Tribute to Professor Calestous Juma

Written By: Rosalia Omungo

Renowned scholar Prof Calestous Juma

When he, Calestous Juma, abruptly left his job at the helm of the Canada based Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) for a teaching position at the prestigious Harvard University, all he wanted was, in his own words, to “take a very low profile” and lead a quiet life away from the “noise” and constant trouble he often landed, because of his ideologies. He wanted to lead a quiet life imparting knowledge to students.

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But this very position is what would eventually thrust Calestous into the global limelight as a renowned scholar in biotechnology governance and public policy.

He was a strong advocate for technology and innovation to grow economies of the Third World countries. His dream for Africa was to see governments enhance science and technology policy that would provide solutions to better the lives of people in the continent.

While at the CBD, he tried to rally experts and policy makers who were against GMOs to sign a convention to accept GMOs in the African continent.

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His mantra was that scientific knowledge makes it possible for latecomers to catch up with front-runners.  He argued late comers had advantage in the sense that they had access to a much larger pool of knowledge than their predecessors had, they are able to leapfrog.

He often took issue with the manner in which advanced countries often try to lock out upcoming countries.

“This is how we run in technology races. And we realize we can’t win we resort to arguing that racing should be abolished so we can focus on dance,”.

Yet , technology dictates that catch up is possible through adoption of global value chains.

“We get told by supporters of the front runners that we are better at staying home dancing. That is in part our GMO story with the EU,”.

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“It was also the story with semi- conductors when we were scared by Europe that they would take away jobs. The real motive was to prevent us from joining the automation revolution.”

These were part of his initial thoughts in what would have been an interview on his work and how it contributes to the conservation and environment agenda.

“Some people are worried that if we do 3D printing, we might undercut their imports of finished products. We don’t know they are monitoring us”.

I first connected with Calestous six years ago via Linked In platform, and occasionally chatted on issues on science, technology and environment. . And when news appeared on Linked In platform that I had won a scholarship to MIT Knight Science Journalism, Professor Calestous Juma was the first person to send a congratulatory message. He reckoned I would have a great year, but also reminded me that it was going to be swift, given the nature of the program,

Having served as a visiting professor at MIT in 2015, he kept tabs with news of the institution. And so he took the liberty to give me tips on life in Boston.

He often laced his advice with cheeky comments. I asked him about the nature of Boston winters.

“It’s usually cold, but many Kenyans have been rumoured to survive!” he quipped.

I was later to meet the good professor when I arrived in Boston in August 2016.

He came to pick me up from a friend’s house, carrying his book : The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa and took me on a tour of Boston and Cambridge. Pointing out the rich academic neigbourhood, where there is almost a university after every kilometer.

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I was amazed at his humility and patience ……he would later tell me of his credentials, and how he skipped the first degree after high school, and later enrolled for a PHD  program at Sussex University.

I was elated to learn that he was the first Science journalist in Kenya in the 70s, and later launched an environmental magazine: Eco Forum

His class on Innovation for Global Development at the Harvard Kennedy School was popular and had a mix of students from universities across the East Coast of the US.  He considered this a place for generating knowledge……

His laughter was contagious …and before class, students would gather around him like grandchildren gather around their father or grandfather, to be told tales. He had interesting stories to tell.

After he gave a seminar to Knight Science Journalism class at MIT, he shared a hilarious story of how he outsmarted  a scheme in a certain conference, where a group had conspired to heckle him as he gave his address. He outsmarted them by recording sounds of noise and heckling from Google, which he played on a loudspeaker to the audience before his keynote address. That automatically thwarted the plot.

 In December 2016, Juma was appointed as co-chair of the African Union high-level panel on emerging technologies; biotechnology and issues related to satellites and soil moisture sensors. The position is brand new with a focus on frontier technology,  so that  the continent is not falling behind all the time and then being prevented from catching up by European NGOS.

“If we don’t join at the beginning, you easily get bamboozled. It’s like joining a long distance race in the middle. You may think you are at the front, but the runners behind you are one or more laps ahead,”.

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Calestous was a kind and committed soul. Even in his illness and when the doctors restricted him, he organized one –on-one Skype calls with students to offer individual feedback on their papers. He was selfless and full of life. He was committed to seeing students excel.  He helped to “strengthen their views” on issues, whenever anyone raised such a point.

I had been waiting for a profile interview with him. But as fate would have it, he fell unwell and was never able to offer me the interview.

In a recent chat with him, he reminded me “I still owe you an interview.”

He kept tabs with the recent presidential elections in Kenya, often asking for updates.

He interacted with both the young and old, and being technology savvy, was able to engage with millions across the globe, which possibly informed the decision to be named top 100 most influential Africans people in Africa.

 The short time I got to know professor Juma seemed like a lifetime to me. Thus when I learnt of his death via Twitter on 15th December, sadness filled my heart. I felt a sense of personal loss. A kind heart gone too soon. And as the news filtered across the globe, I try to imagine what he would have done would he wake up to find so many tributes…I join the millions across the globe who have been touched by his writings, his teachings, his posts on social media, specifically Twitter and Linked In.

He leaves behind a vacuum that may take a while to fill, given his special accolades…. I can only hope that his dreams of technological innovation for development will be picked up by governments in Africa to better the lives of people.

Rest well, sir. Till we meet again…friend, teacher, mentor,.


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