GCUC attracts attention of USAID

BY: Frank Otchere
 • A GCUC instructor teaching Microscopy
• A GCUC instructor teaching Microscopy

It is a fairly young private university but there is every indication that it is rapidly growing to become a key tertiary institution capable of rubbing shoulders with the country’s major universities. The above statement aptly captures the stature of the Garden City University College (GCUC) established in 2005 at Kenyase, a fast-growing peripheral suburb of Kumasi and located on the Airport Roundabout-Antoa Road. That GCUC looks poised to make an indelible imprint on the country’s educational map with its unique goal of developing the next generation of innovators and transformational leaders in Ghana is no secret.

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Of course, as a nodal institution for innovation, social change and development, GCUC’s attraction of a considerable degree of attention in both Ghana and beyond comes as a pleasant surprise.

Indeed, the recent recognition of GCUC by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) simply comes as a matter of course. In its FRONTLINES online May/June 2017 edition headlined “Equipping the Next Generation of Scientists and Medical Workers in Ghana” and authored by Karen Fowle, USAID narrates that: Across Ghana’s health sector there are critical shortages –from nurses and midwives to physician assistants and medical laboratory technologists. Garden City University College (GCUC), a small private university in Kumasi, Ghana, about 150 miles from the capital-Accra, strives to fill these critical gaps in the health workforce.

The Chancellor and Founder of GCUC, Mr Albert Acquah describes how the school adapted to meet the most urgent needs. In 2007, the institution became the first private university in Ghana to offer a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

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At the same time, hospitals and clinics desperately needed technologists and biomedical scientists to deliver accurate and reliable laboratory results to patients, but there were only two other schools in Ghana offering that training. So GCUC was the first private university to introduce a medical laboratory technology programme in 2013.

That same year, GCUC obtained accreditation for new degree programmes in midwifery and physician assistantship, also areas with critical personnel shortages.

Students at GCUC, however, struggled with inadequate equipment. In the Medical Laboratory Technology programme, for example, there was only a small refrigerator to preserve specimen but through Seeding Labs, the university now has two very large ones in addition to deep freezers. It also had few of the diagnostic equipment to test blood but the Seeding Labs supplies has positively changed the situation now.

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Mr Acquah scoured Craigslist, Ebay and other online auction sites and spent his weekends driving up and down the east coast of the United States (US), where he lived part of the year in search of lab furniture, microscopes and medical mannequins.

The equipment were expensive and often missing parts, so he bought new parts, made what repairs he could and sent them to Ghana. Still, the school just couldn’t keep up with equipment and infrastructure needs.

An Unexpected Solution

The solution to GCUC’s equipment needs came from an innovative social enterprise called Seeding Labs. Through its Instrumental Access programme, this Boston-based organisation, supported by USAID’s Global Development Lab, distributes high-quality scientific equipment to research institutes and universities in low and middle-income countries at an affordable price. Thanks to Dr Kingsley Badu for his efforts in initiating the process and leading the GCUC team to present a winnable proposal to Seeding Labs.

Seeding Labs employs a rigorous process for screening applications, as well as assessing equipment needs. Since 2001, Seeding Labs has provided equipment and training worth more than $15 million to 48 universities and research institutions in 27 countries. The enterprise sources high quality, new and gently used lab equipment and supplies from biotechnology, pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies’ surplus, overstock or traded-in equipment inventory.

Participation is affordable but not free-participants such as GCUC pay a share of the cost based on their country’s income level as defined by the World Bank. This helps defray some of the costs of procuring, storing, handling and shipping equipment as well as administering the programme. Seeding Labs is the only U.S organisation to provide this kind of service.

Mr Acquah discovered Seeding Labs while doing a simple web search. He teamed up with a GCUC biological sciences professor to complete the application. From a pool of 67 applicants, Seeding Labs chose GCUC as one of the 16 exceptional university departments to receive donated lab equipment.

Seeding Labs CEO and Founder, Nina Dudnik, said Garden City University College was a perfect fit for her non-profit organisation because of the school’s focus on innovation, practical education and community service. Seeding Labs partnered with the university’s Department of Medical Lab Technology. “It is difficult to imagine a department with a clearer need for well-equipped laboratories, as what could be more important for future laboratory professionals than hands-on training?” asks Dudnik.

The Seeding Labs shipment arrived at GCUC in August 2016 and included contributions from 31 U.S.-based corporations, universities and research institutes including Merck; Takeda Pharmaceuticals, through their Access to Medicines initiative; and Thermo Fisher Scientific. It contained nearly 3 tons of equipment-a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machine, incubators, safety hoods, spectrometers, microscopes, a liquid separation system, laboratory refrigerators and freezers, and a bio-safety cabinet.

According to the International Labour Organisation, 74 per cent of Ghanaians lack adequate health coverage as a result of shortages in professional health staff. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Africa Health Observatory reported that more than 33 per cent of births took place without a skilled health worker in attendance and the country had only one physician for every 10,000 people, half as many as the regional average.

Unlike equipment from auction sites, the equipment was tested before shipping, and GCUC and Seeding Labs made sure the university had technical personnel ready and able to install it upon arrival.

Opening a world of opportunities

Acquah credits the equipment from Seeding Labs with opening “a world of opportunities in training and development of scientists.” More than 1,500 students are now using the equipment to develop the skills they need to become medical laboratory technologists, biomedical scientists, nurses, midwives and other critically needed health workers.

Students in the nursing and medical technology programmes no longer have to make long trips to other universities or contact with outside vendors to conduct blood tests. In the medical laboratory technology department, students are exploring the use of alternatives to blood, such as saliva and urine, to develop low-cost diagnostic tools for diagnosing tropical diseases.

Dr Yeboah Marfo-Debrekyei, head of the department of Medical Laboratory Technology at GCUC, recalls that “the students were highly motivated when they entered the laboratories to be greeted by the vast number of new equipment.”

“Seeding Labs has really made our school a legitimate science programme institution. We can attract students who really want to learn,” says Acquah.

The Division Chief of Research Partnerships for Development at USAID’s Global Development Lab, Dr Annica Wayman describes how Seeding Labs connects tools with local talents: “The universities and research institutions we work with around the world consistently describe access to equipment and technology as a top barrier. The kind of partnership that Seeding Labs builds with U.S. companies generates significant impacts-high quality equipment unlocks local scientific talent and ensures scientists and medical workers have the right training and skills.”

Now that GCUC has the equipment to do research, the college is considering a new Master’s programme in immunology. The university college is also pursuing a private-sector partnership to build a training hub with state-of-the-art equipment to train CT (Computerised Tomography) scan technicians and radiologists.

And increasingly, GCUC is becoming a model for other schools. Officials from other institutions across Ghana visit GCUC to see the labs. GCUC, led by Dr Yeboah Marfo-Debrekyei , head of the medical laboratory technology Department has collaborated with Cavendish University of Zambia to set up labs using the GCUC model for training medical and other health students.