“I am passionate about and committed to agricultural science for development and strive to align myself with other innovators who are visionary about crop improvement for Africa.”
So said Eric Yirenkyi Danquah, the international plant geneticist from the University of Ghana, upon being awarded the 2018 World Agriculture Prize (WAP) from the Global Confederation of Higher Education Association for Agricultural and Life Sciences (GCHERA) in Nanjing, China on October 28. Danquah is the first African to be awarded the WAP.
Danquah received the award in recognition of his remarkable success in founding and directing the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) through its first decade of accomplishment, from 2007 to 2018.
World-recognized as a leading educational center for plant breeders and seed scientists in Ghana, WACCI is a partnership between International Programs in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (IP-CALS) and the University of Ghana.
Danquah partnered closely with Cornell in establishing WACCI 11 years ago.
“Professor Dr. Eric Danquah has been the driving force behind the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement, training the next generation of African plant breeders in Africa for Africa,” said Ronnie Coffman, director of IP-CALS, who nominated Dr. Danquah for the award, and who was in Nanjing for the Laureate ceremony. “This is a breakthrough effort to establish and sustain the science needed for the improvement of lives and livelihoods in rural Africa.”
In leading WACCI, Danquah developed the strategic and implementation plans, helped plan and develop the physical infrastructure, established protocols, and recruited human resources. He corralled support from public and private stakeholders, including the University of Ghana, the Rockefeller Foundation, Cornell University, the Program for Africa’s Green Revolution (ProGRA, now the Alliance for a Green Revolution, or AGRA), the West Africa Rice Development Association (WARFA, now AfricaRice), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In working with stakeholders, Dr. Danquah attracted over USD $28M to the University of Ghana for research and development projects, including $8M when WACCI was named as a World Bank Africa Centre of Excellence Project. This facilitated the establishment of several linked programs: a Ph.D plant breeding program that has enrolled over 114 Ph.D. and 20 Masters plant breeding students from 15 African countries, and a two-year International Master’s degree program for Seed Science and Technology that supports dozens of master’s degree students.
“Training PhD-level African plant breeders in Africa, with research focused on the most urgent issues in their home countries, is an innovative approach that has built capacity to address the critical germplasm needs of this region,” said Margaret Smith, Cornell maize breeder who is the principal investigator on the WACCI project. “Eric has successfully engaged the capabilities and the potential of the local faculty and institutions and supplemented them with an international network of scientists to build this program.”
Cornell faculty who have gone to WACCI to teach include Smith (maize breeding), Susan McCouch (rice breeding and molecular genetics), Sarah Evanega (science communications), and others. Cornell graduate students have conducted workshops and courses at WACCI. Cornell alumnus Hernan Ceballos, a cassava breeder with CIAT, has taught cassava breeding at WACCI.
A FOUNDATION FOR FUTURE TRAINING
Danquah, who won $100,000 (USD) as prize money, announced that he will use it to advance student opportunities at the University of Ghana by establishing a foundation to support and encourage talented but needy students to study agriculture at the University of Ghana. “I hope the foundation will grow in my lifetime to train next generational agricultural scientists who would be game changers and history makers for the future of food and agriculture in our changing, growing and hungry world,” he said.
In a personal statement, Danquah also said: “In Africa, where hunger and malnutrition affect millions of people, poor agricultural productivity and low incomes make access to food a pressing issue. Plant breeding programs are a major tool to address agricultural productivity, but finding well-trained plant breeders who can improve crops to adapt to changing environments and meet the needs of both farmers and consumers has been very difficult in Africa. I am proud to be working with many partners to meet Africa’s future food needs by training the next generation of African plant breeders.”
As part of the WACCI Ph.D. program, experts from around the globe come to Ghana to deliver learning modules on their specific expertise. This creates a set of connections and collaborative networks for students, local faculty and visiting professors, and establishes working relationships into the future. WACCI has these working partnerships with Cornell University, the University of Illinois, University of Wageningen, the University of California at Davis, Cambridge University, and others.
“Dr. Danquah is a renowned educator and exceptional leader,” said Coffman, who was the first WAP awardee, in 2013. “Eric’s global impact will be evidenced well into the future because of WACCI’s success at promoting the careers of up-and-coming plant breeders, and training them to be pre-eminent plant breeders in Africa, for Africa. Making the most of young people’s potential is the planet’s best hope for survival.”
GCHERA, with Nanjing Agricultural University (NAU), established the WAP in 2013 to recognize a faculty member from an agricultural and life science university who has significantly contributed to the mission of the university through education, research and knowledge transfer for the benefit of society. The prize is sponsored by the Education Development Foundation of Nanjing Agricultural University and the Da Bei Nong Group.