African Engineers: Peter Donkor

A popular adage in Ghana in the 1970s was ‘Soap politics is one thing, but beer politics is another.’ Although soap was accorded a secondary status to beer, it was at that time in desperately short supply and long queues would quickly form if any appeared in the market. One of the first groups of clients calling at the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, after its opening in January 1972, asked to be instructed in soap making and given help in establishing a small scale soap plant. This project was assigned to Peter Donkor when he joined the TCC in 1973. He could hardly have imagined at the time that his duties would take him all over Africa and even lead to advising a multi-national soap manufacturer.

In response to the request of its clients the TCC set up a committee of experts to examine the problem and draw up plans for a pilot soap plant. In the meantime, the TCC set up a small soap plant at its campus workshop and began training would-be soap makers. The early plant used electrical heating and the product was laundry soap in 40 cm long bars, resembling the popular ‘key soap’ produced by Lever Brothers Ghana Ltd. Early results were variable, sometimes good, sometimes bad. It was Peter Donkor’s first assignment to analyse the process and reduce the variability.

After some advice from an Indian expert electrical heating was abandoned and a new boiling tank with wood-fired heating was introduced. A truly appropriate technology for small scale soap making quickly evolved and a few private plants started production. These were very successful and the demand for training and the supply of soap boiling tanks soon threatened to overwhelm the TCC’s limited capacity. However in 1975 the university opened its Soap Pilot Plant at Kwamo village, 8 km from the campus on the Accra Road. This enabled an expansion both of soap production and training opportunities. Most of the soap produced at Kwamo was sold on the campus to staff, students and employees of the university but much also found its way into local markets, including Kejetia in Kumasi, claimed to be the largest market in West Africa.

Over the next few years, Peter Donkor oversaw the establishment of over 50 small scale soap plants, scattered across the southern half of Ghana. He was also requested to train soap makers and set up plants in Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Mali, and Malawi. However, Peter’s main concern was to improve the raw material supply situation, without which there could never be enough locally produced soap to meet the national demand.

The principal raw material used for soap making in Ghana is palm oil. This was always in short supply. Some improvement was effected when the TCC introduced a locally manufactured extraction plant which enabled many small farmers to gain more income by converting their palm fruits into oil. Some farmers also became soap makers; extending the chain of added value even further. Others contracted with a local soap producer to meet his/her raw material needs. Peter Donkor looked for alternative raw materials for soap making and experimented with neem, physic nut, groundnut, coconut and castor oils, as well as shea butter and second-grade cocoa butter, in various blends and combinations.

Soap making needs caustic soda, also imported and so also scarce. Peter Donkor worked with KNUST chemists to produce a plant making caustic soda from waste slaked lime from an acetylene plant and imported soda ash. This reduced the foreign exchange cost by about half and became popular with small scale soap makers. In the late 1970s the TCC’s on-campus Plant Construction Unit produced and sold many palm oil, caustic soda and soap plants before the manufacture of these plants was taken up by the private sector.

A third important ingredient of soap is perfume. In the 1970s this was also imported and so hard to obtain in sufficient quantity. Using a small steam distillation plant based on a design from Guatemala, Peter experimented with locally grown lemon grass and citronella. The results were good but again the raw materials were not grown in sufficient quantity to meet the need. Here the matter rested until the power of big business came to give it a big push.

One day, much to his surprise, the TCC director received a visit from the Managing Director of Lever Brothers Ghana Ltd. The MD explained that he had been given a mandate from head office in the UK to base his production as far as possible on locally-produced raw materials, and he wanted to know what the TCC had to offer. So Peter Donkor was invited to tell the tale of neem and castor oil, of caustic soda and lemon grass, and the big man departed to report to his colleagues in Tema. It was not long before he returned with another request. It seemed that everything depended on scent: good and bad.

Lever Brothers used neem oil to produce soap successfully in India. In Ghana, neem trees grow in all parts of the country, and the oil could be produced on an industrial scale, but marketing tests failed because the garlic-like scent was not acceptable and could not be eliminated or hidden. However, Lever Brothers liked the idea of producing citronella and lemon grass perfume in Ghana. They asked if they could borrow the TCC’s steam distillation plant to conduct trials on thirteen grasses that could be cultivated locally. This was agreed on condition that Peter Donkor participated fully in the trials and had access to all the results.

When the trials were completed, Lever Brothers established a programme to help local farmers grow the approved grass varieties and imported some industrial steam distillation plants. Engineering clients of the TCC also began producing copies of the Guatemalan plant and a small scale industry came into being with a ready market for its product in the big soap manufacturer. The TCC didn’t often get involved with big business but in this case the outcome was highly satisfactory. Peter Donkor had helped to establish a link between the big and the small which was of great advantage to both.