In our last blog post, Suzanne and Casper begin scouting out furniture for the new engineering building at Ashesi. Shop number one was (maybe) located but didn’t have what we needed.
Shop number two was listed as in a certain shopping center. It was closer in to central Accra. We found it, a large colonial-era complex with shops around a large indoor walk space and huge steps up to the second floor; think Gone with the Wind but substitute grimness and uneven, concrete steps. The shop was upstairs. We walked in and found a helpful salesperson and a large, varied selection of office and other furniture. Almost immediately I spotted it: the holy grail I pined for but thought I would never find in Ghana, a high-quality rolling chair whose seat folds up so you can roll a whole bunch together compactly when you need to put them away. I sat in one like it at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering at two different workshops over the last two years, and I was enamored. I had spec’d theirs, made in America and priced at $600 each (ouch). This one was made in Canada, she couldn’t give us a price just then but would email us a quote and options available (e.g. fabrics, arms or not).
The Olin-esque chair
I was feeling pretty happy with myself for having spotted that one, but knowing it may well be out of our price range we kept looking. We found a few other stackable options, but none perfect: one with chrome legs (rust an issue), one kind of flimsy-looking although it seemed sturdy (I think that one was from Italy, but looked a lot like the molded plastic chairs we had in public elementary and high school in the US), one we thought would scape noisily across the floor. But some possibilities, both were confortable. We thanked the saleswoman and went on our way, feeling somewhat successful.
Two other chairs
Shop number three was difficult to find. The location was in the same neighborhood, a bit of backtracking to where shop number one was (or should have been) but near the cathedral. We used our algorithm, got to the cathedral and past it, no shop. So our driver Peter called, they picked the phone (yay!) and gave another landmark, and said if we got to such-and-such other landmark, call again. We did, and called again, and apparently we went well past it (why they gave us a landmark well past it in sort of the wrong direction is, well, curious). Peter called again, got yet another direction and landmark, we drove that way, still no sign of it. Frustrated, Peter handed the phone to me to try again – maybe the obruni will have more luck. We did, she seemed much more interested in navigating us there with me on the phone, and 4 minutes later we pulled up to the shop on a quiet side-side-side street and right next to a Presbyterian Church. We NEVER would have found it without the step-by-step navigation, and why she didn’t mention the Presbyterian Church in the first two tries is also curious, it’s almost as if the receptionist was being purposefully difficult, not a winning marketing strategy if you ask me.
New Engineering Building gathering space
Shop number three’s building was a nice, modern, dedicated office furniture shop, not nearly as crammed as the last shop but also with a plentiful, varied selection. We were again met with a very helpful saleswoman as we entered, we told her what we were looking for and she took us around to the 5 or so possible chairs on two floors. One of the first ones we saw we really liked, but once again, chrome legs. Oh, I think that one has an option of (hard, rubberized) plastic legs, says helpful saleslady, but it has a mesh back and no arms. No arms is actually fine for the classroom setup, she shows me the photo in the book and I see the price, too, in our price range! Hooray! Do you happen to have any in stock, I ask. She heads off to check, and is back in less than a minute saying they have 140 in their warehouse, which is exactly the number I want. Wow. We ask her if we can have a sample, and to reserve the 140 for us, and it’s arranged: she’ll send us an invoice via email, she’ll have one sent from the warehouse and Peter can pick it up Monday, and she’ll hold the rest for us for a few days to decide. We leave feeling very successful.
They have this one with rubberized plastic legs (we ordered some)
No one yet has had any folding tables, so we go to the big office supply and furniture store in town, a 4 story dedicated building that is everyone’s first and often only stop shopping for such things. Ashesi has purchased from them before, but the chrome has rusted and we haven’t been completely happy with other features either, hence our branching out for these new purchases. But I figure they’ll have a good supply of folding tables, which we’ve had zero luck with so far, so in we go.
Ashesi’s new Design Lab
The first floor is all office supplies (paper, pens, etc.) so we go up a floor. Not what we need on that floor, we go up another floor. This looks more like what we need, a large variety of stackable and other chairs, and lots of tables. We see some foldable tables, most with chrome legs, some dented and/or with parts missing or broken. Come to think of it, looking around, about every 3rd piece of furniture is, well, damaged. Lopsided, missing feet, dented, missing arms, broken parts. The place does not scream quality, to put it mildly. We don’t see the dimension of table we’re looking for, at least not in a foldable one, but their selection is so huge I figure they can order just about anything. We head over to the only salesperson on the floor, a woman sitting at a desk at the top of the stairs. She is looking pretty bored. We go up to her, greet her, and tell her we’re looking for foldable tables. She motions to where we were. We explain we didn’t see what we needed. She rather unhappily gets up and walks us over to the three tables we already saw. We explain that we want a table like this one, without chrome legs, but in a dimension more like this one. She looks doubtful. I ask if they have other sizes. She shrugs and heads back to the desk. We follow her, more hopeful than she is, apparently. She sits at the desk, types at the computer for 20 seconds, looks up and says, “they don’t have dimensions.” I try and clarify what she means. She responds: “There are no dimensions for the tables.” Again, I try and clarify, not sure how a store that clearly sells hundreds of different tables could possibly not have descriptions and dimensions in their computer system, but that apparently is what she’s telling me. I actually don’t believe it, I think she is just tired of dealing with us – it’s much easier to sit looking bored than actually do something. So Casper and I look at each other, shrug, and decide to head out. I am not very motivated to look at chairs there, as the selection is huge (it would take a long time to do a thorough job); representatives from Ashesi were there in November-December and had done a thorough job documenting that they had, and they hadn’t found the perfect thing; the salesperson clearly doesn’t want to help us; and with so much evidence of low-quality around, plus our own experiences with some of their products, I just don’t feel like putting in any more effort here.
Ashesi’s new Science Lab
In the car I vent a bit about the poor customer service and seeming poor quality of products there, and both Peter and Casper become very animated: “oh, they don’t care, they have all the government contracts, they could sell to no one else and they’d still make money!”