Kumasi Characters: John Francis

John Francis was, like Bernard Bull, a British-supplemented academic on the staff of the College of Art of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in the early 1970s, but that was where the similarity ended. While Bernard was a painter and sculptor and an archetypal Bohemian artist employed in the fine arts department, John was an industrial ceramist and head of the ceramics section of the department of industrial art. John, tall, fair and clean-shaven, was faced with the task of installing and commissioning a fully functioning ceramics production unit, to provide students with the practical experience of following their creations through from the raw clay to the finished glazed product. During the few years that he spent in Kumasi, John Francis fulfilled his official duties and did much more of lasting benefit for the university.

John Francis was a founding member of the Suame Products Development Group (SPDG), an informal team of KNUST academics who were inspired by the initiative of Prime Minister Kofi Busia to take an interest in the artisans of Suame Magazine in Kumasi, Ghana’s largest informal industrial area. Starting in February 1971, the group initiated projects in production engineering and broadloom weaving which were taken over by the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) when it started operating in January 1972. It was John Francis who designed the Logo for the SPDG, based on a traditional Adinkra cloth printing symbol, which was later adopted by the TCC and became known throughout the international development community.

It was John Francis who brought Sosthenes Buatsi to the TCC in August 1973. Sosthenes was a graduate of the College of Art in metal products design. After graduation he had spent eighteen months gaining practical experience in Switzerland and he returned hoping to be employed in his old school. John Francis saw his potential at the TCC and Sosthenes went on to become the first manager of the Suame Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit (ITTU) in 1980, and the first Ghanaian director of the TCC in 1986.

John Francis not only supported the work of the TCC but also benefitted from its support. He relied on the TCC campus workshop for help in installing the clay processing machines and high-temperature kilns of the ceramics production unit. This work often involved the manufacture of parts to repair or adapt equipment to the needs of the unit. When in 1975 the TCC began helping the traditional glass bead makers in the villages of Dabaa and Asaman, north-west of Kumasi, the introduction of the use of ceramic pigments was facilitated by this close collaboration and the technical expertise of John and his colleagues.

John Francis came to Kumasi with his wife, Sheila, and their three sons. Sheila was a keen horsewoman so she took in hand the KNUST Horse Society and transformed it into a fully functioning organisation. Buying horses from Kumasi racetrack and encouraging other academics to take up riding, Sheila Francis soon had parties hacking on the campus most weekday evenings and venturing far into the surrounding bush on Sunday mornings. Several small villages, located deep in the forest and far from any motor road, were first startled then delighted to be visited by cohorts of mounted academics; and when gentlemen’s races were on the card at the racetrack, Sheila, John and their sons would often be seen galloping in the lead.

After leaving Kumasi, John and Sheila established their own pottery at a pleasant rural location on the Isle of Wight. Needless to say, there were plenty of grassy acres for the horses. Sadly, however, within a few years John met an untimely death. The work he accomplished in Kumasi lived much longer, and he will be long remembered as one of those foreign pioneers who helped to promote interest in grassroots industrial development at KNUST.