Prof Laura Roberts-Nkrumah is a pioneering woman in science, who for many years has operated at the highest level of her field. She is most well-known for her work in the breadfruit, raising the stature of this neglected and underutilised crop which was traditionally important for food security in the Caribbean but stigmatised as "slave food" and largely ignored by research.
A media release said her work includes expanding the range of cultivars (different varieties) in the region through importation, and establishing a germplasm (living tissue from which new plants can be grown) collection at UWI St Augustine campus. The collection has been evaluated for growth, development, seasonality, yield, disease resistance, nutritional content and, more recently, there has been DNA characterisation. Studies have been conducted on propagation, orchard management, as well as on consumer acceptance, contribution to food security and farm income.
On February 11, the annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science was commemorated, recognising the work of women like Roberts-Nkrumah, professor of crop science and production within the department of Food Production at UWI St Augustine’s Faculty of Food and Agriculture (FFA). In the release, the UWI paid tribute to Roberts-Nkrumah for her contributions to the field of science.
Roberts-Nkrumah grew up in St James, a community rich with plant life.
“There were many fruit trees,” she said in the release.
It was this proximity to nature’s bounty that fostered her early attraction to flora and food, an interest that would eventually lead to her outstanding career as a scientist, agriculturalist, educator and Caribbean pioneer in the study and cultivation of breadfruit. During her more than 30-year career she has trained many students in the science and production of various crops.
“My primary career goal as a member of academic staff and former student of this faculty was to make a difference in at least in some small way, to the food and agriculture sector in the Caribbean. I have shared this goal with my students; their training at the FFA was about much more than certification; it was about capacity building for the development of our countries and region,” she said.
“Most persons are unaware that there are different types of breadfruit. This collection is an educational and research resource that is critical if the commercial potential of breadfruit for human nutrition, and for other methods of utilisation, for example, medicine is to developed beyond its current level in TT and the wider Caribbean.”
On the basis of her work on breadfruit, Roberts-Nkrumah was commissioned to prepare a strategic plan for developing a breadfruit and breadnut (chataigne) industry in St Kitts and Nevis. She initiated, secured external funding for, and co-convened the first International Breadfruit Conference, which was held in TT in 2015. She was also invited to contribute to a review chapter on breadfruit production for the publication Horticultural Reviews.
“A number of new breadfruit products, as diverse as chips, wines and beauty products are already being produced on a commercial scale elsewhere.
"My greatest satisfaction would be the emergence of a sustainable breadfruit industry in the region based on innovative products, which is entirely possible with our people’s creativity. Support for multi-disciplinary research and consumer education will be two key requirements.”
Roberts-Nkrumah said many women inspired her own journey into the sciences, starting with her grandmother.
“She was recognised as a champion farmer in Tobago. My grandmother was an independent and strong woman who continued to farm even in her 70s. I have fond memories of the delicious fruits, cocoa tea, and high-quality cassava, sweet potatoes and pigeon peas that she grew and our family enjoyed.”
She said she admires scientists such as Prof Margaret Sedley, a botanist whose work was closely linked with the development of the avocado industry in Australia, and Prof Ruth Oniang’o, a pioneer in food science and nutrition studies on indigenous crops in Kenya. But she was most inspired in her career by Prof Lawrence Wilson, a leader in research on tropical root crops at the UWI, who taught her at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
“I admired his insight and creativity as a scientist,” she said. “He instilled in me the significance of basic scientific knowledge for understanding crop physiology and addressing crop production issues.”
Roberts-Nkrumah’s work also includes outreach activities with crop producers and nurseries and the general public throughout the Caribbean. Apart from providing hands-on training, several manuals and fact sheets have been made available, including manuals on breadfruit propagation and orchard management commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and are available online. Her work has produced 117 publications, among which is a book titled The Breadfruit Germplasm Collection, a reference text for stakeholders in the breadfruit sector – from scientists to growers, sellers and consumers.
She credits her family life for her successful career.
“I consider myself to have been blessed by my family background which provided stability, focus, a high value on education, strong work ethic and strong Christian values. All of these and the commitment to service were reinforced at school.”
As a wife, mother and daughter she has had to balance work with family life and responsibilities. She said unconditional support from her husband and children helped to make it possible.
“They have accompanied me in the field on many occasions. As much as possible I limited my travelling for field research in the Caribbean to the school vacation period, when the family could also travel with me. This has paid dividends as I now see the children’s own gardening initiatives and hear them offering ‘on-target’ advice to their peers.”
Even though she is a scientist, as a young student Roberts-Nkrumah loved English literature as well. But her desire for the outdoors pushed her towards science and agriculture. And though she has experienced numerous challenges during her career – from the very limited scientific literature on breadfruit to the difficulties of data collection in the field, to having to balance research with her heavy teaching load – her work has revolutionised the breadfruit sector and has the potential to make a major impact on regional food security.
“The application of science to food and agriculture is a most worthwhile endeavour. It’s about knowing what you were born to do. Focus, faith and willingness to work for the benefit of others, even with obstacles, will always be rewarding –
Non sine pulvere palma (not without the dust the victory)," she said.