“My gut was telling me to return home”
Analytical chemist Anthony Gachanja returned to Kenya with a mission to bring chemistry and equipment to scientists.
The sixth of seven children in his family, Anthony Gachanja spent his childhood in rural Kenya working on his parents’ farm and attending a small, basic local school. It was here he became captivated by chemistry.
“I just liked going to school, it was much better than doing the farm work,” chuckles Gachanja. “My parents were very keen on basic education and for me the sciences explained what was happening in the world.”
While his siblings went into agriculture and primary teaching, Gachanja left his rural home for the bright lights of the Kenyan capital city, Nairobi. He completed a BSc in chemistry at the University of Nairobi, before looking at potential international options for PhD study. Stumbling upon a noticeboard bulletin one day, he saw opportunities for sponsorship studying analytical chemistry at the University of Hull.
For Gachanja, boarding a plane was one thing, but moving to a new country was a whole different feat. He vividly remembers arriving on Yorkshire’s east coast.
“Boarding a plane for the first time was exciting enough but coming to the UK felt like a whole new chapter of my life,” says Gachanja. “I remember arriving in October, coming from a tropical country, to biting temperatures – I was constantly lost.”
Recounting tales of perplexing accents, getting hopelessly lost in his own halls of residence, and countless lectures trying to interpret local linguistics he also recalls being “dazzled” by the sheer amount of equipment available in the university’s laboratories.
“I had not seen many of the instruments before, let alone used them. My impression of UK science was that the science teaching was very high and the lab equipment readily available – I wasn’t wrong,” he says.
“The difference between African and European laboratories is stark and Africa is a long way behind in terms of gaining exposure to different instrumentation.”
Torn between an extremely attractive career in a developed country or returning home to laboratories lacking basic equipment, Gachanja was forced to decide who needed him most as an analytical chemist: Africa or the developed world?
“One part of me really wanted to remain in the UK, but my gut was telling me I should go back to Africa to see what I could do for instrumentation and the use of analytical techniques in Africa,” he says.
Realising his impact on science would be greater back in Kenya, he returned. His immediate actions were to spend a number of months visiting different industries across the country to discuss their analytical problems and needs. Here he saw first-hand the challenges facing chemists working in analytical laboratories. Gachanja strongly believes that improper access to analytical techniques has had a detrimental impact on many of the country’s sectors, including the economy, trade and the environment.
“You get to Africa, you have the knowledge, you have the energy, but you don’t have any facilities. How are you supposed to learn practical skills and do basic research?” says Gachanja.
It was this very predicament that led Gachanja to call for help in 2004. Finding resources extremely scarce in his new role as a professor of analytical chemistry at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), he knew there was one friend he could count on.
“It was getting frustrating and I knew I needed help, so I called my university friend Steve Lancaster to see if there was any way we could get equipment over to Nairobi,” he recalls.
Lancaster immediately responded and started to put feelers out to colleagues and industry contacts.
This sparked months of fundraising activities and a collaboration lasting more than ten years.The programme has trained more than 200 scientists so far, and a new partnership deal will allow the training of 400 more across Africa in the next five years.
“Barriers have been removed and the improvement in research output has been very promising,” says Gachanja, who believes the training can be replicated across developing countries. “I am very happy to see the potential for future generations of African trainers, leaving a legacy, for many years to come. If I accomplish one thing before I retire, it is to have improved the level of awareness that analytical chemistry has in Africa.”
“Science skills should be shared for the benefit of mankind,” says Gachanja. “Right now for me, analytical chemistry is a way of life. It is not like I go to work and do chemistry and come home. I see chemistry everywhere I go.”