to language barriers. The visit is also initiated with a monetary gift to the chief in the order of 10-15 cedis.
Meeting Gbalahi’s chief was quite formal and we discussed several orders of business, including building a toilet block in his village, hiring workers, and digging holes in his clay pit. I was asked to stay after the visitation as joke. Meeting Gburma’s chief was much more light-hearted, jovial, and friendly. He smiled throughout and was very gracious. We talked about Pure Home Water’s tree farm and what trees would be best to plant. The inside of the visitation hut had teak columns and beams for the roof. Apparently teak grows quickly in the Northern Region. We also discussed the bush fires by neighbouring communities that had damaged Gburma’s yearly harvest. The men were very upset and understandably so, as the harvest after the wet months provides food for the dry season.
Once our visit with the Gburma chief was over, we went to drive away in our truck but the battery was completely dead. Several of the villagers joined as we tried to roll start the truck unsuccessfully. By the third try, about 12 people were pushing the truck, ranging from six year-old children to sixty year-old men. We didn’t need that many people to push the truck but it was remarkable how everyone rushed to help. The push starts weren’t working so the locals asked that we pop the hood. They jiggled the battery connections and voilà, it started with a powerful roar. By now, there were over 30 people surrounding the truck and everyone erupted into cheers and smiles. Success! What a special moment.
First Blog Story: January 10, 2014 – Bolstering a Deteriorating Brick Industry in Ghana
The Back Story
As part of my Master’s Degree I have been fortunate enough to join the efforts of a group of fellow MIT students in Ghana. The team work is being done under the direction of Susan Murcott, co-founder of Pure Home Water, a non-profit organization that has been working on water and sanitation projects in the country for nine years. My project will build upon work previously done by Pure Home Water but with a slightly new focus. I will be looking at the prospect of establishing a fire-brick plant in the Northern Region of the country.
Ghana, like most of Africa, is growing and the most common construction material currently used is concrete blocks, which require cement that is either imported or produced by foreign-owned companies in Ghana. But clay, the main component of fire-bricks, is abundant throughout the country and the technology to produce bricks is locally known with several existing plants located in the southern half of the country. Developing a fire-brick capacity could offer a locally-produced source of construction material, provide work to many men and women in an economically depressed region of the country, and could capitalize on the rapid expansion of Tamale, the main city in the Northern Region.
My work will involve an evaluation of the quantity and quality of clay-rich soil available at the project site, a cost-benefit analysis, and a life cycle assessment. While in Ghana I will visit several existing fire-brick plants in the country, conduct field investigations, and complete laboratory testing. The ultimate goal of the project is to produce a technical recommendation on whether a fire-brick production capability at the Pure Home Water factory is feasible and sustainable for the local communities and if it can be a source of revenue to support PHW’s goal of becoming financially and locally self-supporting.
The First Week
Despite a huge snowstorm that caused extensive flight delays and cancellations in New York and Boston, the Ghana team arrived in Accra (the country capital) with all bags and only four hours behind schedule. Although a bit weary from the flight across the Atlantic, all were excited to see Ghana and get started on our work. After a delicious dinner of chicken and fish at Papaye’s we organized bagged and parted ways. Jason, Chipo, and Wong planned to stay in Accra for several days while the rest of the group would head north to Tamale the next morning, a 12-hour bus ride through the centre of the country. I broke off from the group in Kumasi, Ghana’s second biggest city, where I met Michael, Pure Home Water’s operations manager, who would accompany me on my trips to the various brick factories.
Our first stop was at a brick plant owned by Daniel near Obuasi, about an hour and a half south of Kumasi. The drive to Obuasi was thick with fog from the dense forest in the southern part of Ghana. The Ashanti Region is very green, with an abundance of banana, plantain, coconut, palm, and cassava trees. Markets abound in every village and stalls selling anything from watermelon, donuts, and drinks to used refrigerators, shoes, and sunglasses shoulder the roads. Michael and I ate freshly made fried egg sandwiches made on sweet white bread and Nescafé coffee with condensed milk at a roadside stall while waiting for Daniel. It was a busy and noisy place – the store behind us was fixing chainsaw motors, chickens strolled by picking up bits of dropped bread, and many other customers came by as we ate. Some ordered tea, others only bread. Once we arrived at Daniel’s fire-brick plant, we learned about brick-making with both a kiln and in a stacked clamp, observed the clay extraction, and collected soil and brick samples. In the late afternoon we visited a rubber tree forest that Daniel is hoping to develop as a tourist hiking and camping site. The trees were being harvested for rubber which seeps out of the trees like maple syrup and is collected in little buckets where it hardens. After hiking to the first of 12 waterfalls along a mountain river, we continued on towards the outskirts Sunyani, hoping to see Mr. Obeng’s operation before the night fell.
The traffic was heavy driving out of Kumasi and towards Sunyani we were fueled by delicious plantain chips. Unexpectedly, we stopped at a roadside brickmaking operation run by a man named Adams who was kind enough to show us his work and give us samples as well. He uses a clamp process to fire bricks made using a grinder, conveyor, and pug mill. We then made a quick stop at Mr. Obeng’s first brick operation. Although Mr. Obeng was not there, many others were, including Mrs. Obeng, who manages the operation, several workers, neighbours, and little children. The visit was hurried as we were late and the dark was setting in, and frenzied because the children and workers were taking photos and videos of me while I rolled soil worms and used dilatancy tests on the clay material and tried to converse with Mrs. Obeng and the other manager about their brick production. After collecting more samples and saying farewell to the group, we pushed on towards Sunyani. We ended the day with a dinner of fried rice, chicken, and cold beer at a small hotel along the road.
The next morning I visited Mr. Obeng’s second brick-plant where we discussed the challenges associated with starting and maintaining a small-business in Ghana, his 20 years of experience in the brick industry, and his plans for developing his business both in Ghana and in other West African countries. Because Michael was fixing our truck in Sunyani, and Mr. Obeng’s truck was broken, we walked through the forest and a cocoa farm to the brick plant’s clay source, a vast flood plain that spanned over 500 acres. Mr. Obeng is a very thoughtful and wise man, and as we walked he told me of his family and shared some life lessons. Walking through the forest was invigorating despite the heat because we left the busy, dusty, and noisy roads full of milling people and animals behind to a place of solace and calm.
After parting ways from Mr. Obeng, Michael, Michael’s niece Agnes, Michael’s friend Emmanuel, myself, and a truck full of bricks drove north to Tamale, Pure Home Water’s home base and factory location. As we left the lush greenness of the Ashanti Region for the Brong Ahafo Region and eventually the Northern Region, the vegetation changed and it became clear we were heading to a drier landscape. Plains of yellow grasses perforated by large mango, teak, shea, and ebony tress replaced the tropical jungle. The village houses transitioned to mud huts with thatched roofs. The air became thick and grey with smoke and in spots, the yellow fields were charred black. Michael explained to me that the locals burn the bush for several reasons. Burning the fields yields fresh shoots of vegetation for grazing animals, burnt shea trees bear more fruit; and hunting of rodents and killing of snakes is easier in burnt fields. I was deeply affected by this degraded landscape. Coupled with the local practice of disposing garbage wherever and whenever is convenient, it seemed destructive, wasteful, and abusive. I understand the reasons why it is done, but feel that in the long-term more damage than good is done. But I remind myself that having an open mind is essential when visiting new cultures.
Since arriving in Tamale, I have visited the five plots of land that Pure Home Water has access to for clay material. Test pit excavation has been completed in two locations to date and I hope to complete the work in the remaining three plots this week. I’ve got lots of soil to test and not very much time! Hopefully the lab testing goes smoothly…
Impressions and Observations
The British influence in Ghana is subtly revealed while travelling through the country. I have been surprised by the sophistication of the English spoken by educated Ghanaians. Their vocabulary is rich with powerful words and idiomatic expressions are used throughout conversation. A village taxi driver pulled over because he “needed to urinate,” our operations manager spoke of “robust systems,” and women are referred to as “ladies.” While on a long drive in the truck I was asked to pass my neighbour’s “hanky.” I’ve also noticed that playing cards are popular here – perhaps introduced during the centuries of occupation by the Dutch, Portuguese, or British.
Public health issues are prevalent here in Ghana. Michael, Pure Home Water’s operations manager worked on the Guinea Worm Eradication program for several years and the disease has all but been eradicated in the country. But other diseases persist, such as Buruli Ulcers, where painless sores break out on the skin and if they are not treated can result in amputation. AIDS signs are seen throughout the country and advocate abstinence, faithfulness to one’s partner, and condom use. The health, water, sanitation, employment, and infrastructure challenges of the country seem to contradict Ghana’s recent upgrade from a low-income to a low- to middle-income country by the United Nations.
Rural villagers here eat very simply. Common lunch and dinner consists of a rice and beans mixture with a tomato-based sauce that is flavoured with dried fish. Meat is eaten infrequently and juice and fruit during the dry season seem to be somewhat of a luxury. It took a while for me to adjust to this bland and basic diet and I very much appreciate the incredible variety of food we have access to at any time of the year in North America. I must admit that the poverty here is harsher than I imagined.