Prof. Felix Ankomah Asante

Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research, Innovation and Development | University of Ghana

AfricaLive Interview with Prof. Felix Ankomah Asante, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Research, Innovation and Development, University of Ghana

“We cannot sit in silos and assume that if we address concerns in Ghana, they will automatically be addressed globally. We need to tackle issues globally because they start at the micro-level, build up, and then cross countries. Climate change is a typical example.”

Key Points:

  • The University of Ghana aims to become a world-class research-intensive university, focusing on cutting-edge research and high-quality learning and teaching to address national and global development challenges.
  • The university has identified seven priority research areas, including infectious and non-communicable diseases, food systems, climate change, development policy, creative arts, and Fourth Industrial Revolution tools.
  • The University of Ghana has established three Centers of Excellence with World Bank support, focusing on agriculture, cell biology of infectious pathogens, and genomics of infectious diseases.
  • Flagship projects include genome sequencing during the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine trials on children under five, and research on malaria and food systems transformation with support from the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust.
  • The university is committed to promoting innovation by translating research discoveries into useful products and services, creating an enabling environment for academia-industry-government partnerships, and harnessing the talents of faculty and students to address developmental issues.

AfricaLive: How would you describe the DNA of the University of Ghana? What makes up your identity as an institution?

Prof. Felix Asante: The University of Ghana is the first university in Ghana. We used to be known as the University of Gold Coast, and then after independence, we became the University of Ghana. Our vision is to become a world-class research-intensive university. That means we do more research and graduate training. Our mission is to create an enabling environment that makes the University of Ghana increasingly relevant to national and global development through cutting-edge research as well as high-quality learning and teaching.

At the University of Ghana, we try to make sure that our research, teaching, and learning speak to each other. Our core values are integrity, commitment, respect, and loyalty. We’ll be 76 years old this August. Last year, we celebrated our Diamond Jubilee, and we look forward to having more collaboration, more innovation, and trying to always be at the top of universities in Africa and globally. This is what the University of Ghana wants to achieve in the short to medium term.


AfricaLive: What do you see as the most promising solutions to developmental challenges that Ghana faces, particularly in relation to your research at the University of Ghana?

Prof. Felix Asante: The University of Ghana has a research strategy from 2024 to 2029. In trying to come up with the priorities, we looked at the type of research being done, what is being done with our collaborators, and what is needed in the country and Africa in general. The seven priority areas that we’ll be focusing on in the next five years are as follows:

1. Infectious and non-communicable diseases

2. Food production and processing including improved approaches to breeding

3. Trans-disciplinary Research into Climate change

4. Development policy, poverty monitoring, and evaluation

5. Politics, social-cultural change, mobility, and development

6. Creative arts, education, communication, information literacy

7. Fourth Industrial Revolution tools: artificial intelligence, data science, machine learning, digital transformation, and others

We’ve identified that these are priority needs for the university, for Ghana, and the direction in which global research and innovation is going.

We have a lot of research collaborators. At the end of 2022, we had a total grant award of 18.3 million US dollars, mostly with our major partners. Unfortunately, we don’t get much research funding from the Ghana government. So most of our research is with collaborators, which makes our research very critical but also very difficult to address some of the topical issues in the country.

As individual researchers, we find a way of addressing challenges within the country by putting some of the issues in the proposals we write with our collaborators. I must also add that as part of the University of Ghana being known and important in the country, we have three Centers of Excellence that were supported by the World Bank. These Centers of Excellence do research and also engage in capacity building through the training of Masters and PhD students.

The three Centers of Excellence are:

1. West African Center for Crop Improvement (WACCI) in the area of agriculture

2. West African Center for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) in the area of applied sciences, looking at biochemistry, molecular biology, and other related fields

3. West African Genetic Medicine Center (WAGMC)

All these three Centers were supported with World Bank funding through a competitive bidding process. These are showcase Centers of Excellence at the University of Ghana that try to promote the needs of the country, the research areas of the university, and you’ll notice that all three are in applied sciences.

The University of Ghana is very strong in humanities, but funding for humanities research is quite challenging. It is easier to get resources in the sciences to do research than in the humanities. So that is what we are doing, and the future challenges that we go through in securing funds for research in general.


AfricaLive: Are there any specific research projects that you might consider the flagship projects at the University of Ghana? What type of work has been done, and what is the potential impact of that work?

Prof. Felix Asante: All projects are very important, but I want to mention one. For instance, the West African Center for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) was very instrumental in doing the genome sequencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The government and the Ministry of Health relied on them for information on the various strains of the virus. I think that was a major role that the Center played during the whole COVID period, and the President acknowledged the university for this role, including giving scientific information on the new strains and what the government had to do.

Also, in the area of vaccine trials, we are currently doing a vaccine trial on children under five with support from PATH. That is about a 5 million dollar vaccine trial, and we are almost at the end. The last evaluation by PATH was very positive about the progress and work being done. This vaccine trial is being done in Ghana, I think Malawi, and Zambia, so it’s more of a cross-country study.

These are two important areas that we’ve looked at, but I must also say that recently, we’ve got quite a number of grants from the Gates Foundation to do work on malaria research and food systems transformation. We’ve also got a substantial grant from the Wellcome Trust in the area of philosophy and ethics. The University of Ghana is the lead, and we are collaborating with Oxford and about five other universities. That grant is about 4 million pounds.

So we are doing well, leading, and building on the infrastructure that we have. These are just some of the current projects that are running, but like I said, at the University of Ghana, every project that we run is very important to us, irrespective of the amount of funding, and we treat all of them with the seriousness they deserve.


AfricaLive: You’ve recently stressed the need for well-coordinated policies on food systems in Ghana. How can better coordination and impact of policies be ensured, and how do you build partnerships to be involved in the wider development of the country?

Prof. Felix Asante: Yes, globally, the talk is on food systems, and when we talk about food systems, agriculture plays a major role. But it has been identified that other institutions and ministries in the country are also key for the success of agriculture. That is why the term “food systems” is used.

For Ghana, I know there is an inter-ministerial committee that looks at this, and it includes the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the Ministry of Roads, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Finance, the National Development Planning Commission, and the Ministry of Local Government, among others. These ministries are critical for agriculture.

If you leave agriculture on its own and say it is the Ministry of Food and Agriculture alone, how is the food transported on the road? How do we make sure that what we produce is healthy? That is where we need the Ministry of Health. And then there’s the financing aspect, which is where the Ministry of Finance comes in.

So as a country, we are taking a holistic approach to see how we can tackle the value chain of the food system. We are thinking of the process from the day you plant a seed until the food gets to the table. That whole thing is the value chain, and it includes a lot of actors and involves a lot of ministries.

This is a global focus, and Ghana is also moving in the same direction.


AfricaLive: You have successfully raised significant funds over the years in your work at the University of Ghana. What are the key strategies you employ to attract research funding to the university, and how will you seek to continue collaborating with international partners in this regard?

Prof. Felix Asante: For the University of Ghana, the important thing is a track record of doing research and a track record of good collaboration, living up to the expectations of the collaboration. The commitment with your partners is very important. It takes individual researchers to get a consortium running, so integrity is crucial.

Over the years, we have worked with partners, and we start from low funding and then gradually move into larger projects. Commitment and integrity as a university and as individuals running projects are very key. Certainly, the skill set and human resources are also very important. The University of Ghana has a faculty of about 1,400 with about 70,000 students, which gives us the base to have a multidisciplinary approach to our research, which also helps.

Now, back to the issue of funding, in South Africa, they have the National Research Foundation (NRF) where researchers can go for funding. In Ghana, we don’t have that. I know the government is working towards coming up with something like that, but it’s taking quite a long time. So we don’t have a national research funding body, and our main research funding comes from working with collaborators and responding to calls for proposals.

As a university, we subscribe to some research professional platforms where global calls are advertised. We send these to our faculty, and we work on them. In this area of research funding, equitable funding has become quite a topical issue. I know in the Global North, there’s funding, but there’s always a debate about how the funding should be distributed.

Currently, there have been quite a lot of discussions on equitable research funding, looking more at the ethics in financing. I’m hoping that globally, we will appreciate how funding should move from the North to the South and how we can access some of these funds to help address the developmental needs of our countries and also global issues.

We cannot sit in silos and assume that if we address concerns in Ghana, they will automatically be addressed globally. We need to tackle issues globally because they start at the micro-level, build up, and then cross countries. Climate change is a typical example. It’s very difficult to say that Ghana alone is leading in addressing climate change because it becomes a global issue. Smoke from one country can move into other countries, and depending on how prepared those countries are to receive it, it can be devastating.


AfricaLive: What do you consider the building blocks of a successful partnership, whether with other universities, industry, or associations? What are the keys to having a successful and impactful partnership?

Prof. Felix Asante: I think one important thing is transparency. You work with partners, and being very transparent with issues is key. Transparency would be number one for me, on both parties, because at the end of the day, whoever provides the funding should make sure that they’re able to get results. It takes a lot of commitment and sacrifice on both parties to make sure that happens.

The second key aspect is commitment, and the third is integrity. I think these three areas foster collaboration and also help in raising funds. The interpersonal connection, knowing the researchers on both sides, that individual personal contact, is very important because nobody would like to work with somebody they’ve just come across on the internet. The person wants to work with somebody who is committed, has integrity, and is transparent.

So I think these three factors are very key for you to have a collaboration that will bring in the funding and also bring in the research findings that you need to have.


AfricaLive: What does the word “innovation” mean to you, and what does it mean within the context of Ghana as a nation?

Prof. Felix Asante: At the University of Ghana, we currently have an innovation policy. What we intend to do is to promote the translation of University of Ghana discoveries into useful products, processes, and services. We also seek to create an enabling environment for academia-industry-government partnerships, which will promote innovation and entrepreneurship.

The University of Ghana has a lot of talent, and here, I’m talking about both the faculty and the 70,000 students. You can just imagine the individual skills and talents within the university. We are hoping that through innovation, some of our research discoveries will lead to useful products. Also, with the students, we’ll be able to harness some of their talents and make them productive in helping to address developmental issues both within the country and outside.

As a university, we’ve come up with an innovation policy that was passed two years ago, and we are actively pushing for it, even though innovation is expensive. We are gradually working with partners to see how best some of this can be fulfilled.

I must also add that because of our funding arrangements, where most of our research grants come from the Global North, issues of innovation become a bit of a topical issue. In most of our contracts, we have intellectual property clauses, and certainly, discoveries will have to be agreed upon by both partners. It’s a whole process, and that is where, at times, a typical institution in the Global South becomes disadvantaged because the resources that you are using to do the research are not coming from you. So you have to go with the partner’s agreement when a discovery is made.

That is one challenge that most countries in the Global South face. Yes, there are a lot of discoveries in our collaborations, but who knows, at the end of the day, the discoveries might not be attributed to us but to the team or the one who is fronting the project. Those are some of the equitable funding issues that have come up. This is in which context we see the idea of innovation and how we want to tackle it, for our discoveries to move into useful products and also use that to create an environment for academia-industry-government partnerships. So whatever we do, we ensure that we satisfy the government and also satisfy the industry. Their concerns also come to us for us to help address.


AfricaLive: How can we ensure that the human is at the center of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and that job creation becomes the result of this innovation, rather than the fear many have around the loss of work and damage to emerging economies such as Ghana?

Prof. Felix Asante: I appreciate that observation. Issues of artificial intelligence are not as advanced in Ghana as in most developed countries, but it’s still a concern. What we are trying to do at the University of Ghana with our partners is to try and harness as many talents as possible.

For instance, I recently identified a business student who is very good at art. We’ve managed to secure some funds, and we are setting up an art studio at the University of Ghana. Currently, we have about 10 students who are very interested. It becomes an area that will help them create jobs for themselves. You can be in chemistry, you can be a business student, but who knows, it might be the art that you develop that you will also use to recruit staff to work for you.

These are areas that we are giving attention to and we see as important in helping with employment. We are also setting up a makerspace with our collaborators, which is almost done. We are hoping that in our makerspace, students can come up with ideas, test those ideas, and see whether they are practicable. Once it’s practicable, we have a process, through our innovation policy, to link them with industry.

Currently, we have a series of student pitch sessions that we do every year. The idea is to let the students come up with ideas to address societal challenges and see how best they can address them. When these challenges are going on, we try to invite industry players to come and listen and see whether they are ready to take some of those ideas on board.

It’s quite a difficult task, and I must say these are areas where no funding agency will readily put their money because it can take 10, 15, or 20 years for you to see the endpoint. There’s no donor who is ready to wait for 10 years to get a result, and that is a challenge with issues of innovation and trying to keep up with talents.


AfricaLive: Looking at the COVID-19 pandemic and how vaccine distribution was handled, what lessons can be learned, and could you tell us a bit more about the work the University of Ghana is doing in relation to healthcare and drug discovery?

Prof. Felix Asante: At the University of Ghana, we have a drug discovery team that is working with collaborators around the world, coming up with active ingredients and other things that can be used in manufacturing drugs. As a country, the government also set up a National Vaccine Institute.

Most of our researchers who are involved in drug discovery in Ghana are working with this institute to see how best we can improve our drug discovery capabilities locally. The national institute is looking not only at COVID-related things but also at vaccines, examining active ingredients and how those active ingredients can either be sourced locally and how best we can produce them within the country.

This is quite a topical area, and I know most global funding agencies are giving funds to support this type of activity.


AfricaLive: As a final question, what is your dream for the future of how the work at the University of Ghana impacts the country and the region? In, let’s say, 30 years, how will the work taking place at the University of Ghana today have shaped West Africa?

Prof. Felix Asante: I’m hoping that in the future, with our new strategy that we are building, the University of Ghana will be one of the leading universities in West Africa. We are hoping that through research, we’ll be more research-intensive and do more graduate teaching.

Currently, we have about 90% undergraduate students and 10% graduate students. We are hoping to increase graduate admissions and, through that, supply the needed human resources to teach in universities in Ghana and in the sub-region. That is one big challenge that we want to address in the near future.

We also hope that the University of Ghana will be known for its scientific impact, cutting-edge research, and leadership in research disciplines. We want the University of Ghana to be the place to go if you are thinking of attending a top university in the sub-region. That means we have to make sure that our infrastructure is up to date, our teaching methods are state-of-the-art, and we have faculty who are ready to deliver, irrespective of the circumstances. I think these are the key areas that we are focusing on going into the future.

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