Have you ever asked an average child in primary school about the profession they will want to pursue in future? Their response will most likely be that they want to be bankers, lawyers, accountants or some other so-called ‘fancy professionals.”
Occasionally, some will tell you they want to be soldiers or teachers. They will hardly tell you they want to be scientists so that they grow up to be researchers who will spend the rest of their lives introducing innovations that will change the lives of people forever.
This is despite the ongoing efforts by academic institutions, government and international partners to increase the interest of young people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. STEM is what makes the world go round. That’s what inspired not only the travel to space by astronauts, but also stirred the invention of the internet that eventually produced one of the most luxurious industries today, ICT and social media.
It is thanks to STEM that the world has been connected by the power of computers and smartphones. It is thanks to STEM that majority of the world’s 7 billion population gets fed every day because if we were still depending on hunting and gathering, cannibalism would have been the hunger curing strategy in today’s world. It is through STEM that children are dying less from childhood killer diseases today and innovations like organ transplant are keeping people alive for longer periods. Scientists are the number one tool that God is using to build the world today, and to create a better future for all of us.
In other to keep the world going, we need to make conscious efforts to inspire the smartest and most energetic young ones amongst us to venture into professions in science and technology. Unfortunately, here in Ghana, I am convinced a lot more young people are not showing interest in this area because science is not celebrated well enough and they do not see role models they can aspire to be like. If this situation can be corrected, science needs heroes that young people can look up to. And I will want to celebrate one such achieved scientist who is smashing stumbling blocks, making Ghana proud and inspiring young people to do bigger things for themselves and their countries.
Prof. Eric Yirenkyi Danquah
Who am I talking about here? Prof. Eric Yirenkyi Danquah. He is the founding Director of the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) at the University of Ghana. He is a Professor of Plant Genetics at the Department of Crop Science and also serves as the Director of the Biotechnology Centre of the University of Ghana.
Prof. Danquah attended the Presbyterian Boys’ Secondary School, Legon after he pursued basic education at the Akosombo Experimental School. He followed his passion for agriculture and elected to read Bsc Agriculture at the University of Ghana. He then went on further to pursue an MPhil in Plant Breeding and a PhD in Genetics at the University of Cambridge, UK. Upon his return to Ghana in 1994, he was employed by the University of Ghana as a lecturer at the Department of Crop Science. He rose through the ranks and became a full professor in 2007. He has served the university in various capacities including Head of Crop Science Department, Senior Hall Tutor of Legon Hall and Dean of International Programmes.
Prof. Danquah dreamt one day that there is a crucial role he can play in ensuring a food secured Africa. He didn’t go to sleep on this dream. He got to work on it; and started laying the building blocks one step at a time, taking each day as it came. It all crystalised in 2007 with the establishment of WACCI to train a new generation of plant breeders to develop improved varieties of staple crops in West and Central Africa.
More than a decade on, Prof. Danquah’s WACCI-led project has attracted over US$ 30 million research and development funds to the University of Ghana. The centre has enrolled more than 126 PhD students in Plant Breeding and 49 MPhil students in Seed Science and Technology from 19 African countries. The centre has graduated 66 PhD and 7 MPhil students who are leading plant breeding programmes in national agricultural research institutions in Africa. Graduates from WACCI have released over 60 improved seed varieties that are expected to boost food and nutrition security in many communities throughout the sub-region as well as lift millions out of poverty in the decade ahead.
Here in Ghana for instance, WACCI under the leadership of Prof. Danquah has developed superior maize hybrid varieties, with yields of up to 11 tonnes per hectare (compared to the national average of 1.7 tonnes per hectare obtained on farmers’ fields using traditional maize varieties) which have been released for commercialisation to help boost yield for the benefit of ordinary farmers.
He is a recipient of a number of local and international awards including the University of Ghana Distinguished Award for Meritorious Service in 2013. In 2018, he was awarded the Global Confederation of Higher Education Associations for Agricultural and Life Sciences (GCHERA) World Agriculture Prize for his significant contribution to the mission of the University of Ghana through education, research and knowledge transfer for the benefit of society. He is the youngest and first African to win the prize which was established in 2013.
The Chamber of Agribusiness Ghana in 2018 also awarded Prof. Danquah and WACCI with the Outstanding Academic Leadership Award at the Chamber’s awards night ceremony to recognize his efforts and contribution to the development of agribusiness on the continent. Prof. Danquah was recently appointed a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Standing Advisory Group for Nuclear Applications (SAGNA) which provides advice to the Director General of IAEA on the Agency’s activities in the application of nuclear techniques carried out within the programmes of the Department of Nuclear Science and Applications. He is also the Interim President of the African Plant Breeding Association (APBA) and Africa’s representative on the Maize Genetics Executive Committee.
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana, Prof. Ebenezer Oduro Owusu in congratulating Prof. Danquah on his World Prize award described him as a highly industrious and internationally-minded person who exhibits high sense of responsibility with outstanding leadership skills. The Vice-Chancellor praises his capacity to transfer theoretical knowledge into practical application, and how he has been a key originator, contributor and innovator of many of the agricultural concepts and ideas that have led to the development of many seed varieties and training of plant breeders from all over Africa. Prof. Owusu goes on to hail Prof. Danquah’s immense contribution to the agricultural revolution of Africa, and his instrumental role in the alleviation of poverty in Ghana and beyond. Not many people get such high commendation from the Vice Chancellor of Ghana’s premier university.
Prof. Ronnie Coffman who is Director of International Programs at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the Cornell University describes Prof. Danquah’s hard work to establish WACCI as the breakthrough effort in sustaining the science needed for the improvement of lives and livelihoods in rural Africa. Finance Minister Ken Ofori Atta has commended Prof. Danquah for his vision in establishing WACCI, noting the institution “could drive a new agenda to make the University of Ghana the hub for agricultural innovations and entrepreneurship.” Dr. Joseph DeVries who is Vice President in charge of Programme Development and Innovation at Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) has said they are “are proud to work with WACCI and the excellence it promotes in agricultural transformation.”
Time to Celebrate Science Heroes
From humble beginnings, Prof. Eric Danquah has risen to iconic heights that has been acclaimed the world over. His name gets mentioned every now and then when food security issues in Africa come up for discussion. He is not only an epitome of academic knowledge but also a trainer and mentor that many young people in agriculture and the academic field generally look up to for direction and inspiration. Such is his passion to see young ones develop that he announced at the World Agriculture Prize award ceremony in China that he would establish a foundation with his prize to attract talented students to study agriculture at the University of Ghana.
Many are those whose dreams of world-class education right here in Ghana have become a reality through Prof. Danquah’s vision, hard work and foresight, and they remain eternally grateful. Many are the farmers whose hopes for higher productivity and better income have become realities through Prof. Danquah’s efforts. And Ghana as a nation is receiving praise from citizens of several countries in the sub-region for the pioneering role WACCI is playing to revolutionize agriculture on the continent. Something we should all be proud of as Ghanaians.
In his career as a scientist and an academic spanning more than three decades, Prof. Danquah has achieved far more for humankind than many of us have heard or read about. And it is only fair that he gets celebrated. As Jonathan Swift puts it, “whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.”
Ghana is proud of you, Prof. Danquah. There aren’t many science heroes like you on the African continent. And it is about time people like you are celebrated to serve as an inspiration for young people. Africa has too many problems that are peculiar to the continent. And the only way we can fix them is for young people to see their future in people like Prof. Danquah and work towards it to make their marks on humanity.