Furniture Shopping–Ghana Style–part One (by Suzanne)

As part of leading the engineering programme effort, making decisions about furniture and lab equipment has partly fallen to me. As many of you may be aware, ordering engineering lab equipment has been stressing me lately. With US orders placed and larger, European equipment being out to bid with local distributors, our Operations Manager and I went furniture shopping in Accra last Friday.

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[Design Lab – under construction]

Much of the furniture for the new engineering building is being built by local craftsmen; I have been involved in the specification of that furniture as well. And have been impressed. Almost all of the furniture for the existing classrooms and labs were built locally and much of it has held up well.

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[locally built classroom chairs (or academic torture devices)

However, the wooden classroom chairs are rather heavy (and I find them uncomfortable for more than 30 minutes or so) and the tables are also wooden, heavy, and either fixed to the floor or too heavy to move easily. For the smaller classrooms and design lab in the engineering building, we wanted lighter furniture that was more easily configurable than the massive wooden ones we have. The carpenter (or, more rightly, furniture maker we are using) said, no problem and showed up two weeks later with a prototype metal-framed engineering lab station (very nice, we made one or two modifications but it was largely exactly what we wanted), the next week a design lab and classroom table (again, very nice, we made a few changes but it was largely perfect) and then a lab stool. When we first started talking lab stools, the furniture maker wasn’t sure he could do what we wanted, and others voiced the opinion that we should just buy proper lab stools – they can be found, imported from China or other places. But our president said no, no, no, we want to make everything local that we can, it is part of our mission to support quality local enterprises. (And by the way, the next week it was all over the news that the Government of Ghana decided to get all new furniture for their Parliament and they ordered imported furniture from China).

The furniture maker sounded doubtful about the lab stools, but one of the engineering faculty said, “go check out the Holiday Inn, at their outdoor bar they have metal framed stools that would be a good model for what we want.” And no kidding, the next week he showed up with a lightweight, metal framed, prototype stool!

[locally built lab IMG_1503stools]

It had some problems: was a bit unsteady and it was too narrow – fine for me, but it wouldn’t do for some of our more “traditionally built” students (as No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Mme Romotwse would say). But it was light, comfortable, the back was just the right angle and just the right curvature, etc. So he’ll come back, probably this Tuesday with another prototype for us to try.

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[Multipurpose Space in new Engineering building]

The larger multipurpose space will sometimes be a classroom with a total of about 20 tables and 80 chairs, and sometimes be set up for a large lecture with no tables and 260 chairs. So, for that space we really want foldable and/or stackable chairs and foldable tables. Hence the furniture shopping.

A friend of Ashesi was visiting all fall, and I knew her area was design (plus she has great taste), so I asked her to go furniture shopping with our Operations Manager in November-December. They went for a whole day and came back with copious notes and many photos, but the short of it was they didn’t find anything that was perfect for our needs: relatively inexpensive, no chrome (it rusts), comfortable, sturdy/would last, stackable/foldable, feet that wouldn’t fall off with use, feet that wouldn’t loudly scrape the tile floor (with a room full of 260 chairs, loud scraping of chairs could get overwhelming – it already is in our classrooms of 75). We were prepared to go ahead and order the best of what they had already scouted out, but we ran things by our architects and they found some other furniture dealers/stored we hadn’t been to, that many of their customers who may also have discerning taste use. So with this list, we set out.

Now, there are many challenges to shopping in Accra, the first of which is finding the store. There are no street names, or as Steve rightly points out there are now street names, but no one uses them. So on the list, instead of the address, a location such as, “near the old HOT-FM station in Adabraka” is listed. Note that this takes not only current knowledge of the city of 3 million, but also historic knowledge, as HOT-FM hasn’t been there for many years. But this is perfectly normal and reasonable as a location in Ghana. Plus we had at least one phone number for each business. Not always a name (there were several named “Office Furniture Company (?)”). So our plan, again perfectly reasonable here: drive to the approximate location, and start looking for a shop that sells office furniture; if we don’t see one on the first drive by, call and ask for directions. Which is a great idea if they answered their phones.

Shop number one we may have found – it wasn’t named what the suggested name on our list said, but it was near the landmark listed and it sold office furniture. None of the phone numbers we called answered after many tries, so we’re not 100% sure. We looked quickly, they had mostly “executive” (desk) chairs and desks, no decent quality foldable or stackable chairs and no foldable tables, so we didn’t stay long.

to be continued…

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