Shadrack Frimpong's research will look to scale up the model he co-developed with social enterprise Cocoa360
With peer-reviewed evidence, we can garner support from a lot of stakeholders and scale rapidly to impact more lives.Shadrack Frimpong
Shadrack Frimpong has not yet started his PhD, but already his and his team’s work has earned him awards from the Queen, the Clinton Foundation and the Muhammad Ali Foundation.
The awards are for their outstanding work in creating a potential new development model for rural crop-growing communities starting from Shadrack’s own village in Ghana. Through his PhD, which he will begin in the autumn, he hopes to provide the evidence necessary to spread his circular economy model through which community members subsidise health and education by working for credits on a cocoa farm.
Growing up in a cocoa farming community
Shadrack  was born in Tarkwa Breman, a small rural village in western Ghana some eight hours from Accra by bus. His parents were cocoa farmers while he was growing up, like many people in the village. He says cocoa farming was his life as a child. “As soon as I came into the world cocoa farming was my life,” he says.
After primary school, Shadrack passed the Basic Education Certificate Exams, a highly competitive entrance exam to get into Opoku Ware School, an all Catholic boys’ boarding school in Kumasi. It is one of the best schools in the country and his place there was funded through a scholarship from the Ghana Cocoa Board.
Shadrack puts his academic prowess in part down to being told from an early age that education was the only way to improve his situation. As a child, he would work on the farm after school and study until late at night by the light of a kerosene lamp as his village did not have electricity.
At high school he opted for the science track as he had always had an inquisitive mind. His schoolmates came from a variety of backgrounds, mostly well-off, while Shadrack had to work through holidays, selling handkerchiefs and gum to support himself since his scholarship only covered term time. He says the experience made him more self-reliant and that the school opened him up to new cultures and religions.
Heading to the US
When he finished school Shadrack was keen to go to medical school, but his parents and teachers didn’t know how he would support his studies financially. Shadrack then learned about the US SAT exams and found out that if he tested very well he might be able to get a full scholarship to a US university.
Shadrack set to work, only sleeping for around four hours a night while he studied with the support of his teachers. “It was my way to change my life and possibly my family’s,” he said. He won a full scholarship to do a pre-med course with a major in Physics at Fisk University in Nashville, a historically Black college. Shadrack really enjoyed being there, but after a year he felt he needed more research experience so he applied to the University of Pennsylvania to do Biology and moved there in 2012.
His first two years were spent on HIV research, but in the summer of 2013 Shadrack won a fellowship to study at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland and did research on HIV in Botswana, moving from basic scientific research to public health. He wrote up his senior thesis on HIV adherence in adolescents in Botswana and how the doctor-patient relationship helped teenagers stick to Anti-Retroviral Therapies (ART). Access to health facilities was something that had particular relevance for Shadrack as his village is six hours away from the nearest health facility.
In his senior year Shadrack won the very competitive President’s Prize at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) which is for initiatives which will have an impact anywhere in the world. It comes with a $150,000 award. With the prize in hand, he convinced four other Ghanaian classmates to join him on the mission. Together, they returned to his village in Ghana in 2015 and conducted a survey of local people about their views on solutions to the healthcare challenges they faced. “The importance of listening to people was something I learnt from doing my thesis and from my own experiences. I learned how it enables people to come up with their own solutions,” he says.
One of the issues that emerged strongly was the impact of the gender gap in education on health, with women being the most vulnerable to infection. Together with community members, they came up with the idea of building a tuition-free all girls school and community medical clinic in the village funded by a community-run cocoa farm. With feasibility study from Penn’s Wharton School, they drew up their plan and Cocoa360 was born.
Construction began in 2016 and the school opened in Spring 2017. The project spans 50 acres of land in the village – part is used for a school and clinic and the other part for a farm where parents of girls going to the school work to earn credits with the cocoa they grow subsidising the school and clinic. “It’s a 360 idea, part of the circle economy,” says Shadrack. Since its inception, he has been involved in every aspect of the project, from hiring school staff to fundraising in the US.
The school now has six classes – two in kindergarten and four primary classes and serves eight communities. Some 167 girls have been taught at the school and 30 more are starting in September. Cocoa360 has done further preliminary research with male community leaders which shows how perceptions are changing in the village about female education. At the start of the project men, the majority of those working on the farm, favoured educating boys over girls, but this has changed. “The project is therefore getting fathers to buy into the idea of educating girls,” says Shadrack. For the clinic, the project has worked with donors and created partnerships to subsidise the costs.
Cocoa360, which highlights the close links between health and education, has won several awards, including being named on the Clinton Global Initiative University’s Honor Roll. Shadrack was also awarded the Queen’s Young Leader award in the UK and the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award. At the Clinton Foundation ceremony Shadrack met Chelsea Clinton who told him that she thought the project could be scaled for other cash crop growing communities. There are, for instance, at least 1,300 cocoa-growing communities in Ghana alone.
Shadrack decided that he needed to go back to university to study how this could best be done. He returned to the University of Pennsylvania to do a master’s in leadership of non-profit organisations, with an elective in public health. “I loved it and it helped to get my research brain working again,” he said.
Shadrack then moved to Yale’s School of Public Health to do another master’s and joined up with a Ghanaian mentor, Dr Elijah Paintsil. There he learnt more about the extent of the health and education challenges facing rural communities around the world. Many are unable to access doctors because they cannot afford the consultation fees and often wait until they are very sick before they go – something that is clearly a vital issue with a disease like Covid-19 where symptoms can worsen rapidly.
Moreover, even when fees are waived, attendance at rural schools is often around 60-70% because families cannot afford the extra expenses, such as uniforms and books whereas at Cocoa360’s Tarkwa Breman Girls School attendance was 98% because the revenue from the farm covered non-salaried expenses. It was clear the model was having a significant impact. “My professor said you have no idea what you guys have been able to do with your model,” says Shadrack.
For his PhD Shadrack will attempt to build a research infrastructure around the Cocoa360 ‘farm for impact’ model, with an emphasis on the links between education and health. While there have been many studies on education projects, he will focus more on the health implications. “With peer-reviewed evidence, we can garner support from a lot of stakeholders and scale rapidly to impact more lives,” he says.