‘A place of opportunity’: Benjamin Akande seeks to strengthen Wash U’s efforts in Africa
In April, Washington University appointed Nigerian-born Benjamin Ola Akande as senior adviser to the chancellor and director of the Africa initiative. He has been tasked with bringing the university’s various research and projects in Africa under one umbrella.
“Africa is not just a destination or a place where we hear about problems … it’s also a place of opportunity,” Akande told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh on Monday’s program about the initiative and how he will move it forward. “So what we’re looking at there is essentially an opportunity to harness [and] to focus our attention into the future.”
Akande referenced the “Black Panther” movie and said that it gave “a clear picture of what the future can be for Africa” – societies with highly integrated technologies and marketplaces of diversity and culture, a continent free of deadly and infectious diseases and a center of hydropower energy, wind turbines, solar panels and geothermal plants.
“Washington University recognizes this more than ever and it is looking to continue to have a big impact on the continent,” he added. Akande noted that Washington University has a presence in more than 25 countries across Africa.
He discussed the current health initiatives and interventions involving Washington University faculty in the African region. He said HIV, which was once one of the continent’s deadliest epidemics, has been contained.
“But [now] we’re seeing and identifying new problems that are even more pervasive and have a bigger impact than AIDS,” Akande added. It’s now hypertension that is responsible for 80 percent of deaths in Africa annually.
Akande cited the work of cardiologist Victor Davila and his findings on hypertension.
“And the reality is, [Dr. Davila] believes and his work demonstrates, it can be addressed and it can be overcome,” Akande said. “[Washington University is focused] on looking at the dynamics of the problems and looking at the solutions.”
He added that the university’s medical school isn’t the only program involved in the Africa initiative. Several others include the Brown School of Social Work, which is setting up bank accounts for youth that will help start microenterprise activities, and the Department of Anthropology. The latter is focused on creating community-oriented projects to address gender inequalities and improve health outcomes.
Akande mentioned that the research conducted by the university is not just for the benefit of Africans, but also for Americans. Akande cited the medical school’s research on the impact of the environment on diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“To be able to have the breakthroughs that we have there and be able to come back and share that and utilize that [information] in dealing with those diseases here in the United States is part of that transferability for which research on the continent is so critical,” he said.
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