From almost losing his legs to meeting the Queen, this Ghana native is fulfilling his promise to “help a lot of people.”
Shadrack Frimpong C’15 SPP’19 was nine when a doctor told him he might lose both of his legs.
He lived with his parents and five siblings in the remote village of Tarkwa Breman, Ghana, about eight hours from the country’s capital. Their mud hut sat in the middle of a cocoa farm, with no running water or electricity. Frimpong often woke at night to find his dad killing snakes and scorpions that had snuck into their home.
On hot days, he loved to cool off in the nearest river, which is how he got the infection that now threatened his lower limbs. His family had known something was wrong, but they couldn’t afford medical care—and besides, the closest facility was four hours away. So they waited and hoped.
By the time he got to a doctor several months later—a visit that was only possible because his parents put up part of their farm as collateral—Frimpong was in bad shape. “The doctor said, ‘It’s too late, we may have to amputate these legs,’ and I still remember, clear as day, the color draining from my mom’s face,” he says.
It was in that moment that Frimpong, a devoted Christian, made a promise. “I said, ‘God, if you give me these legs, I’m going to be a doctor and I’m going to help a lot of people someday,’” he remembers. “One week later, after different medications, a miracle began to happen and my legs started healing.”
Most people don’t know about the scars; Frimpong wears pants to hide them from the rest of the world. But he still sees them every morning in the shower. “They’re there to remind me how far I’ve come,” he says.
The little boy who used to walk two hours each way to school has now earned two degrees from Penn and traveled to Buckingham Palace to accept an award from Queen Elizabeth. Last year, at age 27, he landed on Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 list for social entrepreneurship. He’s also been honored by the Clinton Foundation, picked to join the Clinton Global Initiative’s Honor Roll.
The accolades came because of Frimpong’s work to bring medical care and educational opportunities to his home village. His nonprofit, Cocoa360, consists of a community health facility and a tuition-free girls’ school in Tarkwa Breman, and a community-run cocoa farm that helps fund both endeavors. More than 120 young girls are enrolled in the school, and the medical facility has provided care for 3,700 patients in less than a year.
Frimpong got the idea for Cocoa360 thanks to a class at Penn called The Biology of Food. That’s where he learned that Ghana rakes in about $2 billion each year from cocoa exports while many of the country’s 1.6 million cocoa farmers live in extreme poverty. “How do I reconcile the fact that my parents’ hard work is what makes the Ghanaian economy thrive, and yet my parents are so poor?” he remembers thinking.
The frustration he felt bubbling up reminded him of when he learned that girls back home were dropping out of school, often due to early marriages or pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections. It was how he’d felt when he discovered that his parents had to make a choice between educating him or his sisters, when his cousin had to deliver her baby in a car, and when his Uncle Cofey died from an asthma attack because the family couldn’t afford an inhaler and couldn’t get him to the nearest medical facility—200 miles away—in time.
Today, Frimpong sees how interconnected these stories are, and he believes that Cocoa360’s “farm-for-impact” model can help address their root causes. “The idea is very simple,” he says. “If cocoa really gives that much to the economy, then right here in our own community, can we use the revenue from a cocoa farm to support and subsidize the cost of medical care and education?
“I strongly believe that if you want to address significant health challenges in rural areas, it’s probably much better to focus on the social determinants of health—one of them being quality, affordable education for young girls,” he adds. “We’re seeing the rippling effect already in our own community.”
When he came to Penn, Frimpong was not only the first in his family to attend college in the US but the first in his entire community. He picked Penn because of another notable alum: Ghana’s first president, the late Kwame Nkrumah GEd’42 G’43. “Just walking on the same land as your country’s first president walked—that’s everything for a young kid who grew up with nothing,” he says.
Although adjusting to Philadelphia had its share of challenges, it wasn’t long before he’d found a handful of mentors, launched a nonprofit called Students for a Healthy Africa, and joined both the New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir and the Penn African Students Association.
Cocoa360 sprang into reality after he won the President’s Engagement Prize, which awards Penn seniors $50,000 in living expenses and $100,000 for implementation costs for selected projects [“Gazetteer,” May|Jun 2015]. “That changed everything,” he says. “I always tell people, the real money wasn’t even the $150,000. The real money was the Penn name and the Penn stamp.”
Joined by four other young Ghanaians he had been living with in Hamilton Court—including fellow Penn alumni Maxwell Sencherey-Taylor C’16 and Julian Addo C’13—Frimpong spent the next year in Ghana raising additional funding and getting the rest of Tarkwa Breman on board with his vision. He says the second part actually turned out to be the tougher one.
“Even though this was my own community, I quickly realized that because I’d been so far away for a long while, I’d become something that they were struggling to recognize,” he says. “We had to spend a lot of time bonding with the community, gaining community trust again.”
At first, Frimpong called his new organization the Tarkwa Breman Community Alliance, but he says it soon became clear that the medical facility—along with the farming model sustaining it—could serve people well beyond a single community. “I remember meeting [Chelsea Clinton] and she’s like, Listen, we’re talking about a continent-wide movement,” he says. Between that conversation and all the awards he started landing, “I realized, I have to go learn how to do this.”
So Frimpong came back to Penn. He already had an undergraduate degree in biology, but in 2018, he enrolled in the School of Social Policy & Practice’s master’s program in nonprofit leadership. He graduated this past May, and then headed off to New Haven, Connecticut, to start a master’s in public health at Yale with a focus on research metrics. He plans to use what he learns there to establish a research division at Cocoa360.
The next goal is medical school, just as he promised himself in those terrifying moments so many years ago. Ultimately, he’d like to treat patients in Ghana while at the same time working with the Cocoa360 team to improve patient care models throughout the area.
These are big ideas, and Frimpong knows that. “But when the vision is bold,” he says, “it makes you want to work like crazy to get there.”
—Molly Petrilla C’06