I had the opportunity to speak to students and teachers who were at the National Science & Maths Quiz Mentoring Session this morning. I hardly talk about my day’s job, but having the platform to speak to these young ones was one I wasn’t going to let go waste.
Find below a link for the slides and the full text of my script for each slide.
You can download the full presentation slides here:
Thanks to the Primetime team for inviting me.
National Science and Maths Quiz Mentoring Session
Speaker: Nana A Damoah
Venue: R. S. Amegashie Auditorium, Business Sch (Sch of Admin), UG
Date: 20 June 2015
Good morning. Let me start with a message from a friend of mine to the girls studying science.
I wasn’t supposed to be here today. I work in Nigeria as a Technical Manager responsible for Quality Assurance, Health, Safety and Environment, New Product Development (Research & Development) and something we call Total Productive Maintenance which has to do with systems to improve productivity in factories. I also double as the Safety Manager for Africa, for Wilmar International. We have operations in Ghana, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and South Africa. We just acquired an operation in Tanzania. The role of the Technical Manager is also such that anything which cannot be assigned to any department is assigned to mine! So my team and I are involved in getting landscapes done on the factory and deeply involved in preparations for important visitors, for instance. On Monday and Tuesday, we are expecting the Global Head of Technical for Wilmar International, and our Africa Head of Technical. So the factory is preparing feverishly and I am responsible for a number of things, including the presentations. So this weekend, I really should have been in Lagos. I arrived yesterday evening, will do this presentation this morning and return to Lagos tomorrow. I have to be in the factory tomorrow afternoon. This is to tell you how important this event is to me, to share with you about my life and career, perchance, someone here will be affected for good.
I was born in Kotobabi, Accra, 40 years ago. I just turned 40, actually, and I realised that, contrary to what they said, I haven’t grown any wiser.
I grew up in humble circumstances. In 1987, my parents moved to my holy village of Wasa Akropong, so at the age of 12, I started traveling between Accra, Cape Coast and Wasa. My first mentors were my parents, both of whom didn’t go beyond the middle school. But they valued education. My dad used to say that we, his children, were his houses. And, boy, did he build us with precious care and quality blocks. It may not have been implicitly conveyed but my parents instilled in us the hope and aspiration that education could be the tool for us to move up in life. And they were right.
I attended Providence Preparatory school in Kotobabi, where I excelled. Of course, I cried during my first few days at school. My big sister tells me she used to cry with me when she took me to school! It was only fear of my mum’s lashings that made her still take me to school. As for my big sister Yaa! She even cried when I was going to boarding school for secondary education, fearing that I would be ‘homoed’ to death!
Those days, we sat for the Common Entrance exams at Class 6, second term. As we waited for the results, our school used the third and final term in Class 6 to start treating some subjects that we would encounter at secondary school. It was during this term that our teacher, Mr Edem (we all called him Brother) realised that I was good at Science (and Mathematics). My father’s strategy, then, was to take his children back to our hometown for secondary education so we didn’t lose our link to our roots. So my siblings Nana Ama, Ntiako, Yaw and Maame Efua had all gone to Amenfiman Secondary School. My first choice for secondary education was Amenss, keeping to the tradition. But, with this realisation, Mr Edem realised that there was a problem: Amenss didn’t have a science department. So he went home to see my dad and convinced him to send me to a Science school, telling my dad that I was destined to be a medical doctor!
So that is how I got to Ghana National College. And I knew right from Form One that I would be reading science subjects when it was time to choose the route for O Levels and A Levels. Those days, we used to have an exam in Form 3 and on the basis of one’s performance, the selections were done. It was crudely allocated, those routes. The top students got to do science, the next set business and the next (note that I am not saying the last) were selected for art or humanities subjects. We know better these days. Mr Edem was right: I performed very well in Science and Mathematics, and made it to 4S (Science). At the O Levels, I was the best performing student for Ghana National, in 1991, with a distinction.
The story of Ghana National is linked to the liberation of Ghana, and so Nkrumah inspired us all to be the best students we could be.
As we filled in our selections for Sixth form school before the O Level exams, I chose GSTS because it was one of the best science schools in Ghana and also because my favourite cousin, Albert, was there. But when I went for my O Level results, I went to see the Assistant Headmistress and asked that they picked my forms for Ghana National, because I wanted to stay there for Sixth form.
As this stage, I realised that I loved both my mathematics and my biology. I have grade 1 in both Biology and Mathematics, and grade 2 in Additional Mathematics, I believe. But if I wanted to do mathematics instead of biology at Sixth form, then my dad’s dream of me becoming a doctor would be sacrificed. That was my first junction of decision. Initially, I was offered Biology based on my grades and the wish of my tutors. I had to negotiate with the Assistant Headmistress, Mrs Fanny Adu-Mante to change to Mathematics. She had to effect the change on the prospectus and sign against it.
Initially, I was offered Biology based on my grades and the wish of my tutors. I had to negotiate with the Assistant Headmistress, Mrs Fanny Adu-Mante to change to Mathematics. She had to effect the change on the prospectus and sign against it.
So I did Mathematics at Sixth form, plus Physics, Chemistry and General Paper.
I was the best A Levels student for Ghana National in 1993.
Having dropped medicine as a career option, I really was not sure what to study at the university. During sixth form, we had a number of career talks. I learnt from one of my teachers and mentors, Mr Gordon Egyir-Croffect, that to choose a career, one must consider both aptitude and attitude. Using this, I knew that even though I could easily handle medicine, I wasn’t particularly enthused about blood and the hospital environment! Reflecting back, I think if I knew about other branches of medicine, I would have reconsidered. Computer science was just evolving and I particularly remember one talk by students from Cape Vars, where one of them spoke passionately about computer science. I was enthralled. When one of my Maths teachers asked me what I wanted to study at the university, I told him about my interest in computer science. He quickly killed the interest! He had studied the same subject in the University, and was now teaching Mathematics, he told me. He asked me to consider engineering. The two popular engineering disciplines we knew were Mechanical and Civil. Civil didn’t excite me; so Mechanical Engineering was the key consideration.
That was the first time I ever thought about engineering. I went to my holy village to do my national service at the school I nearly attended for secondary education: Amenss. This was in 1993, and the last batch of the old O Level system was about to complete. I helped teach them General Science and Mathematics and then taught Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics for the SSS students.
I was at another decision point.
We had about four graduates serving with us; most of us were post-Sixth form and pre-university. One of them, Uncle Bee (Dr Richard Bissah, now of the Optometry Department of 37 Military Hospital), was a graduate from UST and a Katangee. He told me about chemical engineering and asked me to consider that in addition to mechanical. I selected both of them as options – those days, you could buy as many forms as you wanted and pick a lead option for each form.
When the results of the admissions came out, I had been selected for Chemical Engineering and also assigned to Katanga! After just the first semester of Technical drawing and Basic Mechanics, I thanked God that I wasn’t selected for Mechanical Engineering! I thoroughly enjoyed both the course (Chemical) and the hall! This is a classic definition of chemical engineering: Chemical engineering is a branch of engineering that applies physical sciences (e.g. chemistry and physics) and life sciences (e.g. biology, microbiology and biochemistry) together with mathematics and economics to produce, transform, transport, and properly use chemicals, materials and energy.
I spent time also on extra-curricular activities on campus, such as acting, writing and evangelistic music (with Joyful Way). I finished top of my class, in the graduating class of 1999.
I was selected as a Teaching Assistant in my department for my National Service. At the time, I was keen on graduate studies right after my national service, so I studied for both GRE and GMAT. Again, I had a decision to make but time was to decide for me. In March 2000, my friend Dapaa and I saw an advert in the papers for management trainee interviews at Unilever. We both applied and went through the various stages – about four in all – up to the final board selection stage. Only one person was selected as a management trainee in our group and about five of us were shortlisted for direct entry –immediate vacancy – roles. In June 2000, even before I finished my national service, I got an appointment with Unilever as a Quality Audit Manager, with responsibilities for quality systems audits in the factory and third parties including suppliers and for trade quality; I started on 15 June 2000. For the remaining three months of my national service, I travelled over the weekend from Tema to Kumasi to attend to my TA duties and returned on Sundays to Tema. After 4 years in that role, I was promoted to full manager in January 2005 and move to the production department as the Spreads/Oils Processing manager, in charge of the palm oil refinery and the margarine plant, producing such brands as Frytol and Blue Band Margarine.
After years of trying, in May 2005, I got awarded British Chevening scholarship to study for my Masters in Chemical at Nottingham University. I resigned from Unilever and left for the UK. I returned to Ghana two weeks after my studies in October 2006 and reapplied to Unilever. This time, I was appointed Production Manager for Spreads and Cooking Products, which meant the addition of Frytol packing to my role. The next year, I was made the Production Manager for Foods factory in Unilever Ghana, which added Royco to my portfolio. I had the opportunity during this time to spend time in Kenya and South Africa on short term attachment and also served on a committee of Margarine Production managers across Africa and the Middle East.
I left Unilever again, for eight months to work for Nosak Distilleries, which wanted to build an ethanol distillery in Ghana, as the Country Manager, helping to establish the commercial aspect of the business. In this role, I interfaced with the business aspects of running a factory or setup.
In April 2010, I was re-engaged by Unilever, this time in Research and Development, first as the Technical Manager for Ghana and later for Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. I was in this role for 2 years.
So by 2012, my career had covered Quality Assurance, Production/Manufacturing, Project Management and Research & Development, with interfaces such as Safety, Health & Environment, Engineering management, Procurement and Supply Management.
PZ Wilmar, my current organisation, was formed in 2011 with the ambition to establish a food ingredients consumer brand. In October 2011, a search was initiated globally, by a recruiting firm based in UK, for a Technical manager, with experience in QA, Production and R&D. When I was first contacted in late 2011 and we started the discussions, the lead consultant for the recruiting firm intimated that it was as if the job description was written with me in mind! My former boss and Supply chain director, who I knew from Unilever (he was the Vice President for Supply Chain for Unilever Central Africa, which is Africa south of the Sahara and north of the Lipopolo – excluding South Africa and North Africa), told me earlier this year (after dodging my question on his role in getting me to Nigeria) that the recruiters brought a tall list of potential candidates, most of them Indians and I was about the only African on that list. He said that when he discussed with the Global Technical Director for PZ Cussons, the man (called Sai, and also ex-Unilever) told him (Kattie) that if they started the discussions and I was interested, they should forget the other candidates!
So that is how I was recruited and in April 2012, I started this current role. We have started and built the largest palm oil refinery in Nigeria, processing about 1000 tons per day of crude palm oil or olein per day. That is about 33 of those tankers you see (the ones that move fuel).
So: that is the story of my career so far. And I am still evolving.
What are some of the things that have brought this far:
- Critical thinking: engineers are problem-solvers. Managers exist to provide options for problem solving. My former professor in Tech said that engineering is guesswork but how good your guesswork depends on how good your training was.
- Take a bit at what is thrown at you. The real learning is not in the classroom but in the field and how far you will go depends on the learning you do after school. I didn’t study quality assurance or safety as an elective in the university.
- Be ready to experiment and go out of your comfort zone. I say the best you can take out of school is the ability to learn new things. It is a bit like research. For my masters, I did a simulation of dust emissions from a quarry. A new topic I took up and developed into a thesis within 3 months.
- In your career, you will be asked to wear various clothing. And you will learn new skills. Be flexible. Be open. Be adventurous.
- When I was in the University, I wanted to be an innovator and an expert. I have ended up as a manager of many colours.
- You have to learn to replicate yourself and train others if you want to move up.
- You will be given unfamiliar tools. You have to be versatile and learn quickly.
- People management is important to your career as a manager and an engineer. You have to learn to be down-to-earth and play at the level of the staff or those you manage.
- Finally, ask questions. A questioning attitude is the key to engineering breakthrough. There are no useless questions.
I have been dabbling in writing as well. This is a passion and a hobby that I have nurtured into something I use to affect my society. Interesting, many people know me for my writing than for my engineering! I share this to tell you that you don’t have to ignore your hobby or your passion. There is a myth that science students don’t speak good English. Don’t fulfil that for yourself. I got a distinction in English at the O Level and have been publishing books, my fifth book is out this year. I write good English, even if I say so myself. Science students should also be interested in the humanities.
Allow me to end by saying that education has brought me far. As a small child in Kotobabi, I dared to dream. I was encouraged by parents who invested in me. Today, I can say my mum is proud of what her son has become and my dad, from heaven, should be giving me the same thumbs-up he gave me the day after my wedding night!
Don’t disappoint the aspirations of your parents who want you to be the best that they couldn’t be. Don’t settle for less.
And you are the ones to build this nation.
God bless richly and thanks for listening to my story.