Feature image from Harvard University. Juma’s work focused on the use of technology to improve Africa’s agricultural output.
Scholar, advocate, and champion of innovation Dr. Calestous Juma passed away on December 15 at the age of 64 after a prolonged illness. Born in Busia, Kenya, Juma was a champion for innovation and technology to transform Africa and wrote extensively on the environment, biotechnology, education, artificial intelligence, and politics. At his death, he was a beloved faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“To ministers and heads of state, he was a sought-after adviser, pointing the way toward reforms that boosted farm yields, educational standards, and economic prosperity,” says Ash Carter, Director of the Belfer Center. “To the scientific community, he was an unstinting champion of innovation and rigorous evidence. To his students, he was a passionate teacher and mentor. To thousands of his fans on social media, he was a fount of insight, optimism, and good humor.”
As a child, Juma’s talent for repairing broken appliances led to an interest in technology. With time, he became a science teacher, a journalist at the Nation newspaper, and a researcher at the Environment Liaison Center in Nairobi where he worked with future Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Maathai. From there, he traveled to the University of Sussex where he earned a doctorate in science and technology studies. His work on the interaction of biodiversity, biotechnology, and development, and the impact of the Green Revolution in Africa, brought him to international prominence.
Juma’s extensive writing focused on how Africa could use current technologies to make leaps in development in areas including energy, education, health, transportation, and agriculture. He was editor of the International Journal of Technology and Globalisation and the International Journal of Biotechnology. Juma’s book on genetics and cloning, The Gene Hunters, helped influence the creation of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which he served as the executive director of from 1995 to 1998. Other books include In Land We Trust about the environment and private property and The New Harvest on agricultural innovation in Africa. His last published book, Innovation and its Enemies, draws on economic history to explain why some technologies are adopted while others are ignored. At his death, Juma was writing books about regional integration in Africa and innovation for economic development.
In addition to Juma’s work at the CBD, he was the Founding Director of the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS). He co-chaired the African Union’s High-Level Panel on Science, Technology, and Innovation and was on the jury of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, and the Africa Food Prize. He won several international awards for his work on sustainable development, including the 2017 Breakthrough Paradigm Award and the 2014 Lifetime Africa Achievement Prize.
At Harvard, Juma was Professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He also directed the Center’s Agricultural Innovation Policy in Africa and Health Innovation Policy in Africa projects. He served as Faculty Chair of the “Innovation for Economic Development” and “Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Africa” executive programs.
“I came to rely on Calestous’s invincible good spirits in all of our conversations about his own work and about the Kennedy School’s work regarding Africa,” says Douglas Elmendorf, Dean of the Kennedy School. “For all of Calestous’s amazing accomplishments and contributions to the Kennedy School and to the world, he was always modest about what he had done and focused entirely on what he could do next. He was a true model for us all to aspire to.”