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MSU & Africa

Partnerships create global solutions
and opportunity


June 13, 2018

Michigan State University has been connected with the African continent since the university was founded in 1855, through the work of individual professors and, later, formal partnerships.


Today more than 200 MSU faculty and staff are engaged in research, teaching and development cooperation in nearly every African country. In addition, MSU has more education abroad programs in Africa than any other U.S. university for both graduate and undergraduate students, and more than 300 undergraduate and graduate students from Africa were studying at MSU in spring of 2018. 


As MSU celebrates the Year of Global Africa, it recognizes the impact of these kinds of achievements and the university’s rich history of partnerships across Africa and throughout the African Diaspora.


Building lasting partnerships

Michigan State’s role in the 1960 founding of a land-grant university in Nigeria was a milestone in its long association with Africa.

Former MSU President John A. Hannah, credited with transforming the school into a research institution with a strong international presence, was driven by his desire to advance the land-grant philosophy to areas where it could be most effective. Africa was a natural destination, encouraged by Hannah’s close friendship with Nnamdi Azikiwe, who would later become the first president of Nigeria. 


President John A. Hannah (third from front) marches in the opening convocation procession of the University of Nigeria at Nsukka in Eastern Nigeria, in 1960. Courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.
President John A. Hannah (third from front) marches in the opening convocation procession of the University of Nigeria at Nsukka in Eastern Nigeria, in 1960. Courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.

Hannah and faculty from the MSU Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, or AFRE, worked with Azikiwe and other international scholars to establish the University of Nigeria at Nsukka — the first land-grant university in Africa and a bastion of knowledge for the region.


Today, the department claims the majority of the MSU research portfolio in Africa.


“The key to success in international development work is having a foundation of long-term relationships, and that’s what we have in AFRE,” says Titus Awokuse, AFRE chairperson.


“At MSU, we don’t just fly in and out. In addition to short-term visits by faculty and students, we also have people stationed long term in African countries who are doing research and constantly working with the people there to build local skills and capacity. People see us all the time, and that’s important to establishing trust and credibility.”

Leading international development

AFRE is home to some of the world’s premier agricultural economists and operates in eight countries in Africa, with a mission to grow agrifood system productivity, improve nutritional outcomes and enhance livelihood resilience through better policy making.

The department was ranked fourth in the world in 2017 for excellence in the agricultural and applied economics fields by the Center for World University Rankings. A significant number of its projects funnel through the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Security Policy led by MSU and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“In AFRE, we’re helping to feed the world,” says Awokuse. “We’re helping to reduce poverty. These are things in which we should take great satisfaction.”

Titus Awokuse, AFRE chairperson

“In AFRE, we’re helping to feed the world. We’re helping to reduce poverty.”

Although Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa, with a GDP of $569 million, and has an estimated population of 187 million, it is among the poorest developing nations with a per capita income of $2,700.

AFRE assistant professor Saweda Liverpool-Tasie is the principal investigator on a $12.5 million project that seeks to build internal capacity for Nigeria to perform evidence-based policy analysis.


To bolster the country’s ability to participate in informed policy dialogue, Liverpool-Tasie and her colleagues are training a broad group of stakeholders, particularly faculty and students at Nigerian universities and research institutes. Training and informational workshops also are offered to Ministry of Agriculture staff.


Outside of the food security policy lab, AFRE receives funding from nongovernmental sources and foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Bringing knowledge home

White yam is the primary food security crop of Ghana, a country on the West African coast that supplies 90 percent of its own food and where more than half of the labor force is employed within agriculture. In fact, more than 90 percent of all white yams around the world are from West Africa. Cultivating the crop is a laborious endeavor, as most farmers use traditional agriculture methods.


Discovering ways to improve the growing process of white yams is especially important to Eric Owusu Danquah, a native Ghanaian and doctoral student in the MSU Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences.

“I’ve long understood that our natural resources on this planet are precious,” Owusu Danquah says. “If we want to continue human development while also reducing inequality, we must treat our natural resources with respect. Giving people the tools to help themselves in a sustainable way has been my goal.”

After earning his master’s degree in agroforestry in Ghana, Owusu Danquah chose to pursue a doctoral program at MSU where he researches white yam and conducts field trials in Ghana. With abundant opportunities to collaborate with MSU faculty, Owusu Danquah teamed up with David Kramer, a John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of photosynthesis and bioenergetics.

President John A. Hannah (third from front) marches in the opening convocation procession of the University of Nigeria at Nsukka in Eastern Nigeria, in 1960. Courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections.
PhotosynQ is a handheld device with sensors and an online data-sharing and analysis platform developed at MSU. The technology will enable scientists, plant breeders and citizens to improve the productivity and security of crops in communities around the world.

Kramer’s technology PhotosynQ, which involves a handheld device that takes measurements of a plant’s photosynthetic efficiency and uploads the results to a publicly accessible database, has changed the way Owusu Danquah operates in the field.

PhotosynQ is just one of the technologies integrated into Owusu Danquah’s research. His research group has brought mechanized ridging to yam farming, replacing the labor-intensive mound method. And they’re introducing new crops to white yam farmers that improve soil conditions.

“I’ve had such a great environment to do research at MSU — building a network of colleagues,” Owusu Danquah says. “I would recommend any student come to MSU, definitely African students. My advisers tell me that even when you finish your degree program, you never really leave MSU. You take those connections with you back to your country, and that helps throughout your career.”


Eric Owusu Danquah, MSU doctoral student

“My advisers tell me that even when you finish your degree program, you never really leave MSU. You take those connections with you back to your country, and that helps throughout your career.”

Story adapted from Futures magazine
By Cameron Rudolph

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