Calestous Juma, 1953-2017

Career of prolific technology and development expert took him from Nairobi to Harvard

January 4, 2018
Calestous Juma

A highly prolific expert on technology and development has died.

Calestous Juma was born in Budalang’i, Kenya, in June 1953 and grew up on the shores of Lake Victoria. After training to be a teacher, he taught science in Mombasa (1974-78) before becoming a scientific and environmental journalist (1978-79) and then a researcher on development issues (1979-82), both in Nairobi.

Further career opportunities opened up for Professor Juma after he studied for a master’s (1982-83) and then a DPhil (1983-87) at the University of Sussex, while also giving a series of lectures on the role of energy in social change at ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (1984) and working as a project leader at the Public Law Institute in Nairobi (1984-86). He founded and became executive director (1988-95) of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi, the first pan-African institution devoted to applying science and technology to sustainable development, and also directed the ACTS’ Biopolicy Unit in the Netherlands. This led on to the role of executive secretary to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in Geneva and Montreal (1995-98).

In 1998, Professor Juma moved to Harvard University as a special adviser to Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for International Development. The following year, he joined the Harvard Kennedy School as director of the Science, Technology, and Innovation Project, before becoming professor of the practice of international development in 2002.

Exceptionally prolific – an online tribute from colleagues “wondered how Calestous could write faster than most of us could read” and still produce work “packed with deep insights and provocative hypotheses” – Professor Juma was the author of a number of highly influential books, including The Gene Hunters: Biotechnology and the Scramble for Seeds (1989), The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (2011) and Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies (2016). He was very much a public intellectual, widely consulted for his expertise on innovation, technology and development, while never afraid to speak truth to power.

“If you’ve ever walked through our hallways and heard a boisterous laugh,” recalled Ash Carter, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, “that was Calestous…If you’ve ever had your assumptions challenged and curiosity stoked all at once, that was Calestous. [Yet the] acclaimed author and winner of some of the globe’s most prestigious awards – including the 2017 Breakthrough Paradigm Award and the 2014 Lifetime Africa Achievement Prize – had no ego.”

Professor Juma died after a long illness on 15 December and is survived by his wife, Alison, and son, Eric.

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