The Buchele Adventure

This is record of the Buchele Adventure, as reported from West Africa.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

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.


[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.


[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.


[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…

Furniture Shopping – Ghana Style Part 2

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!”