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Opinions Sun, 4 Jan 2004

Ghana-Owned VALCO and The Integrated Aluminium Industry

As a former Electrical Engineer and a Metallurgist with the Volta Aluminium Company (VALCO) and with a stint spanning over a period of ten years in both disciplines, I am profoundly encouraged to learn that the present Ghana Government is in the process of buying Kaiser’s share of 90 percent of the entity (28 December 2003 issue of Ghana Home Page).


On reflection, quite a number of Ghanaians may know that the intention of the government of the First Republic, in the early 1960s, was to have in place an integrated aluminium industry in Ghana, after the construction and installation of VRA followed by the VALCO smelter.


With the Awaso bauxite being mined, processed and shipped to UK for the British Aluminium Company smelter (BACO), the Ghana integrated aluminium industry was to comprise of the mining of the bauxite deposits at Hyinahin in the Ashanti Region and Kibi, in the Eastern Region; constructing and installing a washing plant and drying furnaces and transferring the dried material to refineries, where a chemical process is used to separate the alumina from the ore. The washing process (to remove clay and sand) followed by the drying process and the refining is commonly referred to as the Alumina Plant. Finally, the alumina (in a white powdery form) was going to be transported from the alumina plants to feed VALCO for smelting into aluminium semi-finished products (ingots, billets, sows) of various sizes and alloys depending on the end-use requirements.


Around the late 1970s or early 1980s,in my capacity as Senior Metallurgist, my Supervisor, the Chief Metallurgist and I were delegated by VALCO senior management to meet with representatives of the then Aluminium Commission (later to become Minerals Commission, I presume) to work out the modalities of supplying ingots to designated aluminium fabrication plants in Accra and Tema industrial areas. We came up with a workable arrangement and I was more than pleased and overwhelmed to see the level of job and wealth creation at the tail end of an integrated aluminium industry in Ghana. With population growth in Ghana and the neighbouring countries and afar the implementation of the industry should be encouraged.


In 1970-71, I worked for the Kaiser Engineers International Incorporated, on the VALCO fourth potline extension project, as electrical construction engineer with my counterparts from the Fuji Electric Company, Japan. The Kaiser Project Manager, who happened to be my boss (name withheld for confidentiality) was a geologist by profession and was simultaneously commissioned by either the then Ghana government or Kaiser Aluminium Company (I can’t remember which of them tasked him with that assignment) to analyse samples of the Kibi bauxite ore body. Under strict commercial-in-confidence basis he did show me the analysis (qualitative and quantitative) and I vouch to say that they were (and still are) of ‘world standard’. The percentages of both alumina and water of the sampled ore bodies from various locations at Kibi and the traces of impurities – mainly, iron oxide, silica and titanium oxide were within the prescribed ranges. The above goes to show the amount of job creation and wealth generation in both the Ashanti and Eastern Regions should the strategic planning and the processes envisaged are carried through to obtain the desired outcomes.

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It was therefore disheartening to learn in the late 1970s and early 1980s that a team of appointed so-called ‘technical advisers’ advised the then government of the day that an aluminium integrated industry in Ghana was ‘not economically feasible’ or ‘not economically viable’ (to borrow their so often used phraseology) to bamboozle the politicians who may not have had the slightest idea about the industry and its ramifications. On what scientific basis did ‘advisers’ arrive at their evaluation results? Of course they were travelling all over the place to Kingston, and US Jamaica (from where VALCO used to import alumina) conferring with Kaiser senior management on the issue. Kaiser owned the alumina plant in Kingston. And without doubt these so-called ‘technical advisers’ would come back from their overseas trips and tell the then Ghana government what she wanted to hear - nothing but inaccuracies and half-truths.


ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. Let’s be honest and show some degree of integrity, self-governance, professional ethics to serve mother Ghana to the benefit of ALL and not just a handful of ‘economic cheats’ and ‘parasites’ who have taken us for ride for far too long. Their competencies border on the ability to swindle the nation out of a deal by sheer shrewdness and it is about time they are stopped in their tracks under the cover of or behind the shields of so-called ‘consultancies’


As we are aware smelting of alumina into aluminium consumes a huge amount of energy, hence attempts are made, world wide, to undertake the process via hydroelectric power (as opposed to thermal). It is therefore unfortunate that lack of rainfall has rendered VRA incapable of supplying the required amount of power at VALCO (resulting in the Plant temporarily shut down). However, with the impending gas line to Ghana, via Nigeria, Togo, Benin et al and with the build of water in the catchment area at Akosombo, in the not too distant future things should turn out for the better in due course. This should not deter the Government with her discussions with Kaiser.


VALCO, is a ‘world-class’ entity with ‘good corporate governance practices’ - engineering, management, occupational health and safety, medical facility, training, infrastructure, logistics, work ethics, quality assurance, discipline, security and performance measures. It is to be hoped that we maintain the ‘standards’ set when the Plant transfers into the hands of purely the indigenes.


Last but not least I would encourage the Ghana government to pursue its negotiations with Kaiser with a well-structured knowledgeable team of experts to conduct due diligence covering financial position, technical capabilities, market survey and relate business and management issues. And at the appropriate Ghana may have to join the International Bauxite Association (IBA) to increase its income from the ore. IBA determines the price of the ore and also promote the construction of bauxite refineries in the respective countries.

Charles Agyeman Manu, MEng (Electrical), MAppsSc (Metallurgy), MBA (Technology Management);
Assistant Director Professional Development, Australian Public Service;
Member of National Institute of Governance, Australia.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: Manu, Charles Agyeman
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