History this week: Vanceram – an example of failed Guyanese ingenuity – Part one

By Shammane Joseph

This article is the first in a two-part series that will focus on the development and eventual failure of the Vanceram Limited Tableware Factory, the largest economic project ever commenced by the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement (WRSM), at Caledonia  in Guyana.

Viola Burnham

On 14th July, 1982 Vanceram a limited liability company, came into being under the chairmanship of Viola Burnham. It was the largest and most ambitious economic project initiated by the women’s arm of the PNC.  Its shareholders included women’s organizations, voluntary organizations, co-operatives, credit unions, burial societies and co-operations. The main objectives of this company were to provide jobs for fifty women while at the same time satisfy the local demand for ware and to earn foreign exchange through the exporting of ware to the Caribbean.

As a result, on January 12th 1984, an agreement was signed between two companies – Vanceram Limited Tableware Factory and the Casburt Thermic Limited of London. Viola Burnham and Ovril Yaw, the Secretary signed on behalf of the local company whilst John Franklyn the Managing Director of Casburt signed for his firm. This contract commissioned an ambitious $6 million tableware factory, but in reality its completion cost $6.9 million, was a commercial attempt to produce ceramics from indigenous materials, in order to satisfy the local and Caribbean ceramic markets. Vanceram was to be commissioned at the end of September of the said year but its opening was put back to coincide with the 20th anniversary celebrations of the PNC party in power, until December of that year. According to President Burnham, this was “to show that things were never so bad as to prevent the exercise of ingenuity”

The building which housed the factory was constructed four months before the signing of the contract by Ideal Builders and General Contractors Ltd., and the architect was George Henry of the George Henry Associates. The idea to build this factory emerged  by the WRSM in 1982, because of the experience and successes of George Henry Associates in the development of a clay body for the manufacture of local tiles for the swimming pool at Homestretch Avenue.

The Institute of Applied Science and Technology was then asked to work on the development of that clay body to render it more suitable for the manufacture of tableware and also to join in the formation of the proposal of this project. Technical assistance in formulating and implementing this design was also provided by the Industrial Development Unit of the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation. Other international organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank, UNICEF and national institutions such as the state-owned Guyana Co-operative Agricultural and Industrial Development Bank (GAIBANK) provided financial support to this and other WRSM projects.  Additionally, the Regional Democratic Council of Region Four gave the land and the local Lama Crafts Enterprise also contributed. The Mocha/Arcadia Local Authority supplied the clay used at Vanceram. In addition, three technicians in Ceramic technology were trained in North Staffordshire polytechnic in England and went on further training at the IAST under the supervision of Dr. Robert Lee and Leila Locke. There was no uncertainty that Forbes Burnham’s leadership of the Government had much to do with Viola Burnham’s easy access to these resources. This support was evident when the late President Forbes Burnham announced seven months after the contract was signed that he would use his “clout” to restrict the importation of tableware into Guyana as soon as production came on stream at the WRSM’s Vanceram Tableware Factory.

The development of this project was seen as a great achievement for the women’s organization and a tremendous contribution towards the economic development of Guyanese women and the country as a whole.  More so, this project was in agreement with the economic ideologies of the time. That was, the building of an independent economy through the development of the local resources. This project was seen as another way of Guyanese getting out of the stranglehold from institutions like the I.M.F. This was ironic because a debt was incurred to create this company. Consequentially, a lot was riding on the success of this Company hence its early completion two months before should not be taken as an innocent achievement but must be seen as a desperate act to be successful because of the pressure that was on the Board of Directors to ensure a positive beginning. This alacrity was even more prevalent when in October of the said year; the factory had stockpiled tableware in order to initiate their sale in December. In December, the Company embarked on a nationwide and Caribbean marketing exercise, where they introduced the product lines to various selling agencies. This desperation for success was evident in Viola Burnham’s call for public support in this effort, when she urged consumers to boycott retailers selling wares other than Vanceram ware and stated that consumers must insist that those shops stock the locally produced tableware.

This was the only tableware factory in the Caribbean, which converted the country’s mud into a worthwhile refined product. Therefore, in the continued development of the company, an artistic side of ware production was implemented by the forming of groups which were responsible for decorating the ware. This provided opportunities for the young as well as the old who demonstrated their skills.

Vanceram was expected to generate $1 million annually, at a production level of 3000 pieces of tableware daily. In effect, this company should have been able to acquire the money spent in its development within seven years.

This was a difficult goal with only 50 women at work at the factory. Even though the Vanceram choir sang of the speed and concentration with which the women worked. Nevertheless, President Burnham saw it as a “fine example of Guyanese ingenuity”. The IDB representative Pedro Delgado had stated that the tableware project was representative of the new drive towards industrialization in Guyana, and he also noted that the venture utilized 90% of the domestic inputs.

This project was also seen as an achievement at a time when there was serious world and national economic crises. Delgado affirmed that he was confident in the project and was convinced that it would be successful.  This sentiment was coming from a man who had agreed to give millions of dollars to a company, without a feasibility study being done, to ensure its value and need. His enthusiasm was expected. The GAIBANK manager John Butters saw the ceramic ware factory as the nucleus of a new ceramic business in Guyana. This could have been achieved had it not been for several blunders by the Directors of the Company.

The company did not branch off into a complex but it produced a variety of tableware of varied colours, various ornaments which portrayed our local flora and fauna, as well as sanitary ware, roof and floor tiles and electrical insulation components, Guyana was seen as well on its way to produce bone china.  The creation of ceramics saw to many processes which were varied. Firstly, a group of four women were required to manually cut, flatten, form and load finished wares e.g. saucers and plates on to a dryer. When these pieces were dried enough to handle they were removed from the drying shelves and smoothed on a towing machine, the imperfect pieces were then discarded. One worker was responsible for directing a machine known as the jigger-jolly, it turned out tea-cups, to which handles were manually attached by someone else. All shapes were formed around plaster moulds and the handles for cups were in pairs in a mould which formed six pairs at a time. They were separated and edges smoothed before they were attached to the cups. This process was completed by different groups. Pieces were stamped with the Vanceram logo, then passed through glaze and fired. Before being handled they were first given a preliminary firing in order to become a “biscuit”.

The finished pieces were pastel greens, blues, orange-brown of clay; some were either left plain or patterned in various ways. The company in 1984 was still experimenting with patterns and designs which were all hand done. This method of hand designing was not 100% accurate because too much or too little glaze can spoil the effect; also uneven pressure on the brush could have lengthened the time taken to apply the border on cups and plates.

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