African Metal Spherical Pots

During the colonial era, spherical cast-iron pots of differing origins were introduced to different parts of Africa.  These pots rapidly became popular in urban areas.  They were durable, heated up quickly, and retained heat well.  Demand rose rapidly.  They offered the added advantage of having handles near the rim and echoing in shape the clay cooking vessels that African women had cooked with for centuries.  The price for these cast iron pots was very high and in western Africa, unlike in South Africa, they were imported from abroad.  This explains why their dissemination into remote rural areas was slow.

It was not long before entrepreneurs in western Africa set up small artisanal, usually family-run businesses for the making and selling of sand-cast aluminum spherical pots.  They lacked the equipment to cast iron, so instead made molds out of imported cast-iron pots by splitting these in half along their length.

These peri-urban businesses flourished and are now imitated by other small foundries further and further afield.  All it takes to start a business is a little capital, basic foundry equipment, a little expertise and a lot of hard work.  The supply of aluminum comes from scrap metal merchants selling engine blocks, valves, pistons, etc.

it begins with the melting of scrap metal

The manufacturing process is straightforward: A cupola sunk into the ground is fed with assorted aluminum scrap.  A stationary  cyclist pedaling at a steady pace provides air to the charcoal-fed fire.  Then they pour the molten metal into handmade boxes packed with ready mixed green sand containing pot mold.  After the “shake out,” the pots are checked for imperfections and rough spots are filed.  Poorly cast pots head back to the fire while good ones make their way to the market.

the pots are sand cast, then workers file off rough edges by hand

Though much more expensive than clay pots of similar capacity, these pots have become very popular.  In fact, potters complain that these spherical aluminum pots have seriously curtailed their business.  There is still a heavy demand for large clay pots, but they are used more often for food and water storage.

The artisanal foundries not only motivate metal scrap dealers and other suppliers, but they have also created new business for pot merchants and also for pot repairmen.  The latter can patch cracked pots and vulcanize holes.  They cater to people who live too far from a pot foundry to have their worn pots recast.

Over time, the use of such pots spread right through western Africa.  Today they are found in use from Senegal to Sudan.  Depending on the origin of the cast-iron pot that spawned the mold for sand casting, the aluminum pots sport different logos.  Thus a small foundry in Hadejia in the northwestern part of Nigeria’s Kano state knocks out pots marked “Albion British Made,” while a foundry in Ivory Coast shakes out “Made in Belgium” pots.  In some cases, the pots are embossed with figures — a cluster of three or five stars, a rooster, a fish — or acronyms such as GOMA or B.

The spherical aluminum pots found in Africa differ also in other subtle ways.  Though two pots from different molds are essentially the same shape, the bottom of one may be more elliptical while that of another round and bulbous with a different number of bands around its girth.  Similarly, some pots feature three stubby legs, others have long legs, and yet others come legless into the world.  Serious investigation would enable one to trace the precise origin of most pots, when and how they were introduced to which colonies and disputed territories, and how they spread.  Such investigation could be aided by the special monograms and identifying marks foundry men add while making their wares.  This practice encourages pride in quality goods and allows customers to identify their pot maker should they wish to buy a new one or lodge a complaint.

—–> Making the Pot (View Slideshow!) <—–

Different original manufacturers made a range of sizes from quite small to very large, each bearing a number that referred to its capacity and a symbol identifying the manufacturer.  When spherical cast iron pots were still being manufactured in Europe, buyers could choose from an astounding range of sizes: for example, in its 1923 catalog, the Scottish Falkirk foundry enumerated 33 choices.  The sizes were numbered in “gallons.”  The term “gallons” to designate pot sizes continues today but is misleading as the size number does not indicate capacity in either US or Imperial gallons.  Rather it is a measure unique to cast spherical pots.  Today, the range available in Africa begins with small pots capable of holding no more than a liter to cauldrons with a capacity of over 150 liters.

While Falkirk pots are popular throughout southern Africa, in western Africa, as already mentioned, many cast iron models have been cut into molds to father aluminum facsimiles.  Spherical pots of even larger capacities exist in west Africa cast out of aluminum.  Sizes 30, 40, 50 and 60 are commonly used in schools, the palm oil industry, and breweries.

In designing long-lasting, efficient and affordable stoves, we focused on these popular pots.

9 Responses to African Metal Spherical Pots

  1. fred odoom says:

    good compilation. I am planning doing the same moulds precisely because i cannot afford a moulds!

    • benistoves says:

      Great! Thank you! Where are you working and what sizes are you thinking of?

      • Fred Odoom says:

        sorry for the delay in replying. I would use all sizes above No 3 spherical pot. Up to No 12 pattern. For domestic use (No3-5) and the rest for commercial use. Hope you can help. Thanks. Would you also have the contact of suppliers of other utensil patterns,new or used? Sand or gravity? Fred Odoom

  2. The Institutional Benistoves are ideally suited for the larger pots: size 20, 25, 30, 40, 50 and 60.

    As for the smaller pots, the institutional design will prove too costly. You would do well to go online and look at the “Rocket” stove design. This might be more suitable to your needs and can be made from different materials.

    Where are you located and what market do you wish to sell to? Look forward to hearing from you.
    Dixon Adair

  3. Eric Don-Arthur says:

    Thank You! Greetings from Ghana on that great piece! I noticed a wide range of different scrap aluminium parts in your text and images, I am curious; does any scrap aluminium work equally well for making cooking utensils in terms of their heat characteristics, durability and health implications? Much appreciated. Eric.

    • benistoves says:

      Dear Eric Don-Arthur,
      Thank you for your message. I hope I have understood correctly the question you are asking. It seems you are interested in making cooking pots.

      The pots pictured in the article are spherical and made from melted aluminium. The aluminium comes from varying sources: engine blocks, engine pistons, aluminium ladders, lamp posts, wire, etc. The foundries melt down whatever aluminium alloys they obtain and pour them into molds to create the pots they sell. The pots are durable, but if they should leak due to fissures or cracks, these can be plugged or simply broken up, melted and re-poured into a mold again.

      As far as the health implications of using such pots, any ingestion of metal is not good. The smoother the inside of the pot, the better because less metal is likely to be scraped off into food being cooked when it is stirred.

      The best material for cooking pots is stainless steel. Store bought stainless steel pots are made in factories with specialized heavy presses. The pots are cylindrical and of limited sizes; they are expensive.

      Good aluminium factory-made pots are cylindrical, very smooth, and the quality of the aluminium is constant and doesn’t get into the food.

      Dixon Adair

  4. Eric Don-Arthur says:

    Thank You Dixon Adair. I would think that I am more interested in health preservation, environmental conservation and economic technological innovation 🙂 so I read about your stoves with great interest. I wonder, how widely are they being adopted and used in by institutions and individuals Ghana and/or elsewhere? Regards, Eric Don-Arthur.

  5. CT Pope says:

    I live and work in rural Congo. I’ve only just gotten my first recast aluminum pots and have been using them as Dutch Ovens. My question is this: do you know anything about their safety? Like mixed metals and or lead contamination?

    • benistoves says:

      It is not possible to know what has been melted down to make your pot(s) unless you have provided the raw materials and seen them placed in the crucible. Most artisanal foundries gather scrap from many sources and pots tend to be made of a blend of scrap aluminium. Scrap aluminium has many sources: ladders, lamp posts, soda cans, engine blocks, valves and pistons etc. One can’t be completely sure what other metals are in the mix or what alloys have been used. Newly made pots will tend to have a rough interior surface that only comes smooth with use as spoons or ladles stir and/or scrape out the food being cooked. I feel certain that foods prepared in the early life of a pot will have minute amounts of metal that will leach into the food.
      Ideally, such foundries should obtain or purchase aluminium ingots of standard kitchen ware quality as used in Europe.
      The best pots and the safest are made from cast iron. Furnaces of artisanal foundries are unable to reach the temperatures required to cast iron. South African foundries cast “potjies” of excellent quality cast iron (eg. Falkirk ) as do an increasing number of Chinese foundries satisfying the demand in Southern Africa. Cast Iron pots will weigh considerably more than their aluminium counterparts. The weight ratio of cast iron to aluminium is 2.8 : 1. More often than not, a same size or capacity pot in cast iron will weigh four or even five times as much as its aluminium counter part because it’s thickness is greater.
      Warmest regards and good cooking.

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