Alumni Voices

The Innovation Point: Shadrack Frimpong on Education and Healthcare in Ghana

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We interviewed two of our alumni, Gray Garmon and Shadrack Frimpong, about what they learned from the Social Impact House and what they’re working on now. Garmon and Frimpong recently collaborated on a project in Tarkwa Breman, Ghana, where Garmon helped design a community library and campus vision for the organization that Frimpong founded there. This is part of a three-part series on Garmon, Frimpong, and their collaboration. This article focuses on Shadrack Frimpong.

The way Shadrack Frimpong talks about his work transports you directly into the story; he’s a natural communicator and born leader. Frimpong was a member of the University of Pennsylvania class of 2015 and participated in the Social Impact house that same year. The first generation college graduate founded a nonprofit organization–Cocoa360–in his hometown of Tarkwa Breman, Ghana. Frimpong recently returned to the States to pursue a course of study in nonprofit leadership, public health, and medicine. He talked to us about the challenges facing children and families in rural Ghana, and how Cocoa360 builds on the community’s strengths to tackle these challenges and raise a new generation of leaders.

Frimpong believes that “number one, innovation [happens] when something makes you angry, and number two, innovation comes from something that makes the heart of the people you’re serving beat.” He knows the importance of keeping your community at the center of what you are doing, and that “an idea…will only thrive when the community you’re serving cares deeply about the cause you’re pursuing and [is] willing to be at the forefront of that pursuit.” Frimpong grew up in rural Ghana, where his parents have been cocoa farmers for over 40 years–and what made him angry were the stark inequalities in the cocoa industry: Cocoa farmers live on 50 cents a day, while Ghana pulls in $2 billion in cocoa export revenue every year. “That was my anger point,” he says. “That was the innovation point.”

As an undergraduate studying biology at Penn, Frimpong was interested in science and healthcare, and worked on biomedical research. While he has taken a break from the field of medicine, he says that the skills he learned as a biology major have translated into the work he’s doing now. “All those experiences, what they essentially taught me was that you question everything, you’re curious about everything, you don’t take anything at face value,” he says.

Cocoa360 is an organization that leverages local resources–revenue from community cocoa farms–to fund educational interventions.

He also had firsthand knowledge of what it was like to grow up in Tarkwa Breman, a rural village in Ghana where girls were less likely to receive an education than boys, where cocoa farming was a common profession, and where extra fees often made healthcare inaccessible. So he was uniquely prepared to start Cocoa360, an organization that leverages local resources–revenue from community cocoa farms–to fund educational interventions. The organization’s farm-for-impact model was developed at its Center of Excellence and “agro-campus” in Tarkwa Breman, where the staff run a girls’ school, community health clinic, and cocoa farm. The name “Cocoa360” comes from the idea at the heart of the model that communities can use available resources and labor to drive sustainable development and improve education for future generations.

Frimpong, far left, at the 2015 Social Impact House.

In the early 2000s, the government in Ghana made all school tuition free, which had a huge impact on school attendance–it doubled, from about 30% to 60%. But for Frimpong, this wasn’t good enough. “What happens to the remaining 40%?” he asked. If tuition money was the real problem, he wondered, why weren’t 100% of children going to school?

As it turned out, even without tuition, there were lots of other expenses that families had to pay to send their children to school, such as uniforms, books, and transportation. That’s why Frimpong wanted to remove those barriers at Cocoa360. Families who send their children to school there don’t have to pay these expenses; “if your daughter is admitted, boom. Leave the rest to us. Your job is to go to the farm,” he says. “When we took care of all of that, our attendance rate is 98%.”

When the government in Ghana made school tuition free, attendance doubled from 30% to 60%. But for Frimpong, this wasn’t good enough. “What happens to the remaining 40%?” he asked.

Frimpong won the President’s Engagement Prize from Penn his senior year to fund Cocoa360, but before going back to Ghana to get started, he spent part of the summer at the Social Impact House. It was there that he learned about how innovation stems from anger and a focus on the people you are trying to impact. For Frimpong, what innovation means is working with structures and systems that already exist and making them better. He didn’t want to “reinvent the wheel.” So he started with what his village community in Ghana already knew and loved: cocoa farming. From there, he expanded to include his own passions of education and healthcare.

He also believed in starting small and being deliberate about growth as an organization. “I have a strong belief that what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done,” he says. So “from day one, we said we had to do something and make it sustainable, we had to show data.” This mindset came from both his background in the sciences and his time at the Social Impact House. “During the day, I would learn everything I needed to learn, and at night, I would pack my set of questions and go to Peter [Frumkin],” he says, referring to one of his mentors from CSIS. “Peter is a member of Cocoa360’s advisory council so he gives very painful advice. But we take it, because it’s very helpful,” he laughs.

Cocoa360 has benefitted from the advice and the skills of a wide range of people. When the school started, Frimpong was “wearing every hat”–but he knows that his strengths are in leadership and not management, so he’s started focusing on what he excels at, and finding other people for other roles. “A founder is not supposed to run an organization,” he says. He has the “drive and the charisma and energy,” and says it can be “hard for [him] to tone all of that down” to the level of taking care of details. “If I’m the guy with a lot of energy and a lot of [power to convince people], I needed someone who’s day-to-day, who…pays ridiculous attention to the last dollar,” he says. He found that person in Susi Neher, the COO. He’s also proud that the school’s headmistress, Janet Anafo, was previously leading one of the top schools in Accra, and left it to join them because she believed in Cocoa360’s mission.

Frimpong with some of Cocoa360’s students. “I have always wanted everyone on our team to see this as not a job–this is a calling,” he says.

What Frimpong is good at–and what he loves to do–is to be “the voice and the face” of the organization, representing it and attracting donors and staff members. Indeed, Frimpong has a steady energy and elegance, and an infectious confidence. When he talks about his work, it’s like it has entered the room with him, and when he makes a gesture to demonstrate an anecdote or statistic, you can see it there. Perhaps this is why he’s recently had a speaking engagement with the Clinton Foundation and received an award at Buckingham Palace, among other honors.

But Frimpong knows that he still has a lot to learn, so he returned to school this fall for his master’s in Nonprofit Leadership, with plans to attend medical school for an M.D./M.P.H. when he’s done. He’s learning to translate information about Cocoa360 into scholarly materials, to communicate his vision to donors, and to effectively brand the organization. He knew he wanted to pursue medical school after graduating from Penn, but he returned to Ghana first: “I put medical school on hold, I put my life on hold, and I have always wanted everyone on our team to see this as not a job–this is a calling.”

Cocoa360 has doubled its enrollment from 60 students to over 120. Families have a stake in their children’s education so they’re involved in the girls’ learning. “That’s putting the community back into community development.”

All of Frimpong’s work has paid off. Cocoa360 has doubled its enrollment from 60 students to over 120, engages hundreds of cocoa farmers, and has treated over 2000 patients in its health clinic. While they initially struggled to find teachers, they recently got 13 applicants for a single open position and had to turn down qualified candidates. Families have a stake in their children’s education–their work on the farm is directly funding it–and so they’re involved in the girls’ learning; Frimpong sees them working with their children on homework and talking to teachers about their progress. “That’s putting the community back into community development,” he says. Some of the girls will graduate prepared to work at the health facility, continuing the cycle. Cocoa360 has expanded to serve eight local communities, with plans to reach even more.

And Frimpong himself was recently named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30, being recognized yet again for his important work. You can read about the vision for the school’s campus and how Frimpong and his team designed the buildings in the third part of this series. For now, check out Cocoa360 on their website, Facebook, and Twitter for updates.

Described by President Bill Clinton as “the Paul Farmer of [his] generation,” Shadrack is a non-profit leader, public health researcher and scholar whose work is inspired by his background. A son of a peasant farmer and charcoal seller, he grew up without running water and electricity in rural Ghana. He became the first person from his village to attend college in the U.S, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 2015, with the $150,000 President’s Prize, Penn’s highest honor.

Frimpong founded Cocoa360 and pioneered the “farm-for-impact” health equity model; a tuition-free girls’ school and community hospital sustained by proceeds from a cocoa farm. With offices in Boston, London, and Ghana, he leads a team of over 35 full-time staff members who have cared for 3000 patients, serve 8 communities, reach over 35,000 farmers and currently educate 120 young girls. Among his recognitions, President Clinton has named him to CGIU Honor Roll and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth has awarded him the Queen’s Young Leader Award at the Buckingham Palace. He is on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and is an active member of FTPCC, Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

As an academic and Cocoa360’s lead researcher, his interests lie in sustainable healthcare and educational financing approaches and implementation and delivery sciences.