Clement K. Sankat

Trinidad and Tobago Icons Vol 3

Talk to Prof. Clement Sankat for even a few minutes about Caribbean development and the conversation will come quickly round to his great concern over the future of the region’s sustainability, food security and the need for more indigenous research to develop the agricultural industrial sector.  Agriculture is certainly in his DNA.  But it is also very much in his heart and that kept him driven throughout his career as an engineer to pioneer research and develop technologies that would enhance Caribbean agricultural production and efficiency, and promote agribusiness. The work he is widely known for focussed on processing and postharvest technologies applied to a range of tropical crops, including the sugarcane, coconut and nutmeg, as well as popular but commercially underexploited fruits, vegetables and herbs like sorrel, breadfruit,  dasheen ‘bush’ and “shadon beni”.

Today, in an era of increasing global uncertainty over food security, and especially as the impact of climate change is beginning to be felt, Prof. Sankat’s emphasis on sustainable agriculture could not be more relevant to Caribbean economies, with the mounting imperative to boost local supply, reduce import bills and earn foreign exchange, tap the demand on international markets for exotic high value foods and to build sustainable agricultural communities.

Clement Krishanand Sankat was born in Berbice County, near the Suriname border, Guyana in 1951. He was one of five siblings whose parents, Henry and Carmen were both primary school principals – hardworking and highly regarded leaders in their community. The children’s aspirations were shaped by parental guidance, religious beliefs and the culture of the community. He recalls that, “Looking around, we could always see that the more effort you put in – in labour, in hard work – the more success you reaped. We learned the importance of faith and family, and that education was the key to a better future.”

The family was also engaged in agriculture, like many in that rural area, where farming  – mainly in rice and cattle – were the primary means of livelihood. Before and after school, his father would put hours into their family’s rice fields. His grandfather and uncles were some of the first in the community to invest in machinery (tractors, rice combines, etc.) even before they owned cars. The young Sankat had therefore witnessed both the tedious manual labour of traditional farming methods, particularly in challenging environments, as well as the tremendous value and improvements that mechanisation and other technologies and infrastructure could bring to the agricultural sector.

At age 11, he won one of only three places available to students from his county to attend Queen’s College in the capital, Georgetown, following in the footsteps of his eldest brother, Vincent. The long distance required the boys to board during the term, returning home only for the holidays. It was an unavoidable option if they were to have the best secondary education offered in the country. But he found such early and long separation from his parents a very painful experience. That strong emotional attachment to them remained with him in adulthood and was, in fact, the key factor in his choice of undergraduate studies at the St. Augustine Campus of The University of the West Indies (UWI) in Trinidad, as well as his later decision to live in the West Indies when he had the option to remain in Canada after completing his Ph.D at the University of Guelph in 1978.

He was naturally inclined to engineering, attracted by the application of design and creativity to resolve challenges. As a boy, he had also been fascinated by the boats and ships that coursed Guyana’s vast rivers, and he at first considered pursuing naval architecture. But that would have required him to leave for Southhampton in England and be far from his family. So in 1969, he chose instead to take up a scholarship from the Government of Guyana to do mechanical engineering at UWI.

As an undergraduate, encountering for the first time nationals from other islands, he gained a sense of connectedness to the rest of the British West Indies, which he had not experienced so intimately growing up on the South American mainland, and in a former British colony that had not aligned with the West Indian federation movement. He felt deeply inspired by the rising post-colonial consciousness and effort of nation building, which was particularly strong at UWI, and was uplifted by the wave of confidence and expansion washing over the institution. He was also greatly impressed by his lecturers –first-rate engineers from the region who were helping to establish the world-class reputation of the relatively new Faculty of Engineering at St. Augustine.

Sankat excelled academically, graduating in 1972 with first class honours and winning the Sir Solomon Hochoy Award for Best Mechanical Engineering Student. It was also during his undergraduate years that his interest in agricultural engineering was stoked, when he worked on projects with professors among whom was Professor C.V. Narayan, the developer of the world’s first pigeon pea harvester/pigeon pea sheller and coconut de-husker.  After a brief stint back home, lecturing part-time at the University of Guyana, he received a post-graduate scholarship from UWI St. Augustine to pursue an M.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering, focussing on mechanical engineering design. He also worked as a graduate assistant at the Department of Mechanical Engineering and a part-time lecturer at the John S. Donaldson Technical Institute. In 1975, a CIDA scholarship enabled him to gain his doctorate in food and agricultural engineering at the University of Guelph’s School of Engineering. Fifteen years later he would return to Canada to take up a Research Associateship in Food Engineering at Laval University, awarded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

On his return from Guelph, Prof. Sankat’s long and distinguished career as a teacher, researcher/research scientist and administrator at UWI took off. In the Department of Mechanical Engineering, he rose through the positions of Lecturer and Senior Lecturer to Assistant Dean (Research and Postgraduate Matters) and Head of Department. Between 1994 and 2000, he served as Chairman, Campus Committee on Graduate Studies and Research, and Campus Coordinator, School for Graduate Studies and Research. He was Reader in Agricultural and Food Engineering, the first readership in engineering conferred in the faculty.  In 1998, he became a professor Personal Chair – Specialisation in Food and Agricultural Engineering and went on, two years later, to serve as Dean of the Faculty for seven years. In 2007, he was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Graduate Studies and, in 2008, Pro Vice Chancellor and Campus Principal.

Over three decades, Prof. Sankat supervised research projects undertaken by many graduates students (M.Sc., M.Phil., Ph.D.), leading to the publication of more than a 150 research papers, in leading international and regional journals, in the areas of: processing/storage of tropical crops and food engineering, engineering graphics and machine design, and management of innovation. His research was always focussed beyond academia; some of it, applied in the food and agricultural industries, included:

  • Machine design and development of processing machinery/systems for tropical crops such as coconuts, nutmegs, sorrel, cassava, peas and cocoa beans. A nutmeg-cracking machine was developed and used in industry in Grenada.
  • Postharvest processes: crop drying and storage; solar and mixed mode drying; osmotic dehydration, refrigerated and controlled atmosphere storage of fruits and vegetables (mangoes, breadfruit, papayas, carambola, pommerac, chataigne, dasheen leaves, herbs); storage of root crops, salting and drying of fish; fermentation of cocoa beans and chocolate manufacture. Solar/mixed mode dryers for use on small farms as well as shrink wrapping for breadfruit were commercialised. Through a number of external research grants, principally from the OAS, he built a specialised post-harvest laboratory at the faculty to support his research.
  • Utilisation of agricultural residues in feed manufacture and other applications, particularly to support the diversification of the sugar industry. Seminal work was carried out by a team he led, applying the research he had done on corn-stover-based feed in Canada, to create a bagasse-based ruminant feed. With funding from NIHERST, small scale trials on sheep were undertaken successfully. The researchers were poised to create a new spin-off business – an industrial plant for the feed manufacture from bagasse, to support both cattle and Blackbelly sheep production, utilising an abandoned bagasse board plant at Couva for the feed manufacture. However, the closure of Caroni (1975) Limited and the lack of support for the diversification of the industry killed all opportunity as well as enthusiasm.

In addition to his work at UWI, Prof. Sankat has played a leadership role in the application and promotion of Science and Technology (S&T) for national and regional development, including the shaping of policy. He has served as Chairman of the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (CARIRI), the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards (TTBS), the Vision 2020 Sub-committee on Science, Technology and Innovation for Trinidad and Tobago, the Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business (ALJGSB), and the UWI School of Business and Applied Studies Limited (ROYTEC). He was a member of the Board of Governors of NIHERST, The Metal Industries Company Limited (MIC), and CARIRI of which he was Chairman. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Commonwealth of Learning in Canada. He was also very influential in developing a first draft policy on STI through NIHERST in 2000.

Prof. Sankat has received more than a dozen awards in recognition of his scholarship, including most recently, Cacique’s Crown of Honour (CCH), Government of Guyana for outstanding service to the CARICOM region in the field of education; an honorary doctoral degree from the University of New Brunswick; and a NIHERST Award for Excellence in Science, Technology and Innovation (Gold). In 2001, he was the recipient of the UWI Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence.

As campus principal, Sankat is aiming to put applied, impacting research at the top of the agenda. His sense of the future of agriculture is that, “Technology is going to drive agricultural production and productivity like never before. It will not be driven by human labour but by knowledge, artificial intelligence, intelligent systems, robots, mechanisation and artificial environments.” The university will have to rise to the challenge of preparing researchers and industry for such a high-tech scenario.

Close to the end of his career, he looks back somewhat satisfied with what he has contributed thus far, but unhappy with the region’s repeated failures in agriculture, and the lack of consistent, long-term food policies. The ambitious spirit and work ethic he inherited from his parents remain undiminished and are now channelled into developing the campus – supporting student-centredness, research and development and graduate-level training, building capacity, and promoting quality and accreditation.   He is also driven to extending UWI’s reach into South Trinidad, with the new South Campus at Penal/Debe, into Tobago and into South America.

On a personal level too, he has few regrets. He admits, however, that he had had to dedicate much time at UWI that could have been spent with his wife, Rohanie, and five children, and perhaps if he had to do it all over again, he would have stopped a little more often to “cultivate his own garden” and smell the flowers with them.  He hopes it is not too late to do so.