Ghana's Women Glassblowers: Demonstrating intersectoral sustainable development

Updated: May 1, 2019

By Tara Stafford Ocansey

This is a story about a training program for young women in Ghana to learn skills of glassblowing along with business planning, marketing, and digital skills, but it also about so much more than that. It’s about how we consider the linkages between our sustainable development challenges through our program design to tackle numerous challenges at once. Sustainable development has been defined in many ways, but perhaps the most common and generally agreed upon definition defines sustainable development as “the ability to meet the needs of the present without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland, 1987). The Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 lay out an ambitious vision for how we can build more equitable and prosperous societies without sacrificing the well-being of our planet. What these young Ghanaian women are doing is not just about learning a trade. The program is equipping them with skills (SDG 4) to earn a livelihood (SDG 8), empowering women (SDG 5), shifting the culture toward one that values sustainably produced products and addressing pollution through a kind of grassroots waste management practice (SDG 12).

Sub-Saharan African countries have the youngest populations in the world, and are therefore hard hit by the global crisis of youth un- and under-employment and lack of relevant skills. In 2016 the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimated that the unemployment rate among youth aged 15-24 would peak at approximately 13.1% of the global youth population in 2017. Lack of access to a full cycle of basic education, poor quality of education for those who do receive it that lacks opportunities to learn practical skills aligned to local economic demand combine to stymie progress toward addressing this challenge. So in looking at strategies to address this issue in sustainable ways, we must ask, how can the challenges of climate change and environmental degradation be woven into strategies for improving youth access to education and training opportunities so that youth are equipped to live healthy lives and create jobs for a sustainable future?

Trainees shape the hot glass.

As Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) is emerging as a key strategy for improving the livelihoods of youth and adults and promoting economic growth for developing nations, there is an opportunity to ensure that environmental education is infused into how vocational and life skills are taught. The ways various trades are approached, including the materials used, the manner in which waste is handled, and how products are produced and marketed all play roles in sustaining or degrading the environment. By incorporating concepts of environmental sustainability and environmentally-conscious design and decision making into TVET programs, learners will be encouraged to translate the lessons into their own ways of living.

Trainees participate in business financial planning activity

The Center for Sustainable Development (CSD), through their Connect To Learn initiative, has been helping to increase young people’s access to quality education since 2010, supporting over 1,350 girls on secondary school scholarships across 11 countries, investing in digital tools for their schools, and training teachers with skills for integration of technology and inquiry-based pedagogies. As more girls began graduating without practical skills for employment and lacking funds to continue their education, CSD began investing more in vocational, digital, and life skills training, and is now building on this work by building in environmental education components.

This is taking shape in Ghana through a partnership with Youth and Women Empowerment (YOWE) in Odumase Krobo, a part of the country famous for their ancient practice of bead making using manually crushed recycled glass and local dyes. YOWE enlisted the support of local innovator and expert glassblower Michael Tetteh. Tetteh started his glassblowing career as a beadmaker, until his passion, curiosity and enterprising spirit led him to seek the mentorship and training support of expert glassblowers from Europe. After traveling to Europe to train in glassblowing, he setup his own glassblowing factory in his home, figuring out how to build the firing ovens and cooling chambers himself, and continuing to hone his skills. With growing popularity in his products, combined with a shifting culture in Ghana that is increasingly middle class and interested in proudly made local products, CSD and YOWE developed a training program to train young women in this traditionally male-dominated profession.

Glassblowing trainee practices using a computer during a digital skills training

Eight young women were trained in the trade, receiving companion trainings by CSD and YOWE teams in business planning and marketing. The program is now adding a digital skills component to help the apprentices have skills to be able to research new market opportunities, promote their products, and communicate with potential buyers beyond their own communities.

Trainer Michael Tetteh is passionate about using recycled glass in his production, and in minimizing waste wherever possible. This is novel in an area where effective waste management is sorely missing. While Ghana has made strides in recent years to implement trash pickup services in more heavily populated areas through a public-private partnership with company Zoom Lion, smaller towns and rural areas often still lack such waste management support. This combined with a general lack of awareness about the negative impacts of poor waste management lead to gutters and waterways choked with plastic and other waste. Recycling service happens only on an ad hoc basis, with individuals sometimes combing communities collecting recyclable materials to take to one of few disparately located recycling facilities as a source of income. Until improved waste management services arrive at scale, the humble glassblowing factory is helping to fill that gap. As more and more people learn about the factory, visitors come from far and wide, many bringing bags of glass bottles with them to be used in the production. Local restaurants collect their bottles and bring them to the factory to be transformed into gorgeous vases, dishes, candleholders and tiles.

Trainees show off a macarame design featuring their handblown glass ornament

After just ten months of training, the original batch of trainees have truly become glassblowing artists. Five of the women are continuing on to work in the factory with their trainer, and the group is in the process of procuring land to build a bigger factory closer to the road to Accra to help facilitate the scale-up of their business. At the same time, the group is working to identify new ways of marketing their glass, adding on complementary skills such as macramé to create hanging vases and other decorative pieces.

The women will have their products for sale at the next Trade Fair Exhibition in Accra later in 2019. Stay tuned!

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