Ghana shares new superlab with West African scientists

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“For once researchers in Ghana can start to dream. Right now you are not limited by the absence of equipment,” says Lawrence Borquaye, assistant manager of the new central laboratory at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST).

The lab, opened in May, cost the university US$6.5 million to build and fill with some of the most advanced lab equipment in the world.

The idea behind it is to reduce costs by sharing equipment between individual departments. And the novel collaborative approach is even more ambitious than that: it is open to researchers from other universities both in Ghana and other West African countries. The lab’s designers are confident that the fees charged will help pay for its upkeep.

  • Transcript
  • For once, researchers in KNUST in Ghana and the subregion as a whole can start to dream. Right now, you are not limited by the absence of equipment. So in times past, usually, whatever project you decide to do you are limited by the fact that, you know, can I do all my analysis in this country, in my lab, in my school? Those are issues that plague researchers. But currently, the equipment that are there, they are all functioning, they are state of the art. They are comparable to any equipment that you can find in any other big universities anywhere in the world.

    So the idea of a central lab is a brainchild of the vice-chancellor Professor William Ooto Ellis. And what he thought of was that instead of individual departments trying to buy equipment to do their research, equipment that they couldn’t afford sometimes, it would be better if you could put all the equipment which have applications in varied disciplines in one central facility where everybody can come and use it. In that way, the cost for each department comes down because it’s a central facility. And so that was the idea. So the equipment over here does funds both the basic and applied sciences, so people in chemistry, in biology, biochemistry, food science and technology, in the medical school, people in pharmacy, in agriculture – they all have equipment right here they can use to do the work that they are involved in. In actual fact, the liquid chromatograph mass spectrometer that we have is the only one in the subregion, the whole of West Africa, it’s the only one that exists over here. In addition to the facilities in this block, we have other satellite labs where some of the equipment are located. So when you go to the department of horticulture and the faculty of agriculture, there is a greenhouse that sits over there. And the greenhouse permits you to be able to control the conditions for growing your plants.

    We have students who are doing a master’s degree that use this lab, people doing their PhDs use this lab. So the students come from KNUST or from other universities in Ghana, so we have students from the University of Ghana, the University of Cape Coast, the University for Development Studies all coming over here to do some work. We also have students come in from outside Ghana within the subregion. And so a couple of weeks ago, we had about five requests from students in Nigeria who wanted to come in to characterise their compounds right here at the KNUST central lab. Apart from academia, people in industry also use this place. So one company, for instance are trying to look at the presence or absence of heavy metals in their soil samples at the places where they operate. And so they came over here to use our atomic absorption spectrophotometer for that work. And so people in industry, in academia and people who are the regulatory bodies, so the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, does some work over here, the Food and Drugs Board, the Ghana Standards Authority, they all use this place. There are lab charges for using equipment over here. The reason is so that we can maintain the equipment that we have over here because a lot of problems in Africa is that people are unable to maintain equipment that they have. So we need to be able to maintain our equipment so this nice shiny equipment that you see here today they do not become obsolete in a couple of years. For Africa to develop, it is important that we are able to answer questions that are related — are peculiar — to Africa. We have to solve African problems, and to do that we need state-of-the-art equipment. And so KNUST is taking the lead and I believe that every university in Ghana, in Africa, should follow this lead.

This is part of the Africa’s PhD Renaissance series funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.