As a professor of chemistry in Nairobi, Anthony works to advance analytical chemistry in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Anthony, the 6th in a family of 7 children, spent his childhood in rural Kenya. He attended a small, local primary school and found right from the start that he was captivated by the sciences. At secondary school, when chemistry was first introduced to him, he felt compelled to study it because it offered the answers to so many of his questions.
“From my childhood, I am told that I always asked many questions. In secondary school, the enjoyment of carrying out experiments, seeing things happening, such as colour changes and phase changes, was really intriguing. The thrill of getting the reasons and explanations for why such things happened took me deep into science.The more I got, the more I wanted.”
At 18, Anthony moved from his rural home to study for a BSc in chemistry at the University of Nairobi, in Kenya’s capital city. After completing his degree, he moved to the UK to carry out a PhD at the University of Hull. Here, he was first introduced to gas chromatography – mass spectrometry (GC-MS), the technique that would shape his career. He followed his PhD with postdoctoral studies at the University of Plymouth, where he continued his research in analytical chemistry. Then, after over a decade in the UK, his postdoctoral fellowship ended and he returned to Nairobi.
Considering his next move, Anthony admits that looking for a job in a developed country was extremely attractive. However, the issue to him was - who needed him most as an analytical chemist: Africa or the developed world? Concluding that he would have a greater impact on science by practicing his acquired skills in Africa, he resolved to pursue his career in Kenya.
Anthony is now a professor at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). However, before starting, he took some time out to see first-hand the challenges facing chemists working in analytical laboratories in Kenya. He visited industries across the country to discuss their analytical problems and needs. Anthony strongly believes that in countries that do not have proper access to analytical techniques, many sectors, such as economy, trade and the environment will suffer. Talking about these issues with the community has led to the introduction of degree programmes with an analytical chemistry focus in some Kenyan universities.
When Anthony first took up his position at JKUAT, he found that resources were scarce. So he sent an SOS to all his friends in the UK, requesting equipment for his lab. Dr Steve Lancaster, who worked for BP labs, and Barrie Nixon, from Mass Spec Technologies, helped him to acquire, ship and install a GC-MS instrument in his laboratory - a first in a Kenyan public university.
As well as lecturing and supervising research at JKUAT, Anthony still helps laboratories in the region with the practicalities of analytical chemistry: from procuring and installing instruments, to servicing and using them. Anthony aims to advance analytical excellence in African laboratories by training scientists in data interpretation and hands-on GC-MS skills. Since 2009, he has been running annual GC-MS training workshops in Nairobi, which are supported by the Royal Society of Chemistry through the Pan Africa Chemistry Network (PACN) and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
“Analysis is important in all walks of life, more so in the fast developing economies of Africa. Both equipment and personnel capacity are required. So far, more than 100 researchers have been trained in these workshops and whenever I visit a chemistry laboratory south of the Sahara, I am most likely going to meet a familiar scientist from these workshops. That is most fulfilling to me since science skills should be shared for the benefit of mankind.”
The GC-MS workshops are now expanding to be held in Ghana and Ethiopia.
“Through these workshops and conferences, and by engaging local public and private laboratories, we will see analytical chemistry take its rightful place in the region’s growing industrial sector for the best interest of our society.”
Words by Isobel Marr
Images courtesy of Anthony Gachanja
Published January 2015