Up for the Challenge: An inside look at Kwaku Jyamfi

Up for the Challenge: An inside look at Kwaku Jyamfi

An engineering senior's journey to help others.
Published: May 10, 2018
Portrait of Kwaku Jyamfi

When his mother asked what he did with the $300 of her hard earned money she had sent him to buy textbooks during his sophomore year at Syracuse University, Kwaku Jyamfi told her about the homeless man he gave it to, and how much more he needed it than either of them did.

It’s that same desire to help others that led him to co-found the Farm to Flame sustainable energy initiative, an enterprise looking to bring clean energy to the underdeveloped parts of the world, and get first place at SU’s 2018 Hult Prize competition.

Jyamfi said the company’s mission from the start was to bring energy to Africa in particular. His relatives in Ghana, whom he regularly talks with on the phone, have to deal with constant blackouts, preventing them from cooking, working and learning.

“I can’t be the one to make sure everything’s all right over there,” Jyamfi said. “But I can come pretty damn close.”

In Ghana, the country where Kwaku aims to bring his sustainable energy initiative, dependable electricity is not guaranteed. In 2016, the country experienced 159 days without power. But Ghana still ranks higher than 38 of the 53 African nations in human development index, according to Afrikanza’s 2018 data. The entire African continent is expected to use 85 percent more energy than it already does by 2040, and the 2 billion people who are projected to be living there by that time are going to need a sustainable alternative.

Jyamfi will graduate with a degree in chemical engineering in May. He will also be among a small minority group in his field. In 2015, 98,000 students earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering, but according to the American Physical Society, only 3 percent of these students were African American.

“For those who are interested [in engineering] and don’t have the opportunity, that’s something I actively try to fix,” Jyamfi said.

Every weekend he travels to Nottingham High School—a local school with a 2015 graduation rate of only 66 percent—with the National Society of Black Engineers. This group’s mission is to get more African Americans into STEM fields, and students like Kwaku serve as models for academic and professional success in their communities.

 

That is only one part of Jyamfi’s community involvement. He is also an active member of the Historically Black Church Chaplaincy at Hendricks Chapel on campus, and participates in Rev. Pedro Castro’s charity organization, “BOWS,” which stands for Blessing Others With Surplus. Kwaku’s faith is one of two things he holds in the highest regard, and his mother was unsurprised when he started attending a local church during his first semester at SU.

“He has always loved the Lord,” said his mom Gladys.

His mother is the other of the two.

“She has made a lot of sacrifices for him,” Rev. Castro said, particularly after his family split in 2007.

“He’s pulling himself up by his bootstraps,” Castro added, attributing this to his “endless love and affection for his mom.”

Gladys Jyamfi encourages him to go to graduate school, and was a driving force in him changing his major from music performance to chemical engineering during his freshman year.

“I know it’s gonna be a challenge,” Kwaku told his mother when he made the change from music to engineering. “But I’m gonna take it.”

It was that switch that led him to meet fellow senior William McKnight, who along with Jyamfi and ESF junior Sayje Lasenberry cofounded Farm to Flame.

“He wants to use his knowledge to improve the way people live,” McKnight said.

It’s been a long journey for Jyamfi to get to where he is today, and he admits that engineering didn’t always seem like his calling. After the fall of his junior year Jyamfi was put on academic probation after a storm of classes, internships and volunteer work all made landfall in his life at the same time.

“That really humbled me, I realized I can’t be wasting any more time,” he said.

Kwaku quickly brought his GPA up to a 4.0, and earned a spot on the dean’s list the next semester. More than that though, his peers seem to unanimously agree that Kwaku is noble.

“His word is his bond, and he has a heart of gold,” Rev. Castro said.

Where Kwaku sees his life as a gift from above, his mother sees the scenario a little differently.

“The lord brought him into this world for a great mission for His kingdom, and for mankind,” she begins. “My prayer is that he will be able to do all he was called to do.”

Kwaku plans to head to Liberia and Ghana shortly after graduation to implement his energy plan there, and, eventually, to repay his mom that $300.