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.
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.
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.