Taking a Green Leap of Faith

tales from Ghana

If I was keeping a diary, on 15th May, 2013, I would have recorded: “Dear Diary. Today I opened a school with my business partner. Stick a fork in my eye!”

Yes, it was a scary move, but also a dream come true for Danny Quaynor and myself. I mean, look … we live in a developing country where most folks hardly trust anything or anyone, and yet they will not tell you what they want either! To be fair, I think they do not really know what they want. Which is why those who make it in Ghana, make it really big; and those who fail, well … check out the mental asylums and mortuaries. It is no light-hearted matter, jumping into entrepreneurial and self-employed modes in Ghana. You have to be tough, or ready to become so; and you have to be ready to warm people into accepting that they really do need what you are offering. Yeah.

Our school teaches eco-craftsmanship and artisanship. It is a holiday school — meaning that it functions during the summer holidays — but for all ages and persons, not only for students. Of course, as the name suggests, we felt when we began that most of our potential students are in secondary schools and universities. And though universities and poly-technic institutions in Ghana already teach classes on renewable energy, sustainability, and environmental design and fabrication, the students who come out rarely stand ‘the test of time’ and few have strong practical skills in these areas.

Even with strong personal interest and natural skills, most graduates still lack the ability and knowledge to pursue careers in recycled and upcycled crafts and design. They do not know how to minimize waste as they build things out of wood or metal, or build in an environmentally-friendly way. When we started, we felt that things were not moving with the times, and products in our part of Ghana were not being designed with an eco-focus. We wanted to fill that gap.

The one factor that gave us strength to move this idea from the virtual to the actual was the fact that Danny and I had been actively working on this concept for three years, and we knew it well enough: we knew our country intimately; we knew our people intimately; and we had enough connections, networks, and clients to help students who came to our school get sub-contracts for immediate employment opportunities. That took the fork out of my eye.

So when anyone asked us what gave us the idea to start this school, and why we did, I would just say, “It was like a festering sore, ready to go bad; we had to splice it open and go through the pain to find healing.” A bit melodramatic, but you get the idea.

As partners who had spent years working in renewable energy and appropriate technology, we knew that our country needed innovation in design to get a new lease of life. But our leaders didn’t acknowledge it (for reasons of political corruption!), and the majority of our compatriots are mis-educated, uneducated, or poorly educated with respect to the environment. So we felt like we were preaching to the deaf and blind. Still, we also knew that somewhere somehow, there was a way in, and we had to find it. Well, we did. And it lay in putting training and opportunity right in the lap of desperate, or seeking people who were ready to commit to learning, and ready to commit to delivering a little more efficiently than they would usually do … for a reward.

The reward was the sub-contracts that they had the chance of winning on a regular basis; a concept that Danny, more than I, had used in his operations and found successful. For example, when we received orders from clients, we ensured that we hired our students and apprentices to work along with us, or to produce them under our guidance.

The other aspect of the school that was also very unconventional and attractive to students was our decision to make our classrooms “un-classroomy”. For our first sessions these past three months, we taught on the lawn, in open air. We taught in the living room, where the students sat on couches and comfortable chairs. We watched video tutorials and photo-slides of other people’s works and we discussed them. We took many site visits and outdoor tours to places like Odumase, Aburi township, Adenta; among them, places where we had produced eco-friendly and recycled products for our clients, right down to pre-fabricated offices that were then assembled on-site at our client’s work premises. Every single day, we had three hours of practical work — for metal bending, welding, glassbead making, plastic work, recycling, and woodwork — all in categories, one after the other.

We would make students teach each other certain topics; make them present designs and shoot questions at them and make sure they could explain/defend themselves when probed and poked. When they tried to sink back into the mediocre and banal, we removed the pathways to those comfort zones and tossed them out into the unknown, burning the bridges and guiding them home from the other side of the rapids. Our students will not be mediocre, uninspiring, lazy individuals, we swore to ourselves, and to them. Their designs and products MUST be functional and market-competitive, no matter how recycled or eco-conscious they were. Their designs must be extraordinary even if they are simple and minimalistic. Their designs must be affordable and have good value, and they must make people want to own them, though they be unusual, or recycled or not of the current trend.

The market doesn’t always know what it wants — sometimes you have to create demand and start a trend. We aimed for our students to develop the knack of legitimately creating demand with most of the pieces they would create. We aimed for them to come out better than they came in. To this end, we gave them supplemental lessons on ‘Attitude for Business and Success,’ entreprenurial skills, and accounting. And we did this at no extra cost to our students.

People may ask, “What has been the surprise so far?”. The answer would be nothing, yet everything. Danny and I went into this school initiative as two very busy, self-employed people with complementary personalities. He was gentle and had just turned 50. I was blunt and tough and barely in my early 30s, but we had developed working affinity and understanding for each other over the years of our collaboration, and we were both very honest and principled people. We also shared our love of crafting, as for all things Green and eco-friendly.

If I say that we both wanted to start a school exactly like this, it shouldn’t surprise you at this point. But additionally, we knew the terrain: unemployment, under-education, poverty, bleak futures, and few opportunities. If we were not ready to face any surprises once we started the initiative, I don’t know when we would have been ready. We just agreed to stop stalling and waiting for the perfect time, and just go for it. So we agreed in April 2013, and by May 15th, we had started.

We knew we would not pay ourselves, and would be using the workshop, tools, equipment at no cost. We knew we had to even look for sponsorship and donors for some of our students. Danny would do most of the teaching, and I would do some too; he would do most of the metal and technical training, and I would handle the administrative aspects of the school. He would also play the soothing good guy when I played the Devil Incarnate . On days the students seemed bent on mediocrity, I would give them ‘hell’. I would run strategies, handle PR, find donors and sponsors, liase with the outside world, promote and publicise the school, and keep things in firm check, whilst he kept me well-hydrated with his calm and poise. Sometimes, I would trample all over that and burn him down in a fight or two, but we always got back to normal twenty minutes after and nobody knew better. What surprises can survive such a set-up? In my opinion, not a lot. We were sailing through, and so were our students.

What products are we selling? Technically, we do not produce to stock. We design on orders, and for the school, we plan to have a public sale/fair every quarter either at the school or in the heart of Accra to ramp up orders and sales. But in terms of what kinds of products a visitor would find, I’d say pretty much everything: home accessories, furniture, jewellery, lighting sconces and fixtures, recycled glass bits and bobs for DIY projects, and so on. All this is made of anything from cards, glass, and reclaimed wood, to car tires and scrap metal. There are many pictures of some of these in our Facebook Album and GooglePlus albums Google Plus (+Golda Addo)

We recently opened up registration for our second batch of students, and it is looking promising. People are talking to us more, we are diversifying options, looking at how more people will be able to get access to what we have to share, and looking forward to the day where, because we took this decision, more people in the country are able to live better lives, make (better) incomes, experience more faith in their future, live in greener environments, and have an alternative system of production to turn to. I mean come on, life is hard and politics is not being kind to our economies. We need somewhere to find purpose, meaning, and opportunity I raise my glass to a decade from now, and many more Eco-Design schools in different parts of the country. Heck, of the continent!

My name is Golda Addo, and I just started an eco-school.

July 20, 2013.

Accra, Ghana.

www.savingghana.blogspot.com

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Twitter: @GHANAmomoni